Over the past year I served as a citizen member of a design review committee planning the renovation of the park at the end of my street. Like having my kids in the nearby public school, helping the Parks and Recreation Commission fix up our well-used park has given me a fresh appreciation for public life at the face-to-face level of the neighborhood.
Renovating the well-loved park, tucked away on a compact site between the D Line tracks and the backs of low-rise apartment buildings lining Beacon Street, struck me as a pretty straightforward proposition. It's not broken; it's just a little too broken-in. So, I figured, we should just plan to do the obvious things — put new equipment in the playground, regrade the field to solve flooding problems, resurface the basketball and tennis courts, maybe put in a loop path — and be sure not to do anything stupid, like cutting down trees or messing up the lovely grass slope that attracts sunbathers and sledders. We'd be done in no time, right?
Not so fast. The meetings to discuss the design, open to the public, offered a primer in the dynamics that give a community its inner life. Parents with older kids didn't want the same things as parents with young kids. No matter how sensitive the dog people and skateboarders were to the positions of non-dog people or non-skaters, they couldn't quite accept that the special facilities they wanted would make the park less pleasant for everyone else. Abutters prioritized peace and quiet, especially after dark, which tended to pit them against skaters, basketball players, proponents of erecting a covered pavilion, and teenagers in general.
And during our deliberations I was repeatedly reminded just how important parks are to the very young and to the old. This natural alliance of the park's heaviest daily users wielded a combination of practical and moral authority that was usually potent enough to carry the day against all comers. Nobody wants to be seen as steamrolling preschoolers and grandparents.
I was also reminded that I'm kind of intolerant in my views about the purpose and form of public meetings. I see them as exercises in horse-trading pluralism in which participants choose their objectives and then drive toward them, bargaining whenever those interests come into conflict with others'. So I grew impatient when some people treated the committee's open meetings as occasions to philosophize, speculate, make off-topic suggestions about how to improve the world, wax nostalgic, decry the downfall of all that was once good, identify nefarious conspiracies, or indulge fantasies of personal heroism.
But I came to see that my impatience was misplaced. There was value in all that apparent digression. Longtime residents reminiscing about long-ago concerts or long-ago-removed play equipment showed me how the park figures in local routines and traditions that give shape to lives. While I was inclined in principle to dismiss overprotective parents' and fearful abutters' concerns, I learned to listen to thoughtful speakers who could locate the point where their own excessive worries touched legitimate questions of public safety. I could even discern a useful purpose in rambling stand-up monologues about what's wrong with people today or what some terrible kids did to the neighbors' entryway. It was all part of the process of a community explaining to itself not only why it cared about its park but what it cared about, period.
We got to the finish line eventually, agreeing on a reasonable, doable plan, comprehensive but not too fancy, that addressed the needs of most of the park's many different kinds of users.
Our shared objective was a satisfying landscape, an essential amenity and quality-of-life issue, especially in a nose-to-screen age that encourages us to retreat from public space and the public life it makes possible. While our elected representatives in Washington seem to be going out of their way to make it harder to identify with the abstraction of national identity, it still feels easy and natural to belong to a neighborhood, a school district, a city. The park belongs to the community, but it's just as true that a community takes shape on the frame of the park.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is "Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.''