Comments to Park Board during Open Time on Feb. 16

Our country is at a crossroads.

It seems that over the last 24 years there has been a general movement within many levels of government to shift power away from the people, the public sector, to business, the private sector. Nationally, it started with the Reagan administration and their repeated indictment of government as “Bad” and regulation as “Bad” and business as “Good”.

In America, “We the People” ARE the government. Are you “bad”? Are we “bad”?

This power shift toward business, I believe, was a response to the growing empowerment of the middle class through grassroots activities of the 70s (the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, Superfund, etc.), which, in turn, grew out of the success of the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s. This same Civil Rights movement also started to put pressure on the business community to end discrimination and provide equal opportunity for all. Business began to find itself accountable to the community in ways they had never been before.

Over the years this power shift has resulted in government that is more interested in corporate profits than the needs of the public. This has been exemplified by the increases in corporate welfare and efforts to privatize as many programs as they can get their hands on.

This national trend has filtered down to the state level as our current governor and legislative leaders place their “No new taxes” pledge above the good of the state and the needs of its citizens. Until this last month, who in Minnesota would have referred to health care for our citizens as “welfare health care”?

Now, I am afraid that this trend is filtering down to our own Minneapolis Park Board as we see more and more efforts to privatize activities which have previously been held in trust as a resource for the public. In started in the 80s with the closing down and “outsourcing” of the nurseries which provided the youth of the city with summer jobs.

Three years ago it was the food concessions in the parks. It was reported that even the most popular Lake Harriet Pavilion lost $125,000. Assistant Superintendent Don Siggelkow was quoted as saying the Park Board did not have the skills to properly manage the food concessions and so the Board was looking to bring in Dairy Queen to franchise the operation. Public outcry forced the board to contract with two Dairy Queen managers instead.

The following year the Park Board released the information that the concessions were going to break even and might even show a profit. That article pointed out that over the last 10 years many of the food concessions had lost money with the exception of Lake Harriet, which had always made money-a much different tune than the year before. And today we have Tin Fish and proposals for more restaurants in the parks.

But most glaringly in my book, is the current board’s silence. No, it is more than silence. It is the outright effort to eliminate from public memory the legacy of the single most important mover and shaker in the history of Minneapolis Parks.

Next January, 2006, will mark the 100th anniversary of his arrival. Are there any of the plans one would expect to be in the works for such an important centennial? None that I’ve heard of. And who is this person? Theodore Wirth.

And why would a Park Board wish to wipe out his memory? Maybe because he stood for exactly what I have been talking about-empowering people over business. Parks were not an asset to be exploited but a resource to be developed for the future of us all. He supervised the REMOVAL of private vendors from the parks and oversaw the installation of programs to provide employment for our youth and an opportunity for them to form an appreciation for nature often lacking in cities.

Instead of forcing the public into a professionally laid out park designs with deliberate walkways, select benches and “keep off the grass” signs, Wirth closed off Loring Park, planted new grass and then opened it up again to allow the people to vote with their feet where the paths should be placed. Grass became the city’s carpet where children could play and picnickers enjoy a summer meal.

Parks were NOT a place for private commercial enterprise and they should not become that now.

As we approach the 100th anniversary of Theodore Wirth’s arrival here, I urge the commissioners to look into some sort of celebration. As a history major, I urge you to set up a place where the children of today can learn about the man whose work continues to impact us all. And I urge you to look back on his example and make sure that people’s needs continue to come before business wishes. And I urge that the voice of the people, the opportunity to address you face to face ON CAMERA in public dialogue, continue unchanged.