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The Threat of Free Speech in Richmond
In the fall of 2010, the Monroe Park Advisory Council went public with their $6.2 million (that is just the sticker price on their first phase) renovation plan of Monroe Park. Organizations such as Food Not Bombs, and various churches began to come out against the proposed plans. Opposition grew, and signatures on the petition against the plans reached over 1000.
During this time period, petitions, protests, public meetings, a party in the park, and even a ten day occupation of the park were some of the ways that the coalition against the renovation plan pushed the anti-shutting-down-the-park agenda.
Well, $6.2 million is a lot of money, and MPAC received a lot of negative attention. Their plan seemed to be stuck treading water, but really, they went underground. The plan lost the spotlight, and we didn't hear anything for a while. The next I heard about it was when city council voted to put some money towards the Monroe Park Renovations in the budget they passed in July 2013. I met with Parker Agelasto to discuss what the money in the budget meant. My understanding from those meetings was that Richmond was providing money to do some of the nuts and bolts renovation necessary for things like fixing sewer/water, electricity, and the park's pathways.
The folks once unfondly known as the the Monroe Park Advisory Council are back, and calling themselves the Monroe Park Conservancy this time. They want to get a thirty year lease for Monroe Park, paying the City just a dollar a year. Excuse me please? I mean, geez, can low-income people in Richmond get leases for a dollar a year? That'd do a hell of a lot for keeping people safe and comfortable. Additionally, the Mayor has apparently agreed that the MPC would not be responsible for paying annual property tax, either. A pretty cushy deal that many Richmonders would be happy to get.
Something to consider about the intentions of the folks involved: they might be a non-profit organization, but that doesn't mean the folks involved won't be making money off this venture. The concept of non-profits is pretty misleading. Being a non-profit simply means that any profits made by the Monroe Park Conervancy can't just be split amongst the owners. But they can still get paid six figures a year to do their jobs; they can still vote on bonuses for themselves. According to the 2008 version of their renovation plan, the MPC is definitely making sure there will be well-paid positions for their own workers. They plan on hiring a park director, an assistant, private security, a program manager and an events staff. They plan on having an off-site office costing them over 3,000 a month in rent and maintenance. Which is more than double the monthly cost including utilties, tax, insurance, and mortgage on my 2,500 square foot brick house. Seems like they really plan to run Monroe Park from the lap of luxury.
When I first started researching for this article, all I could find was Mark S. Dray listed as the 'In Care of' name for the MPC. Aside from that there was little to no information available online about the MPC. We know Alice Massie is involved. The lack of information available about the people involved in this project is not heartwarming. In 2010, they actually removed from their website the document containing their renovation plan. The Wingnut Anarchist Collective had previously downloaded a copy, however, and was able to upload the plan to keep it available to the public. Transparency is not their strong suit, which begs the question as to why we should trust them with one of our largest parks. Why we should just basically give it away to them?
Listed among the board members are Mayor Dwight Jones and Robert Scott Ukrop. Clearly some powerful and monied people are sitting behind this plan. The most upsetting aspect of the privatization plan however, is this: “The Conservancy will establish a list of 'acceptable activities' in the park. If you qualify under their policy, you may apply for a permit which costs $35 per event/activity.”
Once Monroe Park is privatized, a small group of elite, privileged people will apparently be able to decide what activities are acceptable, and which are banned. And then even if your activity falls within their acceptable category, they expect you to pay a fee.
This sort of a fee is likely unconstitutional, and is certainly inhumane. Any fee or permit process that complicates the simple act of sharing food should be laughed out of Richmond and the people bringing these ideas to the table need to feel great shame for their greed. Should people be fined $35 for sharing food with others who are hungry, all so someone (my money is on Alice Massie), can get paid 6 figures a year to be the park director? Not while I'm alive.
An example of how detrimental this might be is Food Not Bombs. Food Not Bombs has been serving a free vegetarian meal to community members in Monroe Park for over 20 years now. The organization has little to no budget, and serves on a weekly basis. However, if a fee had been in place this entire time, Food Not Bombs would have had to have around $1,890 a year just for access to the park. $1,890 is more money than Food Not Bombs spends total on food, staples, oils, plates, etc. for an entire year. Over 20 years, we are talking $37,800. Attempting to make organizations and churches who spend their own money to provide necessary and community oriented services pay a fee to a private organization for the right to use a public park is unacceptable.
The question asked in the recent Richmond Times-Dispatch article on this issue was, “Who should set the ground rules for one of the city's most high profile public spaces?” The answer is simple: the people of the City of Richmond. Not Alice Massie, not VCU, not Charles Samuels. The people who use the park need a say.
Alice Massie's main concern, according to herself, is to keep the park secure. I'm going to just say it: Alice Massie is scared of people of color, poor people, and homeless people. I've been regularly going to Monroe Park for 10 years now, and I have never felt physically unsafe, and I have never had anything stolen from me there. And the crime reports back me up.
I've gone through the VCU Crime logs for 2013 to see how much of their reported crimes were based in Monroe Park. What I found going through all of 2013 data, is that there are typically fewer than ten crimes in Monroe Park each month. The vast majority of the crimes are "open container of alcohol" and "drinking in public." To me, that just seems to point towards Richmond's need for a beer garden sort of environment somewhere. We have folks who want to, and do, drink alcohol, and don't have anywhere private to do it. Bars aren't cheap, and not everyone has a home. So folks drink outside. If we want to keep them separate from others who want to be outside and not drink, we should make a space for this.
Massie wants people to be able to walk through the park without feeling unsafe. Unsafe is a buzzword that sounds like a very obvious thing. But it's really complicated. What makes one person feel safe, may make another feel very unsafe. Until we've demolished the hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy, classism, etc., we won't be making a safe space.
Do trans people feel safe in Monroe Park? How about sex workers? How about undocumented folks? I have a really hard time believing Alice Massie gives a shit about these people, or that she is down to smash capitalism with us. Instead, I'm pretty sure Alice Massie wants a place where she can feel safe by not having any of her white supremacist classist values threatened by the presence of others.
Recognition that one's perception of safe and unsafe can be very much based on ones racist and classist assumptions and stereotypes is key here.
Other things to consider are that Monroe Park has the only public restrooms and drinking fountain in the area. If these become unavailable, there need to be others made available and they must be well-advertised. If not, where will people go to the bathroom without risking trespassing or public urination charges? If there is not a supply of public drinking water, how will people with little or no money stay hydrated through a hot Richmond summer? If there is not shady space in the downtown area, how will people stay cool? Where will people play frisbee, soccer, football, etc.?
The Conrad Center was not an acceptable option back in 2010 for many reasons which have been addressed before, including location, rules, stigma, etc. Now the Conrad Center has been shut down due to lack of funds. If the City can't keep the Conrad Center open, why would we entrust the City to take care of creating a new location for all of the programs which currently operate in Monroe Park? I don't. Richmond has no day shelter, and even a day shelter is not a substitute for a free outdoor public space where interactions are open. Oregon Hill, while an awesome neighborhood in many respects, has a history which makes it an unwelcome place for many people of color. The many pocket parks in the Fan lack public restrooms and are also very limited in size.
Privatizing Monroe Park would be a loss to free speech and public assembly. The loss of the public commons has been an ongoing theme in 21st century America. The shift towards privately owned shopping centers has meant that there are a dwindling amount of public spaces where people can assemble freely. We can't afford to lose any more. Currently Monroe Park is the site of the start of the May Day Parade, the Halloween Parade, monthly Critical Mass Bike Rides and more!
I am not anti-renovations. I am simply anti-privatization and anti-shutting down the entire park for an extended period of time. It is not necessary and it is being promoted as necessary for financial reasons only because the people making these plans and pushing the agenda of the entire park being closed do not value the folks who would be most inconvenienced by shutting down this public park.
Renovate Monroe Park, but do it in the same way other public utilities are renovated—in stages, allowing people access to a section of the park throughout the process. And when you are done with the renovations, keep the park open and free!
Scott Burger with Oregon Hill News recently posted an FAQ about the Monroe Park Privatization.
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