No BENCHES for Old Men

There once was a city with a beautiful park, a gathering space where all were welcome, right in the middle, at its very heart. There, beneath the outstretched arms of laurel oaks, fountains gurgled and art walkers shopped while minstrels played and children hopped.

But officials watching from across the street were displeased that have-nots seemed to stay and stay, using the park as a place to pass an otherwise empty day. They tried and tried, but never could, dissuade the have-nots to use the park as the haves would.

So the officials plotted and planned and conspired and schemed of a way to make sure haves exclusively used the park just as they’d long dreamed. Their determination at times wavered, but never soiled, even as one plan after another was swiftly foiled.

They tried adding rules, but found these were too easily broken and bent.

They tried designating areas for haves and have-nots—but compliance to such quickly came, and as quickly went.

They attempted to connect the have-nots with much-needed aid—an admirable effort that continues to present day. Still, officials soon noticed this did little to thin the numbers of have-nots cooling off in the shade.

“A-ha!” they then thought, and threatened to cut down the park’s very large trees—“No!” haves and have-nots alike screamed, “don’t take these!”

Now they were genuinely stumped. It seemed their every idea had been dumped.

Having been thwarted again and again and again, some would just give up, but city officials are uncommonly resolved to win. So quietly they convened to come up with the un-foilable scheme. Lest folks resist or question their good sense, they called the plan a “capital improvement,” for everyone knows resisting improvements is quite dense.

Over the summer, when the heat kept haves’ park attendance at relative lows, they blocked off the fountains around which park-goers often reposed. Behind very tall fences, they carried out their plot to eradicate all the have-nots whose checkers and chess and habits and dress so offended their sensibilities that they felt no choice but to resort to sneaky methods such as these.

Having been stymied so many times in the past, some were uncertain that even this would be the fix that lasts. So they carefully drafted 30 long-winded rules and regs designed to, once and for all, rid the park of anyone who loiters, smells, panhandles or begs.

There would be no more “aggressive begging,” “gambling,” or “camping,” no “personal grooming,” “sleeping,” nor permit-less “bending in non-designated areas,” bringing of chairs, or furniture, or food for the homeless. And none shall dare to stay “in the landscaped areas or fountains unless for authorized maintenance.”

As the work carried on behind the tall fence, the officials congratulated themselves on their brilliance, feeling quite certain that the have-nots would go somewhere, anywhere else. Thanks to their clever redesign, no one in the park would need look upon have-nots when they recline or dine.

When the day came for the great reveal, none were invited to share in their zeal. They simply whisked the fence away and waited to be thanked, convinced that their achievement would be ranked right up there with inventing sliced bread or the Craftmatic adjustable bed.

As the mercury fell into fall, people returned to the park at their city’s center for a bit of respite from daytime ventures, a meeting, or an early dinner.

Many were astounded at what they found. Where once there was plenty of seating around the fountains for working, chatting or eating, now there are heavy planter boxes and thick metal poles. Today no one—have not or have—can sit idly with pen and paper in hand or just listen to the lunchtime band. Oh, you’re welcome to use the tables and chairs—if you have money, ’cause the seats in this park are for café and food truck customers, honey.

In their fervor to get rid of the unsavory elements who make them uncomfortable and concerned, the officials forgot something that most hopefully long-ago learned: parks need places to sit. To take them away just to keep the homeless at bay is absolute horseshit.

In over a decade of working Downtown, I’ve had plenty of homeless people turn my frown upside-down with a compliment or quip, and only one instance of a panhandler giving me some lip. So, with this in mind, I have to wonder whose bright idea it was to plunder one of Jacksonville’s jewels so that a few elected fools can gaze out the window of City Hall and feel a sense of pride at the sight of a park where almost no one is outside.