Guest Post by FrankA man strolls into the woods with a single shopping bag dangling at his side. He picks his path, then defines his perimeter. He may have a coffee and a Newport. The bag produces lunch -some takeout, Utz pork rinds, a Vitamin Water or Red Bull. Maybe there is some conversation, yet at some point a couple finds their way behind an upright tree or over a felled log. Here we find the Lifestyles, Magnums, and NYC condoms, the Wet Ones and napkins. Afterward, back on the chip path, a swig of Steel Reserve and puff of Backwoods cigars. Change lunch to dinner, multiply the numbers, and that describes night in the Midwood.
There is much to enjoy about Prospect Park and I am grateful that I live only four blocks from its southern entrance. But I also see problems in our park, from common litter to repairs. None of those issues, however, are as un-nerving as the men, lone and pacing, on and off trail, and sometimes in the shrubs with others. If you do not know how to read their behavior you might just think they are behaving criminally. Whatever their intentions, the effect is powerful -it keeps you moving, and it may keep you out of the Midwood altogether.
At first I thought our trash-mobbing presence would be sufficient to deter a certain amount of activity. After four months I would say that, at best, our presence in the woods has been noticed, but I do not think that it has made the slightest dent in the sexual traffic that leads to the damaged and littered woods. And why would it? There's just a few of us, every other week, for three or four hours. All we can do is pick up their litter.
During our last outing I enjoyed the guilty pleasure of tossing all the trash into the center of the paths. Look at this, my act exclaimed. The feeling grows out of my frustration, which stems as much from the problems of the Midwood as it does from the trash tossed into my apartment garden and tree pits. Empties by the 12-pack dropped into the hydrangea, soiled towels tossed into the phlox, bagged dog turd flung into the roses. Although there are trash pails every twenty feet, the garden is a cover, the garden disperses the litterer's guilt, it pulls me into their problem.
The Midwood emerges as the locus of a broader problem within our culture. Many of us think that the the public struggle of gay citizens in NYC has increased awareness, tolerance, and even acceptance. And that may be true amongst the well-heeled and middle classes of Manhattan or Brooklyn's gold coast, but in the working class neighborhoods of Brooklyn, many men find that being gay still means coming to the woods. The Midwood is their place -we know it and Parks knows it. Meanwhile, the health of the Midwood is cast aside even as we spend millions planting a Million Trees NYC. We endeavor to protect Prospect Park's resources and to uphold Olmstead's vision, yet the Parks Department has no rules forbidding cruising the woods.
It's hard to imagine that a place as public as Prospect Park can provide the privacy sought by men on the down low. That alone is the amazing thing about this woods, or any woods -that the general public is so repelled by it, so driven to the sun-filled field, that men on the DL are not discovered having sex in public. Isn't the trashing of the woods an attempt then, however unconscious, to speak directly to a public already wary of the woods? Doesn't it target the public's fears? Trash-strewn paths become a signifier of bad behaviors, of poor policing, of lurking dangers. What results is tacit -stay on the road, keep in the sunlight, there's trouble to be found in this here woods. Keep out.
Certainly the problems of the sexually repressed and oppressed deserve attention. I also think that this constituency needs a safe and comfortable place to meet and enjoy eachother's company. But why should the burden fall wholely on the shoulders of our public park?