Thursday, September 15, 2011

Of Woods And Men

Guest Post by Frank

A 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?


Anonymous said...

Only one garbage can exists in the entire Midwood. Maybe adding more garbage cans would inspire the depositing of trash into said receptacles. Individuals who litter are commonly found throughout the city. Those who habitually are given to drinking an entire fifth of Stoli in one sitting seem more likely to litter, whether they are hanging out in a park or on a street, as bottles strewn in streets attest. It is generally agreed by upstanding citizens that litter is an unnecessary nuisance. Your significant focus on condemning an entire aggregate of mostly men of color engaging in the recreation available in the relative privacy of a vacant nighttime public park is more troubling than their littering. The significance of your pursuits is alarming. Many deerioraed areas if the park suffer from flawed planning that cannot be blamed on the visitors of the park. Prospect Park was not intended to be as elitist as the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens or private like your front yard.

Marie said...

Anonymous - I wish I had a private front yard :-)

Do you really think that it is elitist to expect people to take responsibility for their own trash? You set the bar rather low.

You are right about the garbage can, though sadly I have seen litter a few feet away from it. Regardless, I would also like to see more garbage cans in the area. If you read a bit more about the background of what we do you'll see that the ownership of this park, and its problems, is shared. There are not enough employees to gather trash; when it is gathered it is sometimes not done effectively; there is only one trash can in this area; and there are no signs advising patrons of the woods to take their garbage out with them, though it's hardly rocket science to come to the conclusion that that is the right thing to do.

My problem is not with the recreation you describe. Recreate as much as you like, but please be neat.

frank@nycg said...

I expected it, so there it is.

frank said...

Your significant focus on condemning an entire aggregate of mostly men of color engaging in the recreation available in the relative privacy of a vacant nighttime public park is more troubling than their littering.

My significant focus is on a couple of points -one being that people tend to avoid the woods, the mess and the odd behavior of lone men reinforces that decision to avoid the woods which are beautiful and should be enjoyed by more people.

The woods is our concern, and they are not used only when they are vacant -as if a motel room. Yeah, it's true -rich men can pay for a room. I suppose I should stay in the sun and leave the woods for f*@king.

The significance of your pursuits is alarming.

I don't understand -please elaborate.

Many deterioraed areas of the park suffer from flawed planning that cannot be blamed on the visitors of the park.

Yes, this is a shame. It is clear that some areas of the park are better maintained than others. I've posted on some of those problems on another blog. Desire lines are a common problem in many parks, in fact, pretty much all parks. It presents a significant problem in PP because of the morainic landscape which is highly prone to erosion (unlike the ramble, for instance).

Prospect Park was not intended to be as elitist as the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens or private like your front yard.

I can hardly imagine a more elitist urban landscape than anything designed by Olmstead. His rhetoric may have been that of a man of and for the people, but his aesthetic was strict 18-19th c. aristocrat. This is why we have ball fields and soccer fields spread across his "meadow," to ensure that ordinary folks would use the space he imagined as a contemplative, leisure space wholly designed around a stroll and picnic. I have wondered lately if he considered the sexual practices of city folks when he designed his woodlands. I mean, it must have been going on then as now.

P.S. My garden is not private, is only 2.5 feet wide, and I call it a yard tongue in cheek. I do however take ownership of it, even though I am only a renter. That's why I planted it, and that's why I pick up other peoples' trash from it. Because you only live once and I prefer beauty.

Marie said...

"Because you only live once and I prefer beauty."

Well said.

dinahmow said...

A pity "anonymous" lacked the courage and courtesy to sign his/her name.

Perhaps his/her joining the clean-up would level the playing field?

Whitney said...

Reading this blog reminds me of cleaning my child's school garden in the Castro, San Francisco, you are not alone!

If it were India, some family would live in a tent on the property full time, cleaning. They'd make next to nothing, but it'd be clean & they'd take pride in what they did. (Interesting how that can never work in America)