Immigrants, Race, and Boston Parks

June 13, 2011 |

I was forced from my bicycle by thunderstorms last week, and ended up driving far more than I like–but in the process, I happened to hear snatches of the On Point radio program about America’s National Parks, including an interview with Carolyn Finney about how African-Americans interact with parks. Finney, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley, is currently revising her book Black Faces White Faces, “which explores the relation of African Americans to the environment and to the environmental movement.” She’s also featured in this series of interviews about African-American women’s relationship to “recreational wilderness” (a loaded term! Do we preserve wilderness just so that we can play with it?)

Finney’s main point for On Point was that African-Americans have a very different relationship to parks than white Americans; they may associate the woods with lynchings, or  believe that “African-Americans don’t go to parks,” or they may just not have grown up going to parks, and not think of it as a leisure activity. As the U.S. becomes proportionately less white, the people who love parks need to think about who feels welcome in parks, and why. In past presentations, Finney has shown the Funny or Die video “Black Hiker with Blair Underwood” to show—through stereotypes—just how alienated an African-American park visitor can feel.

But what about Boston parks?  Sure, we have a plenty of National Parks here—the Boston Harbor Islands, Minuteman National Historic Park, and the Boston African American National Historic Site among others—but what about other Boston area parks? Are African-Americans using them?

My cursory internet searches failed to find any statistics whatsoever about African-American park usage, but I did locate a December, 2010 report by Boston’s Barr Foundation titled Immigrant Engagement in Public Open Space: Strategies for the New Boston. It’s 23 pages long, and contains several interesting quotes by immigrants about how they see Boston parks, such as this comment by a Guatemalan-American about Christian Herter Park:

“I think one of the reasons that that place… is so popular with us, Latinos, is because of the willows. Willows in Guatemala are very common. They grow beside rivers. People like Herter Park because it looks like home.”

Different groups use outdoor open space in varying ways. According to the report, white people tend to go to parks alone, often to exercise; other ethnic groups hold large family gatherings in parks, grilling food and enjoying the space for hours. I do wonder, though, if this rustic cookery reflects the fact that members lower-income groups tend not to have houses with big back yards for gathering rather than a cultural preference for meeting in parks.

Alas, large chunks of the report are devoted to innovative programs for immigrants in cities far beyond Boston (Los Angeles, Seattle, New York, Philadelphia). But a few local facilities successfully accommodate many different immigrant groups; Lake Cochituate in Natick (home of Boston’s first public water supply!), Massachusetts Audubon’s Boston Nature Center, where a “diverse” staff make parents feel comfortable leaving their children in their care.

In sum, plenty of immigrants are using particular Boston parks where they feel at home: where the environment looks familiar, or the staff are accommodating and/or understand immigrants’ culture. The trick, according to the authors, is to make parks flexible and able to appeal to a variety of groups, as Boston’s immigrant population is constantly fluctuating. New groups move in, others move out to the suburbs or beyond.

Universal design can help (make a loop trail through the park!). Park rules that seem reasonable can hurt–like requiring that all groups that wish to use the soccer fields reserve them in advance in writing for a mere hour or two, when immigrant soccer parties might take all day.

If you do manage a park right, you might end up the lake Cochituate “United Nations,” where, according to the report,

“Latinos tend to congregate along the water’s edge in an area nicknamed ‘The Riviera.’ Muslims use their prayer mats in the afternoons, sometimes in groups and sometimes by themselves. Russians tend to gather in a wooded area far from the crowds and use the park all winter long, while some Asian groups prefer the highlands overlooking the central plain.”

Do it wrong, the authors say, and “If Boston does not learn how to reflect all its people in its parks, and if we choose to define Olmsted’s legacy so narrowly that no room remains for the visions of newcomers, then that legacy will eventually be lost.”  After all, if white folks can’t welcome immigrants and people of color into parks, why should they care for them when the whites become the minority?

Spread the good word!