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Protest sidelines park planning

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Durham Parks and Recreation planned a public meeting on upgrades for Old North Durham Park Tuesday night, but the meeting did not go quite as planned.

A large contingent organized by the El Kilombo Galactico, a nonprofit with its office on Geer Street adjacent to the park, staged a protest that took up most of the meeting’s scheduled 90 minutes.

They were objecting to any redesign that shrinks the park’s current soccer field and claiming that the Central Park School for Children and developers of nearby property “have been undermining the interests of our community.”

Central Park School Director John Heffernan was booed after saying, “We hoped to identify the common goals. … One of the common goals that I hear is that it’s for the children.”

Sign-bearing protesters claimed that the school and a group called Friends of Old North Durham Park want to privatize the park and objected that city had co-sponsored the meeting with the Friends group.

“All of a sudden we’ve got Central Park School for Children breathing down as our necks,” said Anita Keith-Foust, who described herself as an Old North Durham resident “for years.”

Moderator Jim Lee and some others in the audience repeatedly suggested the two sides had common interests as a basis for conversation.

“Is there an opening here? Some people came in with a demand which is never a good way to get anything done,” said Lee. “If there were no Friends of Old North Durham Park, it didn’t exist, and all these interests were in a room together, would it be possible to sit down and talk about the future of this park?"

“As long as we have people who are trying to fool other people,” Keith-Foust said, “we can't agree."

As the meeting went along it became little more than a gripe session for the protesters, defensive responses from school and neighborhood representatives, accusations of “disingenuous” comments from both sides, claims of lying and misrepresentation.

"It is clear, I hope that it's clear, why this community is not willing to sit down ... with people who have been undermining the interests of our community for 5 years,” said Brenda Belletti, an Old North Durham resident with the protesting group.

“Friends of Old North Durham Park is composed of people who have a financial interest in changing the nature of our neighborhood,” she said.

“It is impossible for us to sit down at the table with people who have treated our community like this.”

The El Kilombo group walked out after more than an hour, leaving a handful of audience members to talk among themselves.

“The parties are so emotional they can’t see the forest for the trees,” said Sara Chase, an Old North Durham resident who said she had come to find out what the controversy was all about.

“What we saw here tonight can be thought of as progress, but not much,” said Lee, himself a former community organizer whom Heffernan had asked to facilitate the meeting as a disinterested outsider.

“Everybody was kind of locked down in their positions,” he said. “It’s not fruitful.”

Tuesday’s meeting was to be the first of three on the Old North Durham Park. Asked whether the series would be continued, DPR Assistant Director Beth Timson could only shrug.

For El Kilombo’s positions on the park, see www.elkilombo.org.
 

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What really happened at the March 15th Meeting

 

On March 15, 2011 a broad coalition of over 100 people, carrying a petition with over 350 signatures, from different north Durham groups – concerned residents and friends, families, organizations (including, but not limited to El Kilombo Intergaláctico, the Team Soccer youth soccer group, Park Justice and others)– protested a meeting at the public library organized by a private entity called Friends of Old North Durham Park (FONDP) in conjunction with Durham Parks and Recreation. The meeting was held to discuss a plan for developing Old North Durham Park, located between Trinity and Geer Streets, which would eliminate the full-sized athletic field used primarily by the neighborhood's African American and Latino population. The plan was privately contracted and designed by the board of the charter Central Park School for Children (CPSC) in association with FONDP without considering the input from the broader community. The protesting coalition, which called itself the Durham Coalition for Urban Justice (DCUJ) - and which following the meeting gained the support of other Durham organizations including the CC Spalding Neighborhood Association and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People - expressed their deep concern with the following: 1) the city had entered a Public-Private Partnership with FONDP without ever holding a public meeting to discuss this proposition with the public; 2) the membership of FONDP had never been publically divulged and the known members have a clear financial interest in changing the character of the neighborhood; 3) the park plan had been privately funded and sponsored by the board of the Central Park School for Children (a school that few or none of the children in the neighborhood's primarily low-income community attend), which has been trying to gain control of the park since moving into their building in 2003; and 4) the plan intentionally eliminated the park's full-sized athletic field, vitally important to the neighborhood’s low income African American and Latino population for whom public space for physical activity is essential for community and personal health, and for whom the elimination of such spaces is a contributing factor in disproportionate rates of diabetes and obesity. 

 

The DCUJ proposed three conditions to the city for the process to move forward: 

1. That the city hold a truly public meeting about the future of the park where all residents have an opportunity to participate AS EQUALS -  with the FONDP eliminated as a co-sponsor of the meeting and invited to participate as one actor on the same level as all others.

2. Transparency and accountability in the public process - both an acknowledgement of bad faith initiatives enacted by these private entities in the past as evidenced in city documents themselves, and full transparency in the future.

3. The upgrading of the full-sized athletic field in the park that serves all of the people of the North Durham community and the larger city.

 

HISTORY

For an American city of its size, according to national standards, Durham should have at least 40 full-sized athletic fields; it has 11. In an effort to address this problem, Durham City Council passed proposition 9281 in 2005 to affirm its prior commitment to upgrade the field in Old North Durham Park. Funding was raised for this upgrade on multiple occasions – in 1996 and 2005 through city bond measures, and in 2009 through the sale of Erwin field. City documents indicate that since opening Central Park School for Children members of its board have been  to stop the city from upgrading the field. Once the CPSC board became involved, the city put its own plans for the park on hold; the public money raised for park upgrading is unaccounted for. In 2007, CPSC tried to lease the park from the city for $10/year for 10 years. Community residents protested this action at a City Council Meeting and the city dismissed the proposal. The CPSC then privately contracted a landscape architect to design a new plan for the park who, according to this architect, suggested that they form another entity, the FONDP, to push the private park plan through a Public Private Partnership. Neighborhood residents again objected to the non-public proceedings and the nature of the proposed changes at a City Council work session in October 2010. The City Council again did not pass the plan and mandated a series of public meetings to discuss park development with specific instructions for how Durham Parks and Recreation (DPR) must engage the public. In what can only be considered a show of bad faith, FONDP/DPR did not publicize these meetings to the surrounding community in accordance with the city council mandate, although it was well publicized to the neighborhood associations, which have little or no involvement by low income Black and Latino people. The March 15 meeting marked the third time that the broader community has intervened in the private initiative to develop Old North Durham Park to demand transparent public process. Those demands have still not been met.

 

The DCUJ stated that they believe most residents of North Durham want the park to be upgraded in a way that serves all members of the community and they invite North Durham residents to join the coalition. They urge the city to cancel the FONDP-sponsored meetings and instead to hold truly public meetings to discuss these issues.

 

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About the blogger

Jim Wise is a Durham News/N&O reporter and columnist who follows city and county government land-use and neighborhood issues. He's author of "Durham: A Bull City Story" and "Durham Tales: The Morris Street Maple, the Plastic Cow, the Durham Day That Was and More ... "
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