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.