7 May 2010 7:22 am   //   Filed under: Brooklyn, In the news, New York is different

Every American should spend a day in Prospect Park

“The citizens of New York are tolerant not only from disposition but from necessity. The city has to be tolerant, otherwise it would explode in a radioactive cloud of hate and rancor and bigotry.” — E.B. White, “Here is New York.”

“If we want to have a future, we need to have more immigrants here.”—Mayor Michael Bloomberg, April 2010

I live a couple of blocks from Prospect Park, one of the best-utilized urban green spaces in the world. Constructed in the 1860s, it was designed by landscape architects Olmsted and Vaux as their encore to Central Park. To call it a success is a gross understatement. On any nice day, it’s packed with people enjoying the rolling, tree-studded lawns and ballfields, cookout areas, concert spaces and other free, public facilities.

The park is made truly rich by the Brooklyn neighborhoods that surround it. To stroll around the park is to stroll around the world. Everyone can dress how they feel most comfortable, speak their own language, and enjoy the games, foods and music from their culture. Nobody ever gets called out for looking different.

This is not to say people walk over and hug strangers. In New York City, people keep up defenses against unfamiliar, over-friendly people, some of whom are genuinely dangerous. Many communities prefer to keep to themselves. Prospect Park has crime, and this isn’t Utopia.

But the park is the one place where Brookyln’s many neighbor-strangers get to see each other. And it’s hard to feel distrustful or hateful about a particular group when you’ve seen them at ease, surrounded by family, enjoying a nice day in the park just like you. It works even if you never talk to them.

Sadly, over the last 50 years, America has let our community spaces disappear into low-density suburban sprawl, which isolates people in many ways.

In Arizona, there aren’t many parks like Prospect Park.

Listen to people on TV (like the clip from Fox & Friends yesterday above) and you hear a loud, organized, well-funded movement to turn neighbors against one another. It’s reinforced both by business interests and plain old racism.

The beautiful thing about America is our ability, repeated over hundreds of years of history, to overcome the people who try to divide us. Part of the reason we can do this is places like Brooklyn and Prospect Park. It’s a park of immigrants in a city of immigrants in a country of immigrants.

As a white guy from the suburbs whose family has been in America so long I’m not totally sure which countries we came from, living in Brooklyn has changed me. I’ve felt myself grow not only more tolerant of my immigrant neighbors (few of whom I actually speak to), but willing to defend them if necessary. They’re my neighbors. That’s what neighbors do. Living in Brooklyn isn’t right for everybody, but there’s something to this. I sound like an idealist, but I actually think many of the problems that plague our country’s discourse could be solved if every American spent a sunny afternoon in Prospect Park.