They Thought They’d Make a Park

The revitalized IOOF Park, already put to unauthorized community use. The water feature is off-camera to the left; the mural still has to go.

My first of not-very-many activist poems got written in the 9-12 age range. I don’t remember if I used this as the title, but at least two of the lines were: “They thought they’d make a playground.”

The “they” in this case, although I didn’t realize it at the time, was the City of Gunnison, possibly operating with developer-provided dollars. The Palisades subdivision, into which we moved in 1969, got built out in the 1970s. In the bottom corner of the development was a plan for a park, but no one got around to that until my sisters and I spent a few years happily playing in the non-park.

There were cottonwoods, and tall grass, dirt trails, nearby ditches — everything a kid could want, really, in one convenient location right at the end of Tincup Drive. And then the city came along and — as meticulously detailed in my poem — chopped down all the trees, mowed down the tall grass, sodded over the dirt trails, and gave it a name: Char-Mar Park. It was, and remains to this day, a pale imitation of the char-maring play area that existed before sprinkler systems were imposed.

Just a few years ago the city decided to sink some real money into this park, so of course they convened citizen input groups and conducted surveys. And then disregarded that and did nothing but install pickleball courts and maybe one additional playground apparatus in the area that is way too far away from the restrooms for small children.

My suggestion, as a non-pickleball player, was to relocate the children’s play area over by the picnic tables and the restrooms, and then give the children’s play area back to the land: grass, trees, dirt trails.

The city does have a park like that, down by the river near our senior care center, but it could have had another one at Char-Mar. Even with the pickleball courts. But apparently there was only enough money for one thing.

Well, one thing and the unnecessary removal of several healthy cottonwoods, because we are a Tree City USA that hates trees.

I expected to lose on the “return to nature” suggestion, because I’m usually on the losing end of eminently sensible suggestions, but I did file a complaint with the parks and rec director about the trees coming down. His explanation, which seemed weak to me then and still, was that they were creating open space to account for the loss of that taken up by the courts.

But that made no sense, since the cottonwoods were over by a ditch outside the boundary of the park, and all the city did was create stumps where once there were trees. It was never going to be viable “open space,” but now there are fewer trees lining the ditch, which I’m sure must somehow be a good thing.

With this history in mind, I held out no hope for the city’s newest park effort, a revitalization of the IOOF Park right downtown.

Once upon a time the IOOF (International Order of Oddfellows) Park had been the IOOF Building, but that was before the New Year’s Day fire one year during my newspapering stint. The IOOF membership was dwindling even back then, and no one opted to rebuild. Instead, they either deeded or leased (at something like $1 per year) the land to the city for use as a park. I believe the only request of the city was a placard honoring the Oddfellows, a placard that as far as I know has never materialized.

This was an even sadder park than Char-Mar, and every so often there have been calls to revitalize it. Once upon a time I was part of a committee that met endlessly one summer, trying to come up with a forward plan, but the ideas were too diverse and the only thing we agreed upon by summer’s end was that the city should at least spruce up the sad patch of ground and its spindly trees.

But the city never did that, and the park just sat there, a few picnic tables, a scummy pond with bunch of rusted metal that I’m sure was someone’s proud sculpture and the trees, which finally grew to decent girth. And don’t forget the giant mural on the wall of the neighboring building, painted by someone obviously not Of Here. It’s a rural midwestern farmscape, barely a mountain in sight, but with a large cloud looming over all of it, looking rather like a nuclear detonation. For some ghastly reason, the city has been loathe to remove this eyesore, which has faded, but sadly not completely away.

This year, however, the city manufactured some Resolve. I don’t know if another committee was formed, or if executive decisions held the day, but at some point this past May or June a chainlink fence went up around the park and demolition/construction began.

The first thing to go — no, not the mural — were the trees. Because we’re a Tree City USA that hates trees. Then everything but the mural: the sculpture, the pond, the wooden bridge I liked to walk over, the hand-carved bench, the picnic tables, the plaque that recognized not the Oddfellows but instead the people who died in the mass shooting at Columbine High School, 200 miles away.

All the grass got yanked up as well, and in its place came concrete and rock in a process that took much longer than anticipated. Masons were brought in to hand-cut the stone — that certainly sounds budgetary — which apparently came from some historic structure, perhaps the original public works building.

And then concrete. Lots and lots of concrete. No one who walked by, including all employees at Pat’s, were holding out hope for anything good coming out of this concrete jungle. But apparently on Friday, when we weren’t looking, sod was placed, and by Saturday’s farmers’ market in the street, it looked like a very charming downtown park.

There’s still plenty of concrete, and a bandstand that will have awful acoustics, competing with Main Street traffic, and I’m uncertain as to why the full trees had to be replaced with two spindly ones pretty much right where the original trees stood, but in this one park instance, the city has managed to exceed my expectations.

The water feature already needs repair, water running down the stone wall rather than its intended channel, but there are fake rocks and real rocks, bright umbrellas and an extremely elaborate firepit. Best of all: a request for proposals went out for a new mural. Looking at the fake rocks up against the wall, it seems like something depicting Hartman Rocks might be appropriate, but we know what happens to my eminently sensible suggestions.

The finally revitalized park does look very nice, far more inviting than what was there a few months ago. My activist poet self might still lament the absent grass and all the lost tree years, but this time around I can’t claim they replaced a better park with a lesser one.

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