Friday, August 28, 2015

Dear Abby, my playground is a wreck!

Playstead Park is today in the condition that Cummings Park was in six years ago: graffiti, vandalism, broken equipment, trash everywhere. The discussion about it on Facebook is heartbreaking. Many people want the playgrounds maintained, want the damage fixed, and want the vandals caught and punished. None of those people work for the City of Medford.

The police department is responsible for preventing the vandalism and catching the vandals. They refuse to patrol the parks, refuse to install video cameras, refuse to send officers when they are told that vandalism is occurring, and refuse to investigate. Whose fault is that? It’s the fault of the individual officers who refuse to do their jobs, the police administration who refuses to exercise any control over the police department, the mayor who oversees the police department and sets the city budget, and the city council who approves the city budget. If you want this to change, show up at community police meetings on the first Wednesday evening of every month at the police academy and say that you want the police to start doing their jobs. If you want this to change, take photos of the damage and show up at City Hall, demand to speak to the mayor, and tell him that you demand he instruct the police to start taking care of the parks.

The parks department is responsible for repairing the damage and maintaining the parks. The head of the parks department is Mike Nestor. The parks department is part of the Department of Public Works (DPW), and they all report to the mayor. The parks department does not repair most damage and does not maintain the parks. Whose fault is that? It’s the fault of the mayor and the city council, who jointly control the city budget. Many DPW employees are well-intentioned and hard-working, but the department is understaffed, underfunded, and has been given other priorities. If you want this to change, call DPW every day with complaints about specific damage at specific locations in the parks. If you want this to change, take photos of the damage and show up at City Hall, demand to speak to the mayor, and tell him that you demand the parks department start taking care of the parks. If you want this to change, do not vote for any incumbents on the City Council.

What can you do today? Voice your displeasure to City Hall. Call the mayor, call DPW, call the police, call every member of the City Council. Be clear, firm, and specific about what you want them to do. Keep calling until you get what you want.

What can you do on Tuesday? Vote, and do not vote for any incumbents for City Council. The current City Council is fully aware that the parks are not maintained and they are comfortable with that. We need a new City Council.

What can you do in the longer term? Keep voting, and do not vote for anyone who has held public office in Medford recently. Encourage new people to keep running for office, and pray that we get someone new to run for mayor in 2017, since 2015 is just a race between a current member of the City Council and a former member of the City Council. Support an override to increase the city budget to invest in our city. Support a change in the city charter so we do not leave all of the power in the hands of the mayor with no power in the hands of the residents.

DPW can repair equipment, can clean the parks, and can also hire contractors to do both of those tasks. The mayor can ask the county sherriff’s graffiti removal unit to come remove graffiti. (There’s no charge for that, and it baffles me that the mayor refuses to use their service and instead leaves our city covered in graffiti.) The police can patrol the parks, can remove people at night when the parks are closed, and can arrest people they catch vandalizing the parks. These things are all possible, but they will not happen routinely until the city government changes.

I’ve done everything a resident can do. I’ve called the fire department when items in the park were set on fire at night, which used to happen with surprising frequency. I’ve called a homeless services agency when a homeless person started staying in the playground. I’ve called DPW and the parks department, I’ve emailed DPW and the parks department, and I’ve shown up at DPW in person. I’ve gotten a mix of rude answers and polite brush-offs, and occasional action when I’ve emailed Mike Nestor. I’ve shown up at police community meetings, spoken with individual police officers and police administration, and called the police when I’ve seen vandalism occurring. I’ve gotten a mix of rude answers and polite brush-offs, and occasional promises of increased patrols that rarely actually happen. I’ve been cursed at by police officers on the phone and threatened by police officers in person. I’ve gone to a Parks Commission meeting, which was utterly useless for action on playgrounds. I’ve contacted the county sherriff’s graffiti removal unit directly, obtained the form for requesting their services, filled it out and given it to City Hall to act on. That last action embarrassed the city into actually removing some graffiti themselves. Once.

My one real success was around six years ago. After over a decade of complete neglect of Cummings Park by the city, which was in at least as bad shape as Playstead Park is today, I went to City Hall. I brought some large color photos of the damage, and demanded a meeting with the mayor. He called in the head of DPW and the police chief, and we all sat around a table while I laid out their decade of neglect, showed them the results in color, and told them that it was simply unacceptable. They acted surprised and appalled, and within a week at the order of the mayor, DPW repaired and replaced the broken equipment and broken structures, and the county sherriff’s graffiti removal unit came in and removed the graffiti. The police actually responded to a few phone calls in a professional manner for the first time in over a decade, and explained to a number of teenagers that the playground was no longer an acceptable place to drink and do drugs at night and that tearing apart the park equipment was no longer an acceptable activity. That turned out to be enough to turn things around. Within the next couple of weeks, little children started using Cummings Park in far greater numbers. (It used to be largely abandoned during the day, and with good reason.) Parents started contributing toys and play structures to the playground. (This had not happened in over a decade, but it started then and has continued for the past six years.)

The cost is that we have to keep volunteering our time. We have to call the police, clean up garbage, call DPW for continued maintenance, report damage and graffiti and vandalism, throw out toys that are broken beyond usefulness, and trim weed trees. We have to put up with frequently unprofessional and hostile responses from the police and DPW, and put up with complaints and threats from the minority of neighborhood residents who would prefer to see the park go back to falling apart. But we’ve seen how bad it can get, and we’ve seen how much better it can be, and we made our choice. Any parent in Medford knows (or should know) Miss Andrea at Medford Family Network. She runs playgroups that go around to all of the city parks, and if you ask her, she will tell you that all of the parks need that sort of care and attention from neighbors.

A functional city government would not rely so heavily on us to do their jobs. But that’s not the city government we have, and it won’t be until more Medford residents wake up, realize that the deplorable condition of much of our city is not inevitable, realize that the unprofessional and hostile way that city agencies interact with residents is not inevitable, and demand both a change in attitude and increased investment in our city.

The city could make Playstead Park look ten times better tomorrow (and will if you scream at the mayor loudly enough), but until enough neighbors take on enough responsibility themselves and/or the city government changes, it will all be torn apart again in a matter of weeks or months.

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