24 May 2010

Never Trust a Friend

We are fortunate to live in one of the greener urban areas in this nation - and by that, I don't necessarily mean "environmentally correct" (though we are, as a community, that too). Boston and the immediate "suburbs" (hard to tell where the city ends, really) boast parks and green stands both large and small, including riverwalks, bike paths, beaches and wooded areas. These are, for all intents and purposes, Open to the Public, free to use by any and all, free to enjoy.

But naturally, with parks comes maintenance and with maintenance comes cost and with the threat of losing some of this public space due to cost come, as inevitably as the red tides of summer, the Friends.

Most Friends start off as small groups of devoted users of trails, land, parks, beaches. They are as attached to those spaces as barnacles are to the hull of a fishing boat (and eventually, prove much harder to scrape away). Friends might even be considered devotees, if one were inclined to be snarky (which one never is inclined to be, oh no). Friends have time to devote to their friendship. Friends have money to devote to their friendship. Friends are usually well intentioned at the outset (please recall the paving stones along the route to hell), but over time, and with enough money in the coffers, Friends morph into something else...something more sinister...

They are no longer Friends. They are Owners. But make no mistake, you will never meet a president of a group calling itself, "Owners of the...[insert park, beach, trail here]". It just doesn't have the same, upbeat tone to it as "Friends of the..." does it? It's not as welcoming. Of course, they're not actually owners of anything except a stake in the resource in question, owing to the fact that they've thrown so much money at it to remain devoted friends that usually, government entities like DCR throw themselves prostrate as the friends walk by, begging them not to remove their funding.

And so it has been with mild bemusement that I've watched the saga that is The Fells Land Use unfold

over the last year. The Fells is a woodland area just outside the city of Boston and it's a park I'm very familiar with, having walked my dogs there (when I still had them) on many a Sunday. It's also the park where I climbed steep hills over rough terrain to start my physical conditioning before basic training in 1999. I haven't been back since I returned from my interlude to the midwest in 2006.

But I've been meaning to. It's just that, well, it doesn't feel like a park I'd be welcome in anymore. As cyclists and hikers and conservationists and dog owners duke out the realignment of the trail systems, one thing has become clear to me: The Friends of the Fells are calling the shots. They're the most well-to-do and deeply entrenched of all of the voices of the community (I use that term with much sarcasm) when it comes to Fells land use and they do seem to throw their weight around heavily when it comes to plans that the DCR may have for the future.

Heck, until this all unfolded, I never knew that Sheepfold wasn't a legal off-leash park (oops!), although I did know that it was a hook-up spot for gay men looking for casual encounters (link is totally SFW - it only leads to a news story about this) - and I did watch a toddler pick up a used condom once, poor thing. His parents almost died.

And it dawns on me that, when it comes to being a voice of the community, I'm mute. Not because I don't write or attend community meetings, not because I don't use our parks, not because I don't try to speak up if I feel it's necessary...but because I'm neither a home owner nor am I monied. These things exclude me from most groups (even the illustrious Maplewood Association, a group of home owners in my neighborhood who never return e-mails or phone calls seeking entry in to the next meeting to discuss neighborhood issues).

Yet, I don't necessarily believe that parks or other resources need groups of organized friends and I wonder why we never hear about these Friends until things like the Fells Battle come to a head.

So what do I believe in when it comes to community and natural resources? Welll...picking up the litter around the playground at the end of my street for a start. I believed in bagging and tossing my dog's poop when I had dogs. I believed in leashing Ilsa when we walked the Fells because of her tendency to attack any dog smaller than her (or larger for that matter). I believe in putting waste in my pocket or pack or any available rubbish bin. I believed in helping dirtbike riders clear trails and keep them groomed in areas where I rode. I think it's nice when mountain bikers are cognizant of the trails they ride and make an effort to not hit the walkers. I also think it's nice when other walkers or hikers move to one side of the trail to let those on bikes, or moving faster than they are, pass them by with minimum fuss.

At home, we teach A not to run into other people's yards. For one, we've no idea what crap they've put down to make their lovely green grass so lovely. And green. Not only that, it's a respect thing. We respect that your lovely green grass took some care and you probably don't want random people trodding all over it. We also take care to remove rubbish when we see it. Simple principles like: Respect those around you, they have rights too; and It doesn't matter if it's not yours, it's trash and someone should throw it away, feature heavily into her early life lessons.

I wonder where, and how, as adults, we became so complacent that we let Friends edge out all of the actual users of resources and the actual bulk of community members? This, of course, has to lead to special interest groups forming to compete and make their voices heard (Friends by any other name...) and it seems to end up in a horrible cacophany of everyone shouting about their individual or group rights to use public space while the majority of users just sit meekly in a corner and wait for the power play to end so we can get back to quietly using these things that we love, picking up others' rubbish as we make our way along.

It also seems to me that when these Friends talk about community use, they mean their gated community and not my open one. They mean that you need to be the Right Sort of Person, which usually involves having the Right Sort of House and Right Sort of Bank Account. They also, coincidentally, only care about areas like Sheepfold when those areas appear to be threatened by other user groups, but otherwise, I've never seen a Friend out there picking up used condoms or proposing ideas to make the area less appealing for random sexual encounters - and then seeing those ideas through to implementation. I have, however, seen disgusted dog owners policing the area with their pooper scoopers while their dogs play. But those people probably aren't the Right Kind and now, have threatened the Friends' friendship with the Fells.

I also often wonder if our resources that have Friends could speak and interact, would they actually be friends back with these groups or would they shake their heads along with the rest of us?

Whatever the case, it is my fervent wish that someday, these resources are still available to our family, even though we have no savings, we do have children, and we might someday have a dog again. Who knows? A may find that she loves mountain biking too. Of course, if the friends have their way, it'll probably only be viewable from afar.


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