When I was a child growing up in North Carolina, my family often visited a city park near our house. It was one of our favorite places.
The park's centerpiece was a wide, shallow creek with crystal-clear water that trickled over pebbles and collected in small pools where tadpoles wriggled. We would take off our shoes and wade in the cool water, chasing tadpoles and holding pebbles up to the light to check for "gold."
The park had a heavily shaded playground with sturdy equipment to climb on and swings, slides and a seesaw. It had a regulation youth baseball field where a bunch of kids could play a pickup game if no Little League games were under way. The park had paved walkways that were perfect for roller-skating or playing hopscotch.
The park was linear, rambling through a quiet, shady neighborhood where residents sat on their porches or worked in their yards in the evenings as children ran and whooped in the park.
On a recent vacation, I went back to the park, my head full of those lovely memories from childhood. But I was dismayed by what I found.
The creek was still there, but it contained only a little cloudy water, and broken glass glittered in the streambed. Some of the old play equipment was still there, but it was worn out, the paint faded and peeling. The park looked like a place that had been forgotten.
Most disturbing was the change in atmosphere. Graffiti painted on some surfaces might have been gang symbols. I watched a drug sale go down in full view in the parking lot. Solitary men sat in their cars around the park, as if waiting for something.
With no children there and no residents visible in the yards of surrounding homes, the park felt like a place that wasn't safe for a woman walking alone. After a last sad look around, I left the park — and my fond memories of it — behind.
I can only guess what happened to this once-beautiful and popular public space, but I fear a similar decline in some of our parks and preserves here in Pinellas County.
Our local governments — our appointed stewards of our parks and other public spaces — are experiencing eroding revenues and are burdened by budget deficits. In this financial environment, officials tend to preserve funding for essential services such as public safety, roads and drainage as long as possible. They slash spending on items they consider less essential, such as maintenance, repair and replacement. In the county and in Pinellas cities, park maintenance was one of the first things cut.
I guess that's what happened at some point in the park of my childhood. Maintenance was reduced. The park wasn't refreshed or updated. It was considered nonessential. As it declined, families found more appealing places to play. Now, unsavory elements have moved into the park. It is still an attraction, but for the wrong activities.
Ironically, reclaiming it may be more costly than maintaining and updating it through the years would have been. Police will have to push out the gangs and the drug dealers. The park's dilapidated equipment will have to be replaced and new amenities added to attract new users. The city will have to expend energy and more money to market the park and persuade the public that it is not only a great place to play, but safe, too.
Our public parks are an investment by us, the taxpayers, and that investment must be protected to stave off a decline in value. It is easy for government officials to balance their budgets by reducing park maintenance, by not replacing play equipment, by laying off the park ranger who provides supervision. Perhaps it even makes sense to do that rather than cut police or firefighters or let sewer lines collapse or have holes open in streets.
But there will be a cost attached to that decision. If parks can't be maintained, responsible officials will need to close them so they don't become a nuisance or a hazard. In some parts of the country, officials are making a desperate bid to raise operating funds by selling park naming rights or offering advertising space along trails and streams. In other places, the battle already is lost and officials are talking about selling parks.
Since Pinellas local governments already have stepped on that path by trimming park maintenance and oversight, it isn't hard to imagine that such desperate measures could be in our future. And that would be particularly sad in a county so densely populated that every square inch of parkland ought to be treated as a treasure.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the Times.