When I moved to St. Petersburg in 1994 and began working at the St. Petersburg Times, I quickly found my way to Williams Park. I thought it was a wonderful green space in the middle of the city, a true urban park complete with a band shell and statues and plaques honoring the war dead.
During my first month, I would walk there to eat lunch and read in a shady spot. But I stopped going there for lunch because the homeless, the mentally ill and others were nuisances. Like many other residents, I have nothing against the homeless, but I do not want to be harassed. I particularly dislike being panhandled in a public space and cussed out because I refuse to give money. At times, I felt real danger from some of the more aggressive men.
Based on recent history, many other people, including business owners, political officials and civic leaders, also gave up on Williams Park. Several years ago, the city stopped sponsoring events there and turned their full attention to North Straub Park and Vinoy Park. Williams Park became the main place where religious groups and other advocates feed and clothe the homeless and needy. Over time, the police implemented strong tactics — drug sweeps, arrests and citations — in an attempt to make the place safe for everyone.
Nothing seemed to be able to bring large numbers of residents back to the park until now. Thanks to members of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, the parks department, the Downtown Business Association, Downtown Partnership, St. Petersburg College, Progress Energy and others, the park is becoming an integral part of the city center again.
The Wednesday Midday Market, with artwork, prepared and fresh food, 30 vendors and live music, is back in business this year. Even with the economic downturn, large numbers of residents are participating. City Council member and gallery owner Leslie Curran has organized Saturday mornings' Art in the Park, an event that features vendor exhibits and hands-on activities. Invaka Ska, owner of House of Ska boutique and a designer, has returned for a second year with a fashion show in the park. Plans also are in the works to bring free concerts to the band shell the last Friday of each month.
With so many events and proposed events for the park and with the construction of nearby buildings, such as the St. Petersburg College facility and the St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral office complex, some advocates worry that the homeless will be chased away from Williams Park.
Many event organizers say they are not trying to oust the homeless from the park but trying to forge partnerships with advocates. Further, organizers are encouraging visitors to donate money directly to charitable efforts such as Pinellas Hope, which provides temporary shelter for the homeless, and they intend to steer funds to other efforts that aid the homeless and needy.
I have lived and worked in several cities, including Chicago, New York and Fort Lauderdale, where urban parks — besides being oases of aesthetic beauty that enhance surrounding property values — are places of recreation, employment, volunteerism and social discourse.
Research shows that successfully operated urban parks are one of the best producers of social capital. In a paper titled "The Public Value of Urban Parks," Chris Walker, a senior research associate for the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, writes: "Parks help build and strengthen ties among community residents by bringing people together, including those who otherwise are divided by race or class, and by helping them work together on common projects.
"These ties — often labeled 'social capital' — represent subtle but important assets for a community. They provide avenues through which information, values, and social expectations flow, and they empower people to tackle communitywide problems, embark on collective actions, and advocate effectively for their community."
As it was for decades, when it was where U.S. presidential candidates came to speak, Williams Park can again become, to use Mayor Rick Baker's phrasing, "a seamless part of the city." For too long, the park has become a kind of "no man's land."
To improve the park permanently, a broad coalition of ordinary citizens and leaders, including advocates for the homeless and the clergy, must work out their differences for the greater good. And from most indications, many people have gotten this essential message and are determined revive Williams Park as a downtown destination.