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The parks of the town, the town of the parks

by John Pixley

There is Central Park in New York City. Of course, there is Central Park. Everyone knows about Central Park. It’s probably the most famous park in America.

We all know about this vast green space in the middle of a dense, sprawling metropolis. It was designed just to be that—a verdant escape—when New York City was becoming the major teaming city it would be and was really not very pleasant. Not only are there pleasant, wide promenades, nice for taking a stroll, however brief; there are areas in the park with rambling trails through groves and meadows, far from the sights and sounds of the city, where one can meander and sit for a while.

There are the Squares of Savannah, Georgia. These are more or less the first parks in America. They too were created with the belief that everyone should have access to a park—a very American, democratic idea, with few people in the city able to have a yard or garden. But these parks were small, the size of a city block, like a green, shady square, and they were placed about a mile from each other, so that each neighborhood had one. Such thinking is behind the environmental movement and the quest for clean air and water for everyone

There is also Fairmount Park in Philadelphia and Freeway Park in Seattle. What is unique about these parks is that they each make an unpleasant thing pleasant. The park in Philadelphia is one of the nation’s oldest and follows a busy riverfront, turning what could be a messy eyesore into a pleasant respite in the city. Freeway Park is a recent addition and is literally a freeway park, built around Highway 5. Yes, much of this park is concrete, and one can very much see and hear the freeway, but the dramatic waterfalls, meandering paths and all the various nooks and crannies are artful and intriguing.

The same can be said about Gas Works Park in Seattle, where an old abandoned gas plant is the park’s centerpiece, like an ancient ruin. And then there’s the surprisingly popular High Line in New York City, where an abandoned overhead rail track was transformed into an exciting green pathway in the crowded city.

Then there’s Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts. Yes, this is a cemetery but it is also very much a park, meant to be enjoyed as a park. Key to this is that it was designed to look like the English countryside, with rambling paths and picturesque settings.

It would be nice to visit these parks. That’s what I thought when I watched the PBS documentary, 10 Parks That Changed America. They were among those listed in the hour-long program hosted by Geoffrey Baer and produced with consultation from Thaisa Way, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington; Walter Hood, professor of landscape architecture at UC Berkeley and Peter Harnik, director of park excellence at the Trust for Public Land and author of Urban Green: Innovative Parks for Resurgent Cities. It was emphasized that these parks aren’t the best or the top 10 in the nation but are parks that influenced the design of other parks (for example, it was noted that Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Griffith Park in Los Angeles are similar in design as well as purpose to Central Park).

Yes, it would be nice to go to these parks and enjoy them. It would be nice if Fairmount Park or Mt. Auburn Cemetery or the High Line weren’t far, more than a short drive or walk away. It would be nice to have these parks accessible whenever we wanted to take a short stroll or get a hour or two break on a busy day.

Wouldn’t it be nice? Wouldn’t it be nice to have these lovely, rejuvenating parks nearby, where we could enjoy them anytime we want?

Also when I’m traveling, I think the same thing. It would be so nice to be able to go over to the path along the cliffs north of the pier in Santa Cruz for an brief afternoon stroll or jog or to spend a hour or two at the redwoods park down the road.

Indeed, it is easy to have park envy. Almost as easy as it is to take the parks we have here, the parks we have right down our street, in Claremont, for granted. But, in fact, people have park envy when they visit Claremont.

Claremont is known as the City of Trees. It could also be known as the city of parks, with about a dozen parks in this relatively small community.

We don’t have a Central Park, but we do have Memorial Park, a large green space near the center of town and a favorite place to gather for festivals and concerts.  We also have plenty of other parks, some just as big, in every neighborhood, in the spirit of the squares in Savannah. There are parks that sprawl over a block, even if they are not square-like, and there are other, like Mallows Park and Rosa Torres Park, that are gracefully tucked into a small leftover space.

And these parks are loved, even if they are taken for granted. Look at the efforts to deal with the popularity of the Wilderness area, with complaints, questions and demands about parking and also about its capacity and when it is open. And there was the excitement over the renovation of Shelton Park in the Village, with the addition of the Community Performance Stage.

With all these parks, there are lots of opportunities for a quick escape, whether to walk or just sit, nearby.

But the parks, as numerous as they are, are just the beginning when it comes to green spaces in Claremont. There are the Colleges, with all their park-like settings, offering a variety of trees and landscapes. There is everything from the grand quadrangle at Pomona College to the cozy Mediteranean garden layout at Scripps College. On a walk through Claremont McKenna, Pitzer and Harvey Mudd Colleges, a veritable lesson in creative, attractive drought-tolerant gardening is to be had.

On these campuses, we have lovely places to walk and sit, and I often see people doing so. It is no surprise that people take pictures of each other or have their portraits done at these locales. Over the coming months, while the students are away, the campuses will be even more attractive, a quiet, verdant escape in the summer heat. The Greek Theater on the Pomona College campus being used for the Claremont Folk Festival this month and Ophelia’s Jump play festival later this summer is a particularly creative and lovely example of this.  

This is an extraordinary bounty, especially when, as reported in the Los Angeles Times recently, the county is trying to figure out a way—a parcel tax?—to add parks in places like El Monte and in communities in the San Fernando Valley that are “park-poor.” It is such a bounty that Claremont, in itself, is all but a park. Even some of the streets—tree-lined and with an endless variety of gardens—are like picaresque paths and trails, leading to another view and another adventure. Look at the way Tenth Street leads to an entrance of Scripps College and Sixth Street ends at the gateway of Pilgrim Place. 

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