Open Letter to the City Council: Please reconsider decision to rename Lakewood Park

Posted at 8:19 PM on Apr 30, 2017

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Good Afternoon Councilmen:

You may recall that I spoke at the last council meeting in opposition to the name change of Lakewood Park to Martin Luther King Jr. Park. I’d like to ask that at the next council meeting you make a motion to bring this issue back to the table and consider the input of your constituents in the renaming process of Lakewood Park.

Before I explain further why I feel this way, I’d like to tell you a little more about myself. I grew up on West Bell Street, three doors down from Grace Park Recreation Center. My backyard backed right up to the parking lot across the street from Grace Park. As a kid, Grace Park was basically my backyard. My parents let us play there freely for the most part and my memory is full of positive images of that metal slide, the dome monkey bars, and all the other cool, now extinct, playground equipment. The pool was already covered over by the time we became neighbors, but I can only imagine how many Statesvillians have memories of legendary summers spent swimming and playing at Grace Park.

During college, I worked during the summer for the Statesville Recreation and Parks Department. I helped with a variety of things from summer camp, to measuring trees to maintain our Tree City award, to verifying cemetery records, to Special Olympics fundraising, to playground safety checks. I learned a lot about Recreation and Parks and the community focus of the field. Once I graduated, I moved back to Statesville and bought a house on North Oak Street, where I lived for seven years. When the city decided to open the Statesville Fitness & Activity Center, I was so excited and wanted to be a part of that. I was incredibly sad that Grace Park Recreation Center and Garfield Recreation Center would be closing, but I thought I was the luckiest person alive when I landed a job at the new center prior to it opening. I LOVED being a part of the process that would bring something as great as the center to the community in which I grew up. During the process of opening the new center, I learned how important community buy-in is to the success of any recreation facility or park. These places belong to the communities they serve. Fast forward to now, I live on Virginia Ave, two doors down from MLK Jr. Park (formerly known as Lakewood). I choose to live here because I love this little town. I moved to Raleigh for a year and a half and moved right back because I missed this city and the community that I know here.

I tell you all this so that you understand that I truly love Statesville. Like you, I want what is best for this place we call home. I also want you to understand my love for public lands and parks, specifically. From my early childhood through today, parks have played a substantial role in my life. From my memories at Grace Park and ducks chasing and trapping me on the play equipment at Lakewood, to hiking Stone Mountain, to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, to swimming in front of the Tetons, my experiences in parks have taught me to play, to love, to make friends, to share and to care for things other than myself. I want to be a good steward to these places and as such, every morning when I walk my dog through MLK Jr. park, I pick up trash and throw it away. The other park neighbors I see in the park every day do the same thing. Those of us that live next door to this park consider it a part of our yard and our neighborhood, and as a community park, it does belong to us and all the other taxpaying citizens. While I am a new neighbor and already feel a kinship to my backyard park, I imagine that all those that have considered Lakewood their backyard park for the last 60 years feel even more connected to this park and the Lakewood name.

Do you have a park that you absolutely love? Maybe one that you remember chasing the first girl you had a crush on when you were eight or maybe the place your family went every Sunday after church to play when it was nice outside or maybe it’s where your family reunion is every year or maybe you got married in a park? How would you feel if the name of that park suddenly changed? It may seem trivial, but 60-plus years of memories for thousands of Statesville residents are attached to the name Lakewood Park. We all realize the park is still the same park, but its name makes for an easy way to retrieve all those years of memories. Renaming this park severs those memories. Hearing MLK Jr. Park will be met with “Where’s that?” Instead of “Oh yeah, that’s where I go and feed the ducks with my kids!” or “That’s where I got married!” The MLK Jr. Park name starts over with collecting memories in our minds.

I hope that you can see why this name change matters to so many of us. I can’t speak for everyone, but this is how I feel. It’s not about what the new name is; it’s about losing the community connection to the existing name, a name with 60 years of memories attached.

Aside from the emotional connection to the name Lakewood Park, I feel like the decision to rename the park was made in haste without inviting key players to the table. When renaming a road was being considered, Planning Director David Currier was present at some of the meetings. He was asked to review other cities’ policies regarding renaming roads and advise on what steps should be taken if a street were to be renamed. When Lakewood Park was brought into consideration for renaming, the Recreation and Parks Director should have been brought on board. He wasn’t. Having worked for Brent Cornelison for several years, he helped teach me the importance of community input and buy-in. He knows that having community members feel ownership of parks helps parks. We need community members helping to police parks and making sure things get reported when they need to be. As such, when big decisions like renaming a park are on the table, we should ask neighboring community members for their input. I feel that he would have advised tha community input, especially from the park neighbors, should have been considered. Minimally, he could have researched other cities’ policies regarding naming and renaming parks and made a professional recommendation. After a quick google search of my own, I found it’s common that park naming and renaming requests are typically submitted in writing to Recreation & Parks departments and go through an advisory committee/board approval process. Most often they require a formal application and there are some guidelines on what a city wants to achieve with park names. Had any of these steps been followed once Lakewood Park was put on the table, we might not be in the situation we are now. I understand that since the city doesn’t have a policy regarding naming and renaming parks, that the council isn’t required to ask for community input. That doesn’t mean someone on the council shouldn't have suggested it. With today’s technology, the recreation department could have easily notified the community and asked for their input. I also understand the talk of naming something in MLK Jr.’s honor started back in August 2016, but the process to rename Lakewood Park was very quick, just a matter of a couple weeks.

Essentially, I’m asking that you make a motion to reconsider the renaming and give your constituents the opportunity to have input. If, after listening to that input, you still feel voting for the name change is the best decision, I will support a name change.

While this issue has nothing to do with race for me, I feel like I can’t not mention it. If you have any concerns that I am racially motivated, I hope you’d invite me to have a conversation with you. I also encourage you to speak with Mayor Costi Kutteh as he and I sat down and have talked about this in length. I know you have recieved opposition to the name change from some people who are racially motivated. That is the reality. I am not those people and I have tried my best to separate myself from those people. I fully support naming something in town in honor of MLK Jr. I think his legacy is worthy of a park name in our community, but I feel it should be a new park. I support any new park being named in his honor whether it’s the new linear park that’s already in planning or if we decide to fund a completely new park in his honor. I would be happy to help fundraise for a new park if that is a route we want to consider as a community.

Since August, when it was proposed to do something to honor MLKJ, there have been ample opportunities to ask our community how we would like to honor MLK Jr. There was a big community forum at the Civic Center where a station could have easily asked how our community would like to honor MLK Jr. I even think one of the gentlemen on the original group proposing this name change helped put together the community forum. I would hope that, as a community, we could come up with something more fitting than renaming a park that will take years for that name to take on any meaning. In my researching how this process evolved, I found a quote from Mason McCullough, one of the gentlemen who made the renaming request, “We want something permanent for people to visit and teach their children, present and future generations of the accomplishments and the contributions of Martin Luther King Jr.” When I read that, I envisioned a monument or an interactive play feature where maybe you uncover or find facts about MLK Jr. in a park. When I listened to him speak at the council meeting, he never made any connection of how Lakewood Park specifically would facilitate people bringing their children and teaching them about MLK Jr. Had he done that and made a compelling proposal, I might feel differently. There is nothing currently at Lakewood that will make this connection for park visitors. It’s just a name. We could plan something in a new park that would make this a natural extension of visiting the park planned and designed to honor MLKJ. Again, I think more community input could help make this project of honoring MLK Jr. more meaningful and ultimately increase community buy-in and support, which is what we want for our parks and recreation facilities.

If the community response to the renaming of this park genuinely took you by surprise, I urge you to make a motion to bring it back to the table so that more research and input can be considered before a final decision is made.

I welcome the opportunity to speak with you in person. Thanks for your service to our community and your time in reviewing my letter and I’ll see you at the council meeting on Monday.

Sincerely,

Sassy Smyth
Statesville

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