Who speaks for Douglass Park?

Alcohol ban proposal spotlights tensions and differing perspectives.

Located at North Providence and Rogers, Douglass Park has amenities such as two basketball courts with seven hoops, a baseball and softball field, a playground, restrooms, two picnic shelters and an aquatic center. The pool was originally built in the late 1930s, and park construction began in the 1960s. Today, it is a bastion for the black community in Columbia.

At Douglass Park on a rainy Sunday afternoon, a group of men in their 60s drink under a pair of tents. They’re here for a reunion of Harry’s All Stars, a baseball team that formed at the park in 1975. Back then, they had to rake the rocks out of the field themselves to make it smooth enough to play on, and right now, they’re reminiscing over some Bud Light.

A poster for a community fundraiser to buy school supplies for Oakland Middle School hangs from the park’s main bulletin board. A group of kids, white and black, splashes in the pool. A Toyota with its windows rolled down plays music, as cars at the park often do, as a handful of people chat under the park’s main gazebo.

In June, First Ward Councilwoman Ginny Chadwick proposed a drinking ban at Douglass Park based on feedback from teachers at Douglass High School, families who use the park and people in charge of extracurricular programs that take place at the park. It wasn’t the first time drinking at the park had been brought up at the Columbia City Council. When news of the proposal spread, Chadwick says she went to the park for interviews with local TV stations and tried to speak to people at the park.

Council members say they want to limit violence and protect the children around the park. People who gather in the pavilion at Douglass Park believe the city council doesn’t care about them.

The park is in a predominately black community, and it is a place where people convene not just to drink but also to socialize. Many parkgoers believe the proposed ordinance carries racial and socioeconomic undertones that suggest black people have to play by different rules in this city, whether those conventions are publicly acknowledged or not.

Curtis “Boogie Man” Soul, top, played blues tunes from his van for a get-together at Douglass Park. Photo by T.J. Thomson

Curtis “Boogie Man” Soul played blues tunes from his van for a get-together at Douglass Park. Photo by T.J. Thomson

“This is the only place we come to,” says Debrea Smith, who goes to Douglass Park every day. “This is our park. It’s the only thing we have. This is where everybody hangs.” Smith, in her 50s, doesn’t go to bars; those are for the younger crowd, she says.

She’s seen violence at the park, and she’s seen the belligerent drunks Chadwick references when discussing the ban. But Smith believes most violent crimes committed at the park come from the surrounding area, not from within.

She wonders if the city council wanted to ban alcohol to single out the black community. Drinking is allowed at all of Columbia’s public parks — there are 67 active parks — with the exceptions of Paquin Park, Flat Branch Park and Village Square Park.

“This is racial discrimination,” says Jay Harris, another parkgoer. He doesn’t drink but spends a lot of time at the park with people who do. “And this is all I’ve seen since I’ve been here. They want to make like blacks are the only ones that fight. They don’t talk about the positives that happen.”

A passerby interjects. “Do you see anybody doing anything wrong out here?”

No. At that moment, nothing at Douglass Park would raise eyebrows anymore than at places such as Cosmopolitan Park or Stephens Lake Park. Beer is sold at Cosmo, after all.

The proposed drinking ban seems to support assertions that black people are subject to different standards. Traci Wilson-Kleekamp, the former director of diversity and outreach initiatives at the MU School of Medicine, says black people here can feel invisible.

She left her job at the School of Medicine because she felt the program’s management did not provide enough resources for or show commitment to diversity.

The lack of open communication she saw there seems to typify the situation with Douglass Park. “Collaboration is key to blending these communities,” Wilson-Kleekamp says. “You need people who can step into any community. The city is like a body. Every time we do something to one part, we hurt the whole thing.” Based on the reactions of those in the park, collaboration from council to community is not fully developed, and that needs to change to improve both race relations and the overall health of the area around Douglass Park.

Political scientist and MU doctoral graduate Richard Middleton devoted a chapter to Columbia in his 2008 book Cities, Mayors, and Race Relations: Task Forces as Agents of Race-Based Policy Innovations. One person Middleton cites called Columbia’s attitude toward the black community one of “benign neglect — until some unpleasant event occurs, some people don’t seem to work on the situation.”

Minority community members still harbor some of those feelings today, and there is no easy fix. Relationships aren’t forged quickly, and the tension surrounding Douglass Park could hinder collaborative conversations going forward.

People gather at the Kenneth Ralph Shelter in Douglass Park for an afternoon of dancing and music. Photo by T.J. Thomson

People gather at the Kenneth Ralph Shelter in Douglass Park for an afternoon of dancing and music. Photo by T.J. Thomson

The people left out of the dialogue, the ones sitting in the park on a rainy Sunday, feel disenfranchised by the disconnect with administrators. And though those under the pavilion might feel invisible because of the actions of decision-makers, they don’t want to be. They are actually waiting to be approached by anyone who will hear their story.

“Tell them to come on down here,” one man says as Smith talks. “All they have to do is come and sit.”

Chadwick, for her part, is looking at how other cities handle drinking policies for public parks, but she has shelved the proposal for now. The discussion that needs to take place between council members and the people who use Douglass Park as a social gathering place is in limbo.

“I don’t really know what the best thing to do is,” she says. “I’m just allowing the racial tension to die down.”