Wednesday, April 13, 2016

10 Parks That Changed America (WTTV-TV, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

First up on KPBS last night was a quirky show called 10 Parks That Changed America, which turned out to be an episode from a series produced by WTTV, PBS’s afflilate in Chicago, called 10 _____ That Changed America (the other entries were “Buildings,” “Homes” and “Towns”). In some ways the most fascinating segment of the show was the first, which depicted James Oglethorpe’s master plan for Savannah, Georgia in 1732. He was hoping that the colony would become a model community, and to that end he made slavery illegal (a decision that, alas, was reversed just 18 years later!), and laid out the city so each block would essentially be its own neighborhood mini-city (and urban planners today think the “city of villages” concept is so new and innovative!), complete with public buildings, residences and a town square in the middle. The other parks profiled — in chronological order, which was nice — were Fairmount Park in Philadelphia (which was actually part of an integrated water supply to keep the residents from getting yellow fever — at the time it wasn’t known that the disease was spread by mosquitoes but the ruling theory that it was spread by “bad air” from stagnant water at least was close enough to the truth the city did some of the right things, including setting up the city so it would get its water from the Schuylkill River and the water would flow continuously, get itself pumped up by steam and then be transported by gravity to its end users); Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Boston; Central Park in New York (of course!), the Neighborhood Parks that dot Chicago (well, the producers of this show had to do something that was in their home town!), the San Antonio River Walk (created in response to a 1921 river flood that wiped out a good part of San Antonio’s downtown and killed 50 people; it was a series of dams and floodgates that would keep the river level within the city limits so businesses could locate on the banks and people could walk from one restaurant or shop to another), Overton Park in Memphis, Tennessee (though the story was less about its original creation than the efforts of residents in 1971 to save it from being bisected by an interstate freeway), Freeway Park in Seattle (where residents had lost a battle against a freeway and decided to make lemonade out of the lemons by building a park on top of the freeway), Gas Works Park (also in Seattle, in which the city took an abandoned gas works, reprocessed the toxic sludge left behind so it could be used for planting, and created a park but with the principal features of the gas works left behind as a sort of memorial to America’s industrial past), and the High Line (the abandoned elevated train tracks in New York City that were also turned into a “found” park!).