Anna Lopez Brosche stood in the shade of one of the trees in Murray Drive Park, reminiscing about all the hours she spent in this half acre on Jacksonville’s Westside.
“That’s the house where I grew up,” she said, pointing across the street to where her parents still live. “It was a time when you could just say, ‘I’m going over to the park.’”
She recalled the tall metal slide in the middle of the park, how in the summer it got so hot that you had to be careful not to scorch your skin. And the swingset with black rubbery seats. And the deep ditch running along the far edge of the park.
“The boys would ride their bike down into it like it was Kona skatepark,” she said, walking over to a fence that now keeps kids out of the ditch. “And when it rained, we’d always want to see how high the water got. We’d walk down in there and see the minnows.”
She and her little brother would play in the park with their friends until they heard her mother’s whistle.
“The whole neighborhood heard it,” she said with a laugh.
She knows times have changed. But Brosche — now 45, the mother of three, CPA, and new Jacksonville City Council president — wants today’s children to have an attachment to their parks.
Shortly after becoming council president, she wrote a piece for the Times-Union editorial page, talking about why she is in office. It boils down to this, she said: She wants Jacksonville to be the best city in the world for a child to grow up.
She talked broadly about an array of issues — safe and healthy neighborhoods, a vibrant downtown development, high-quality early childhood and K-12 education — before specifically mention something from her own childhood.
“Growing up, I was active in at least one of two parks every single day; either Murray Hill Park or Murray Drive Park,” she wrote. “Those parks played a significant role in my social and emotional development, and allowed me to connect with nature and engage in physical activity. Jacksonville’s park system is one of the largest urban parks systems in the nation with over 400 parks and recreational sites. We have an opportunity leverage this great asset to do even more for our community.”
With that in mind, on a recent Saturday morning, I met Brosche and at Murray Drive Park and we walked to Murray Hill Park, about three-fourths of a mile apart.
She recalled how at a certain age they transitioned from playing in the small park across the street from her home to walking or riding bikes to the nearby 10-acre one. Getting there was part of the experience. Expanding your territory, becoming more independent.
“Society’s different,” she said. “I’m not expecting things to be like they were. But what can we have today that meets the needs of today?”
As we walked, she talked about forming a special committee on parks, headed by Councilman Scott Wilson, that’s working on answering that question.
We reached Murray Hill Park. Brosche pointed across the street to Ruth N. Upson Elementary. That’s where she went to school. They’d have recess in the park every day. And on weekends, she would return here to play.
While the park has changed — again, some of the playground equipment of her childhood is gone — it’s still a nice park, partly thanks to the work of several athletic associations through the years. It has baseball fields, restrooms, picnic tables and a water feature for kids to play in. But it also has some things — tall grass, a broken swing, a pile of trash next to a garbage can — that are too common in our parks.
I don’t point this out as a slap at the parks department. If anything, it’s a slap at the parks budget.
While checking out Murray Hill Park, Brosche brought up that the Public Trust for Land ranked our park system 90th out of 98 large cities in America. Some of that, she said, is the methodology. For instance, when your city is 840 square miles, it’s hard to compete with some compact cities for accessibility. But, she added, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can do better to “create a park system we’re all proud of.”
We already do a lot of bragging about our parks. We tout them to potential businesses and tourists. We say they’re important to our quality of life. And yet when it comes to putting our money where our mouths are, we get awfully quiet.
Minneapolis, the city that received the top ranking, spent $232.59 per resident on parks. (And that wasn’t the highest spending on the list.)
Jacksonville spent nearly $200 less per resident: $32.66. Only a few large cities in America – Newark, Jersey City, Detroit – spend less per resident on their parks than Jacksonville.
I keep hoping this will change.
When we wrapped up our walk, Brosche said it was nice to bring back old memories — and to think in terms of the future.
I’d say that a truly great park system has something for everyone. It has programs for kids and for seniors. It has ballfields and boat ramps, big parks and small ones, places to go for a quiet walk and places to gather as a community.
It has what we already have in Jacksonville — only better.
If you could show the mayor another city …
After Mayor Lenny Curry traveled to Kansas City, St. Louis and Baltimore – and I noted that the two Show-Me State cities, for all their attributes, aren’t exactly models for riverfront development — some of you emailed me with places you’d like the mayor to see.
I know some of you will say the mayor shouldn’t go anywhere on Shad Khan’s jet or the taxpayer dime. For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume this doesn’t cost taxpayers and doesn’t involve travel on a jet owned by the Jaguars owner.
What city would you show the mayor?