Almost every surface suitable for sitting has been eradicated from Hemming Park.

 

Seating around the fountain on the east side of the park has been demolished and blocked by mulch beds surrounded by decorative fencing with $60,000 of city money.

Plant containers are sandwiched around a stage to keep people from squeezing between them. Fountain ledges surrounding the Confederate soldier statue are obstructed by a black fence that seems destined to be a series of planters.

The message is obvious: Move along.

This is the opposite of the goals the Friends of Hemming Park had for the space three years ago.

“Our mission is to transform the park into a modern, urban space that engages diverse communities and restores vitality to our city’s public square,” according to the nonprofit’s website.

Starting in October 2014, the Friends of Hemming Park began programming the park with regular events.

They hired ambassadors to keep the park clean and safe.

They raised money, like a $100,000 Southwest Airlines grant for the 2015 Heart of the Community program with the Project for Public Spaces, which specializes in placemaking.

Placemaking inspires people to collectively reimagine and reinvent public spaces as the heart of their communities. That’s what was supposed to happen in Hemming Park.

Instead, we have placebreaking.

After its initial investment, the City Council wasn’t happy with how the money was spent. The Friends of Hemming Park changed leadership and took its marching orders from City Hall.

All of these changes were aimed at removing a specific group of people considered “undesirable” from the park. After the closing of the Jacksonville Day Resource Center in October 2016, many people who needed those social services started gathering in Hemming Park.

But these changes don’t just affect people with nowhere else to go. They also chase away everyone else — people who could help the Friends of Hemming Park achieve its original mission.

When a larger event occurs, like the Asian Food Festival in July, people who show up to purchase food have nowhere to sit. Photos from that event showed people who climbed over the decorative fences to sit on the edge of the fountain. What else were they supposed to do?

The only surfaces left where people can sit are at the far west end of the park near the Skyway. I wonder what hostile solution the city has in store for those.

The few chairs and tables the Friends of Hemming Park provides from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. are specifically reserved for people who buy lunch from one of the food trucks. The park needs many more tables and chairs for bigger events.

Seating isn’t the only thing under attack. Last November, Sam Mousa, chief administrative officer for Mayor Lenny Curry, mentioned cutting down the park’s oak trees and replacing them with palm trees. Those darn oak trees provide too much shade, which encourages people to hang out in the park.

In 1978, when starlings started roosting in the mature oaks in the park, people were assaulted by their droppings. The trees were chopped down, the grass removed and Hemming “Plaza” was born. Was it just a coincidence that Downtown became an uninviting, inhospitable place?

Hemming Park has tried to appease the city’s directive to make the park “clean and safe” by hiring Central Security Agency — at a cost of $20,000 a month — to enforce the park rules and deter nuisance activity.

Private security guards spend time chatting with each other rather than getting to know people. Nothing says placemaking like standoffish security guards.

Mousa said the administration wanted to “take back” the public space in front of City Hall. Take it back from … homeless people?

If more people populate the park on a regular basis, the administration wouldn’t be able to distinguish the backgrounds of the people there. They would just see a crowded, thriving park.

“Hemming [Park] has been at the heart of Downtown for over 150 years, and for Downtown to be successful it must have a healthy and vibrant heart,” Wayne Wood, president of the Friends of Hemming Park board, told Florida Trend in 2014.

Now, that heart needs resuscitation.

Hemming Park is not just any city park. It’s Jacksonville’s front yard and deserves first-rate care. But the park’s location presents problems most parks don’t have — problems that plague the entire city, not just the park. Hemming Park requires funding to help “transform the park into a modern, urban space that engages diverse communities and restores vitality to our city’s public square.”

That’s a mission we can all support.

Denise M. Reagan is senior PR manager at Brunet-García Advertising, a longtime journalist, and a frustrated Downtown enthusiast.