Artesian park may yet fulfill promise

FILE: Families wait for the start of the Heartsparkle Players performance during the "Play at the Well" activities day at the Artesian Commons in downtown Olympia on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014.
FILE: Families wait for the start of the Heartsparkle Players performance during the "Play at the Well" activities day at the Artesian Commons in downtown Olympia on Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. Staff Photographer

When the Artesian Commons opened in May 2014, it was intended to be an urban oasis with food trucks, lunch tables for downtown workers and visitors, and, of course, public access to the artesian well that is a key piece of Olympia’s downtown identity.

But while access to the well has been preserved, everything else about the park is a radical departure from that vision. Soon after it opened, the park became the gathering place for people who are homeless or nearly so, street youth, and transients. Open drug dealing, fights, graffiti and litter were out of control.

By December, the police chief was calling for the indefinite closure of the park.

What happened next is an encouraging story about our community’s capacity to change, and about the resilience and wisdom of many park users. When the closure was proposed, many of them spoke eloquently at a City Council meeting about the value of having a gathering place which provided relative safety and a center for mutual support as they struggle to cope with poverty, prejudice, trauma, mental illness and addiction.

Park users pushed back against the wish that they would go somewhere else. That is, of course, the dilemma: no matter where the dispossessed gather, there are calls for them to go somewhere else.

Not surprisingly, they were supported by local business owners. Some merchants noted that street kids and homeless folks were hanging out in the park rather than on Fourth Avenue, in front of their businesses.

Since then, the park has become, in effect, Olympia’s “somewhere else.” And now that the police chief, the City Council and the parks department accept this reality, the park is gradually becoming a much better “somewhere else.”

Paul Simmons, Olympia’s creative parks director, convened an Artesian Commons leadership team that brings together outreach workers from Community Youth Services, Partners in Prevention Education, the Downtown Ambassadors, the Interfaith Works shelter, and the Capital Recovery Center, along with representatives of the police department, advocates and users. They are mounting more events and activities, and connecting people with the services and support they need. A new basketball hoop was an instant success, and pots of plum trees, tomato plants and marigolds are thriving.

Many park users are actively working to promote civility in their own ranks, and they are making a difference. But difficult problems remain, including drug use, the occasional angry altercation, and infrequent complaints from well users about harassment. These problems need focused, persistent attention.

But the biggest problem is the perception that “regular” people and the street community are allergic to one another.

Two things could change this. One is making the park look more like a park and less like an ugly black box. Simmons says that larger trees, planted in the ground rather than in pots, are on the way, along with permanent tables and seating. That will help, but a smart urban designer is needed to think of a way to transform all that black asphalt into something more inviting.

The second needed change is a shift in thinking about why we need this “somewhere else” for people who are living in poverty. Olympians can’t solve the national problem of poverty. But as a city that values inclusion, we could make a difference by simply being friendlier to the folks at the park.

That’s really not difficult. Just show up with some popsicles or fresh fruit. Pass them out, and ask people how they’re doing. See where that conversation leads.

Simply acting on our ethic of inclusion could make the Artesian Commons the best park in Olympia.