Searching for a Memory: Reflexivity, Privilege, and Public Parks
This essay is a self-reflection of my experiences as a patron and researcher conducting fieldwork at Washington Park or Wash Park in Denver, Colorado. Ethnographic methods of participant observation (Adler & Adler, 1994) and performance autoethnography (Spry, 2001) were the primary techniques of data collection for the analysis. I employed critical autopoietic narrative to consider nostalgic memories of my childhood, space, reflexivity, positionality, and privilege that I confront a year after conducting an ethnography of Wash Park. This essay offers a detailed account of my experiences as a patron at Wash Park and then as a researcher and highlights some of the problems researchers can encounter when they fail to think critically about themselves and how their interests, positions, and assumptions influence their fieldwork. To that end, the implications of this essay are important and encourage researchers to consider how they fit into their work and affect its outcomes.
“You have to ask yourself:
What is not there?
What is missing?
What don’t you see?”
Dr. Roy Wood’s comments still echo in my head
As I sit here and comb through my personal journal entries and fieldnotes.
They serve as a constant reminder
That I was missing something, somehow
In the ethnography I wrote for his qualitative research methods course
More than a year ago.
My instincts tell me it is important
And inspire me to continue in my quest.
But I keep coming up short.
I can still picture the animated expression on his face,
Which told me there was something he knew
That I didn’t.
Think Bethany—What is going on in that space?
Oh, how I wish he told me!
But I knew this was something I would have to figure out on my own.
After all, this was what being a graduate student was about.
You know, the process of inquiry.
I have no choice but to start over.
I have to go back to square one.
I have to re-read through my personal journal entries and fieldnotes
And again and again, if necessary,
Until I figure out what is missing.
I need to figure out what Dr. Wood desperately wanted me to discover for myself.
I need to figure out what he was yearning to tell me about Wash Park.
This essay is a self-reflection of my experiences as a patron and researcher conducting fieldwork at Washington Park or Wash Park in Denver, Colorado. Ethnographic methods of participant observation (Adler & Adler, 1994) and performance autoethnography (Spry, 2001) were the primary techniques of data collection for the analysis. I employed critical autopoietic narrative to consider the process of searching for nostalgic memories of my childhood, space, reflexivity, positionality, and privilege that I confront a year after conducting an ethnography of Wash Park. This essay offers a detailed account of my experiences as a patron at Wash Park and then as a researcher and highlights some of the problems researchers can encounter when they fail to think critically about themselves and how their interests, positions, and assumptions influence their fieldwork. To that end, the implications of this essay are important and encourage researchers to consider how they fit into their work and affect its outcomes. Before my experiences at Wash Park are recounted, a brief discussion of performance autoethnography and critical autopoietic narrative and their purpose in this essay is necessary.
In an essay on performance autoethnography as an embodied methodological praxis, Tammy Spry (2001) offers a detailed conceptualization of performance autoethnography and highlights how it is an attractive alternative for researchers to employ in their work. She writes, “autoethnography can be defined as a self-narrative that critiques the situatedness of self with others in social contexts” (Spry, 2001, p. 710). Unlike traditional research methodologies, Spry claims that autoethnography resists ‘Grand Theorizing’ and objective research. Instead, as Spry writes, “the living body/subjective self of the researcher is recognized as a salient part of the research process” (p. 711). Although it is similar to other interpretive and critical methodologies, Spy claims that autoethnography is informed by research on oral and personal narratives in performance and communication studies (see Langellier, 1999 for a review). Spry cites and compliments performance studies scholar Kristin Langellier, whose work she claims has been foundational in autoethnographic performance. According to Langellier (1999):
Personal narrative performance gives shape to social relations, but because such relations are multiple, polysemic, complexly interconnected, and contradictory, it can do so only in unstable and destabilizing ways for narrator and audience . . . a story of the body told through the body which makes cultural conflict concrete. (p. 208)
Spry claims that good performance autoethnography is not simply a confessional tale of self-renewal but a provocative weave of story and theory. She feels that in order for performance autoethnography to qualify as being good, “The tale being told,” as Norman Denzin (1992) writes, “should reflect back on, be entangled in, and critique this current historical moment and its discontents” (p. 25).
Spry (2001) discusses the value of using performance autoethnography as an alternative methodological praxis. She writes, “autoethnographic texts express more fully the interactional textures occurring between self, other, and contexts in ethnographic research” (Spry, p. 708). Like Spry, I found the most utility in performance autoethnography because it allowed and encouraged me to “dialogically look back upon my self” by “generating critical agency in the stories of my life, as the polyglot facets of self and other engage, interrogate, and embrace” (Spry, p. 708). Referencing the work of Dwight Conquergood (1991) and Denzin (1997), Spry further emphasizes the value of performance autoethnography by claiming that it allows researchers to examine and reflect more fully upon issues that relate to their research. Spry stresses that this is largely because, “In the fieldwork, writing, and performing of autoethnography, text and body are redefined, their boundaries blurring dialectically” (p. 711).
The utility of performance autoethnography is strengthened when used in conjunction with critical autopoietic narrative. Similar to performance autoethnography, critical autopoietic narrative is an alternative methodological praxis and “taps into the creative, yet critical articulation of lived experience” (Alexander & Warren, 2002, p. 329). In an essay on issues of democratization, Alexander and Warren (2002) use critical autopoietic narrative set within a dialogue to reflect upon the materiality of their bodies within traditional educational spaces. Their use of the term ‘autopoietic’ is borrowed from the work of Michael Kirby (1979); specifically, the term is drawn from Kirby’s use of autoperformance to refer to “presentations conceived and performed by the same person” (p. 2). As they write, “Related to the notion of poiesis, which signals the process of making, creating or producing—the construction of the autopoietic narrative, is a productive and formative construction of the self in a particular situation” (Alexander & Warren, p. 329). Like Alexander and Warren, critical autopoietic narrative was employed in this essay because it allowed me to reflect more fully upon my own privilege as a patron and researcher at Wash Park.
Overall, the self-reflective purpose of this essay was better served through the use of alternative methodological praxis. Performance autoethnography and critical autopoietic narrative are more flexible and allow for greater reflexivity than traditional methodological praxis. These alternative methodological praxes are strengthened by the other and allow for a more candid account of my experiences at Wash Park. To that end, I also draw from the work of scholars such as Greg Dickinson (2006), Dickinson, Brian Ott, and Eric Aoki (2005), Kathy Charmaz (2006), and Ryan Gildersleeve and Aaron Kuntz (2011) to address concepts such as nostalgia, space, reflexivity, positionality, and privilege. These concepts highlight some of the problems I encountered one year after conducting an ethnography of Wash Park and underscore the importance of researchers recognizing how they fit into their work and affect its outcomes.
Dr. Roy Wood’s Qualitative Research Methods Course
March 25th, 2011. It was mid-Spring during my first year of graduate school as a Ph.D. student and I was getting ready to begin my final research project for Dr. Roy Wood’s qualitative research methods course. I was excited about the assignment because it would be my first ethnography. However, I was having a difficult time finding a site location for the project. Although I had been living in Denver, Colorado for almost nine months, I was relatively unfamiliar with the area because most of my free time was spent on school work, research, and teaching obligations. I was also lacking motivation to find a site location because I was suffering from severe bouts of homesickness. It had been nine years since I first moved away from my family in Boston, Massachusetts and I missed home terribly. Just as pressure from school work, research, and teaching obligations and feelings of home became overwhelming, I learned of Washington Park or Wash Park.
Wash Park is one of several public parks in the city of Denver and is approximately 160 acres in size. Like other public parks, Wash Park has various bicycle paths, playgrounds, lakes, and fields for patrons to enjoy. However, Wash Park is unique in that it has renowned flower gardens, an antiquated boat house, and top-of-the-line recreational facility. Together, these features of the park make Wash Park one of the most popular and visited parks in all of Denver. Locals rave about the park’s flower gardens, which were designed by German landscape architect Reinhard Schuetze and consist of 54 flower beds, one of which is an exact replica of Martha Washington’s garden at Mt. Vernon. During the spring, summer, and autumn, people flock to the park to see the flower beds in bloom. People also frequently rent out the park’s antiquated boat house, which was built at the turn of the 20th century. Over the years, the boat house has been host to company outings, banquets, and wedding ceremonies. The park’s top-of-the-line recreational facility is also one of the most, if not the most, popular recreational facilities in all of Denver and attracts hundreds of people to the park each day.
Whenever I listened to people talk about Wash Park, I could not help but notice how happy they seemed. I heard animated stories about special times spent with loved ones and family members at the park, fun company outings, family picnics, runners clubs, and organized games of Ultimate Frisbee and soccer with friends in one of the park’s large fields. All of the stories I heard were happy stories; none were bad or sad. I was envious of the joy these people felt and wanted to feel it for myself. So I decided to visit Wash Park for the first time in September, 2010.
When I arrived at Wash Park for the first time, I walked around one of the park’s paved bicycle paths for almost an hour before stumbling upon a fairy-tale looking tree on a patch of grass next to a lake that runs through the center of the park. Ever since I was a young girl, I have been fascinated by the beauty of trees. And this tree immediately got my attention because it was one of the most beautiful trees I had ever seen, ever. I have travelled extensively throughout the continental United States and have never seen a tree quite as beautiful as this one. And because I am a tree person, trees are one of the first things I notice whenever I visit a new area. Needless to say, I was overcome with pleasant emotions and sat down on an uncomfortable, cold, hard, old, rickety bench tucked nicely underneath this tree so that I could take it all in. As I sat there looking up at this beautiful tree and then across the lake, towards the snow-capped Rocky Mountains in the distance, a wave of comfort I have not felt since moving away from home flushed through me. It was an incredibly moving experience I will never forget.
I must have sat on that uncomfortable, cold, hard, old, rickety bench for a while because the sun eventually began to set upon the Rocky Mountains, which left a beautiful, mirrored reflection off the water five feet in front of me. As much as I did not want to leave, the looming darkness told me it was time to retreat for the evening. I reluctantly got up from the bench and began the long journey back to my car, which seemed like an eternity in that 160+ acre park. Thoughts of this beautiful tree ran through my mind the whole way back to my car and I could not wipe the smile off my face. If such a thing existed, I would say I had ‘perma-smile.’ When I did eventually reach my car, I told myself that I would return to that very same spot the next day. And I did. And I continued visiting the park and that very spot every week for almost a year.
So when it eventually came time to announce the site locations for our final research projects in Dr. Roy Wood’s qualitative research methods course, I knew without hesitation where I wanted to conduct my ethnography. I sat upright, raised my hand proudly, and with conviction announced to the class, ‘I would like to conduct an ethnography of Wash Park.’ I could not wait to begin conducting fieldwork. I thought I was clever—Now I have an excuse to visit Wash Park and my favorite spot on an even more frequent basis! Not that I needed an excuse, but having to conduct an ethnography of Wash Park legitimized my desire to be there as often as I wanted to. Over the next four months, I spent more than 15 hours each week conducting fieldwork from that uncomfortable, cold, hard, old, rickety bench. I observed people as they walked, ran, or rode by on one of the park’s paved bicycle paths and took copious fieldnotes in my journal. I was happy. I was comfortable. And I was confident in my choice of Wash Park as the site location for my final research project in Dr. Roy Wood’s qualitative research methods course.
One Year Later
Looking back now, I realize that choosing Wash Park as the site location for my final research project was problematic for several reasons. Even though my role had technically shifted from patron to researcher, I could not set aside or separate myself from the feelings I had developed as a patron in that space. Ryan Gildersleeve and Aaron Kuntz (2011) describe the concept of space as being, “a dynamic social concept,” that dwells in multiple meanings (p. 20). They write, “there are the material aspects of space—those surroundings we experience through our physiological senses. And, of course, there are the social meanings generated through our interactions with space” (Gildersleeve & Kuntz, p. 20). According to Gildersleeve and Kuntz, space is a dimension often ignored or misunderstood “in the analyses of daily/cultural practices that constitute human activity” (p. 20). However, they claim that “understanding space . . . is fundamental to understanding human activity” (Gildersleeve & Kuntz, p. 20). Because understanding space is fundamental to understanding human activity and because it is “a key element in the production of social power and power relations,” failing to consider issues of space and how my embodied experience as a researcher influenced my ethnography of Wash Park would have been very irresponsible (Gildersleeve & Kuntz, p. 20). Unfortunately, that is exactly what I did.
Because I could not set aside or separate myself from the feelings I had developed as a patron, my interpretations of and interactions with Wash Park were tainted from the day I chose it as the site location for my final research project. Yet I was naÔvely drawn to that space because of the way it made me feel; specifically, because of how I felt whenever I sat underneath my favorite tree on that uncomfortable, cold, hard, old, rickety bench overlooking Grasmere Lake. It was a powerful experience. And I would write to myself in my journal whenever I was in that space so that I could remember and re-live the experience when I left. The following poetry excerpt from my journal illuminates how this space appealed to my senses and reminded me of cherished memories of time spent with my family in Boston.
As Jane Hirshfield (1997) believes,
Poetry has the ability to clarify and magnify our human existence.
As she describes,
The process of discovery helps us learn something about ourselves
And the human condition,
Then let this poem be my chance to do just that.
Humans have a multitude of senses.
The five most basic senses being
Sight, Touch, Hearing, Smell, and Taste.
Clarify and magnify our human existence.
With or without them,
We learn more about ourselves
And the human condition.
My senses are fully engaged whenever I am in this space.
Closed, red eye lids.
This is what I see when I look up to the sky with my eyes tightly shut
Sitting on my favorite park bench overlooking Grasmere Lake.
I found this space,
This prized, special place
Early on in my sight observations
And it never disappoints.
In fact, I am drawn to this exact spot each time I visit Wash Park.
No, this word cannot and does not adequately describe what it is that keeps me coming back …
No, it is more like I yearn to be here,
In this space.
It is as if a higher power or gravitational force beyond my control
Pulls me back to this same spot with each visit.
I blame it on the senses.
With closed, red eye lids,
I feel the heat of the sun penetrating through me.
The warmth of the sun diminishes any lingering goose bumps on my legs
As a result of the chilling wind that swirls passed me on this pleasant autumn day.
Warmth, how I marvel in the sun’s warmth.
It makes this otherwise
Uncomfortable, cold, hard, old, rickety bench much more comfortable to sit on.
In fact, I could sit here for hours.
A long time has passed
Yet the sun continues to shine
And warm my body as the wind swirls around me.
I tune in to the sounds
And delight in what I hear:
People laughing in the distance,
And the wind whipping through the tree above me,
Picking up leaves on the ground by my feet,
And flinging them around me.
What pleasant sounds.
The sound of the wind is especially appealing.
If I had not known better,
I would have thought I was back home in Boston
Swinging in my parent’s hammock
Dangling under my favorite tree.
Trees throughout New England
Turn brilliant shades of orange, yellow, and red.
This particular tree becomes candy apple red.
It was my favorite tree
And it was something I looked forward to each year during autumn when I lived in Boston.
Now that I am here,
I realize how much I have missed that special tree,
And the pleasant memories I had of being in the comfort of my parents’ yard.
But I remember them.
Even though it has been almost nine years since I first left ‘home,’
I hold these memories dear to my heart.
Isn’t memory one of the human senses?
If not, it should be.
Even with closed, red eye lids,
I would marvel at my favorite tree’s splendor
Every time I lay in my parent’s hammock
Because of the sounds that permeate from it.
When the wind would sweep through their back yard,
The most magnificent orchestra ever composed could be heard.
Sounds of whistling and howling filled the air.
There was never a need for wind chimes.
Why would there be?
There was a live orchestra of nature playing in their back yard.
All you had to do was step out their back porch
And you could hear it for yourself.
And the smell.
Let’s not forget the smell.
Oh! The smell of autumn.
Mmmm the fresh, crisp smell that I cannot adequately express
Or put into words.
The glorious smell that lingers in the autumn air
Throughout the months of September, October, and November.
How I used to love sleeping with my window wide open as a child.
It was as if I was intoxicated by the smell
That the passing breeze would fling through my window.
It was like a drug to me.
I could never get enough.
I still can’t get enough.
Sitting on this park bench,
With closed eyes, red eye lids,
Similar feelings race back to me.
And it is as if this space,
This prized, special place,
Has become an antidote for previous memories of my childhood back ‘home’ during autumn,
Laying in my parent’s hammock,
Under my favorite candy apple red tree.
Memories I must still cherish and hold dear to my heart as an adult.
Otherwise, why would I bother to write about them now?
After a few moments of reflection,
I gradually open my eyes
And take a long, deep breath.
The air tastes fresh and crisp,
Just like the smell.
Just like you learned in Bikram Yoga:
“In through the nose,
Out through the nose.”
My eyes wander to the ground beside me
Where I am unknowingly accompanied by
Squirrels, birds, and chipmunks.
They frantically scurry across the ground
And away from the bench when I move my feet slightly.
Although company would be nice,
I do not blame them.
I must seem so big and scary to them.
In a matter of seconds, I am alone again.
I take this time to revel in the peace and tranquility I feel
Whenever I am in this space,
This prized, special place.
I look across Grasmere Lake one final time,
Over the aspen trees in the distance,
Passed their golden yellow leaves,
To the sun descending upon the snow capped Rocky Mountains.
And with a sigh,
I close my eyes,
Look up to the sky behind closed, red eye lids,
Feel the uncomfortable, cold, hard, old, rickety bench beneath me,
Take a long, deep breath of fresh, crisp air,
And promise myself to return soon
So I can do it all over again.
So that I can feel this way again.
As a frequent patron of Wash Park, I was helplessly drawn to this fairy-tale looking tree and the uncomfortable, cold, hard, old, rickety bench underneath it. They become sources of comfort for me. They were symbolic of home. And whenever I was in that space, I could pretend, even if for just a moment, that I was back in Boston again with my family, sitting in my parents’ yard during autumn. I enjoyed being in that space and was comfortable because I did not have to think. I did not have to study. I could just sit there, on that uncomfortable, cold, hard, old, rickety bench, write to myself in my journal, and let my mind drift away, which is a luxury I do not normally have as a graduate student.
What was I thinking?
Yet it is these feelings of comfort and a lack of thinking that got me into this mess. It has been more than a year since I completed my ethnography for Dr. Wood’s class and I cannot help but feel as though I was completely naÔve in my assessment of Wash Park—What was I thinking? Why did I choose Wash Park as the site location for my final research project in the first place? Because I was comfortable there? Because it reminded me of my childhood? How was that being a responsible researcher? How could I separate myself from that space and the memories I had developed there? The answer was simple—I could not and this is reflected in the ethnography I conducted for Dr. Wood’s qualitative research methods course.
Rather than conducting responsible research as an ethnographer at Wash Park, I spent most of my time observing and writing on that uncomfortable, cold, hard, old, rickety bench without thinking about what was going on around me. I did not move around; I sat in that same spot day-after-day. I made observations and took copious fieldnotes, as Dr. Wood instructed, but did not stop and reflect upon what I was seeing. Charmaz (2006) writes that as researchers, we are “obligated to be reflexive about what we bring to the scene, what we see, and how we see it” (p. 15). According to Charmaz, reflexivity involves “the researcher’s scrutiny of his or her research experience, decisions, and interpretations in ways that bring the researcher into the process and allow the reader to assess how and to what extent the researcher’s interests, positions, and assumptions influenced inquiry” (p. 188). I was not reflexive in the ethnography I wrote for Dr. Roy Wood’s class by any stretch of the imagination. I did not stop and reflect upon myself and how my positionality influenced my interpretations of and interactions with that space. Positionality involves reflecting upon one’s own position in relation to research, with the implication that one’s position influences aspects of their research, such as the types of information they collect to the ways in which information is interpreted (Wolf, 1996). Feminist scholar Diane Wolf (1996) claims that positionality and reflexivity are intertwined and involve thinking about how one’s own position influences fieldwork. Instead of being reflexive and considering how my positionality influenced my fieldwork at Wash Park, I did not metaphorically look beyond that space; specifically, the uncomfortable, cold, hard, old, rickety bench underneath and my favorite fairy-tale looking tree above it. I was comfortable, too comfortable, and this is reflected in my ethnography.
What I did do in my ethnography was paint a very nice picture of Wash Park by talking flatteringly about the park’s beautiful flower gardens and the people and dogs. I wrote about how exceptional the flower gardens are at Wash Park and how many people they attract to the park each day as well as how staff and maintenance work tirelessly to maintain and protect them from critters and unwanted pests (e.g., rabbits, geese). I wrote about how beautiful and athletic people are and how they look like models in fitness magazines. I joked about how often I had to remind myself that I was at a public park rather than at a photo shoot for Sports Illustrated and not to ask the Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie look-alikes I saw for their autographs. I even wrote about how beautiful the dogs are and how they were some of the most beautiful dogs I have ever seen.
My depiction of Wash Park’s flower gardens, people, and dogs was accurate but superficial. I wrote my ethnography from the perspective of how Wash Park made me feel rather than how it could potentially make others feel. Maybe this is because deep down I knew how it made others feel but did not want to admit it to myself. As irresponsible as it was at the time, I was comfortable at Wash Park and resented the thought of feeling differently about a space I had grown so fond of. So I wrote my ethnography as I saw Wash Park. More important, I wrote as I wanted other people to see Wash Park.
Yet there are signs, lots of signs, at Wash Park that warrant critique and cannot be ignored if I want to be taken seriously as a researcher and person with integrity. I recently read a wonderful piece by Sofia Villenas’ (1996) and took what she said to heart when she wrote that, “as ethnographers, we are also like colonizers when we fail to question our own identities and privileged positions, and the ways in which our writings perpetuate ‘othering'” (p. 715). I do not want to be a colonizer. And I certainly do not want my writing to contribute to the perpetuation of ‘othering.’ So, using Villenas’ (1996) words as motivation, I decided to write this reflective essay on my experiences as a patron and researcher at Wash Park. This meant going back and re-reading through all of my personal journal entries and fieldnotes since September, 2010. As I did this, I would reflect upon myself, positionality, and privileged as a white, educated, middle- to upper-class women raised in the United States. For the first time, I stopped and reflected upon the reasons why I chose Wash Park as the site location for my final research project, which is something I have avoided for more than a year. Although this process involved several months of open and honest reflection, I have since developed a more realistic understanding of what I believe Wash Park is rather than what I portrayed in my ethnography.
So where does this leave me now? Well, as I previously mentioned, there are signs, lots of signs, at Wash Park that warrant attention because they suggest something significant is going on in that space. Although I did not address any of these signs in the ethnography I wrote of Wash Park more than a year ago, I will now that I realize these flaws in my original assessment.
Signs, signs, everywhere there are signs
“Sign, sign, everywhere a sign. Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” I could not get these Five Man Electrical Band’s lyrics out of my head as I re-read through my personal journal entries and fieldnotes of Wash Park. When I stopped and thought about my experiences both as a patron and as a researcher, I realized that signs of privilege are everywhere at Wash Park. The most obvious signs of privilege include the strollers young families push their children in, the clothes people wear, the accessories they tote, the bicycles they ride, and their dogs, yes, even their dogs. During a trip around one of the park’s paved paths as a researcher, I noted in my fieldnotes that several women were wearing expensive sunglasses (e.g., Gucci, Prada, Chanel), toting large, designer purses (e.g., Louis Vuitton, Coach) and pushing their children in expensive strollers (e.g., BOB). On another trip, I noted that a group of men were riding bicycles typically seen in the Tour de France (e.g., Cannondale) whereas an elderly couple was riding Segways around the park. During other trips to the park, I noted that several people had expensive purebred dogs (e.g., German Shepherds, Poodles, Golden Retrievers) or expensive mixed dog breeds (e.g., Maltipoos, Goldendoodles, and Labradoodles dogs), which I found peculiar but did not critique and explore further.
As I reflected upon these notes and thought about my own privilege, I thought back to how I first learned about Wash Park. I had been told by locals and several of my colleagues, most of whom are white and privileged in other ways, that one of the ‘best’ areas to live in Denver was the neighborhood of Wash Park. Interestingly, I came to learn that it is also one of the most expensive. According to neighborhood expert Larry Hotz, the median income for residents is $165,428 dollars, which falls within the top 99th percentile for both State Income and National Income Rankings (2009). The average income increases significantly for households with children to $345, 867 dollars, which also scores within the top 99th percentile for both State Income and National Income Rankings (Hotz). These figures coincide with the cost of real estate in the Wash Park area. According to Hotz, real estate in and around Wash Park can range anywhere from $300,000 to $1.2 million dollars. Not only are people wealthy and homes expensive, but more than 87% of Wash Park residents have college degrees or post-graduate degrees and approximately 75% hold Professional or Managerial occupations (Hotz).
Because our society has created circumstances whereby most people who are wealthy, highly-educated, and hold prestigious occupations are white, most of the people you see in and around the Wash Park neighborhood are, indeed, white. In fact, it is uncommon to see people who are not white, which has resulted in a largely homogeneous population in and around the park. During a trip around one of Wash Park’s paved bicycle paths, I noted in my fieldnotes that there were only 30 people on the path who were of different racial and ethnic origins compared to hundreds of people who were white. Similarly, I have just recently noticed that most people in and around the Wash Park neighborhood are also predominantly white. The only times I see people in and around the Wash Park area who are not white is when I am dining or shopping and most of the time these people are waiters or work staff, which makes my blood boil. However, the lack of diversity in and around the Wash Park neighborhood is quite drastic considering its close proximity to downtown Denver. Although the city of Denver is largely homogenous compared to other major cities, what you see at Wash Park is more akin to what one would expect to find at a public park in a suburban community rather than in an urban environment. With this in mind, I decided to research the park’s history to see if I could figure out why there is such a lack of diversity at Wash Park.
I learned that Wash Park grew out of the “City Beautiful” movement that swept across the country in the early 20th century (Tryba, 2007), which may very well account for the park’s homogenous culture. During the early 20th century, major cities across the United States had experienced exponential growth due to increased birth rates and immigration. Civic leaders and politicians vowed that such growth was a significant problem that needed to be fixed because it would eventually lead to the ‘decay’ and ‘demoralization’ of urban communities (Tryba). The very language that was used to frame problems associated with increases in urban growth is troubling because it suggests that such growth is bad and should be met with resistance. Supporters of the “City Beautiful” movement claimed that the solution to increases in urban growth was nationwide beautification projects that promoted beauty for the sake of social harmony. Suggesting that increases in urban growth warrant beautification efforts and that social harmony had somewhat been disrupted is also problematic and reflects sentiments often expressed in response to changes that threaten to disrupt the status quo. Simply speaking, those who are in positions of power wish to remain there. Therefore, following the lead of other major cities, then Mayor Robert Speer of Denver devised a plethora of urban beautification plans that he felt would “distinguish Denver from other dusty, poorly organized frontier towns” and transform the city into the “‘Paris of the West'” (Tryba, 2007, p. 1).
Although Mayor Speer may not have been able to transform the city of Denver into an exact replication of Paris, he came close through his creation of Wash Park and what has become one of the most exclusive public parks in all of Denver. Wash Park is simply not like other public parks. Instead, it is more akin to a public park one would expect to find in a suburban community rather than an urban environment. Unlike other public parks, Wash Park is embedded with homogeneity and signs of privilege. This is evident in the demographic and socioeconomic breakdown of Wash Park and its surrounding neighborhood. Having originally ignored these elements and how they overlap and combine to create a ‘playground’ for the socially elite to flaunt their privilege was very irresponsible.
When I look back at my naïve self and reflect upon my decision in choosing Wash Park as the site location for my final research project, I realize how much has changed since then. The zeal and pride I felt on the day I announced my site location in Dr. Wood’s qualitative research methods course has been almost completely stripped away and replaced with embarrassment and a heavy heart. Who was I kidding? Of course it was easy for me to feel safe and comfortable at Wash Park. I was privileged. I was an educated, white, American woman, reared in the middle to upper-class, receiving my Ph.D. from a prestigious university on an academic scholarship. Life has been easy for me. But this was not true for many people I love and hold dear to my heart. Since beginning this reflective essay, I have asked myself over and over again—What does that space do to them that it does not do to me? How does my own privilege influence my interpretations of and interactions with Wash Park?
Since asking myself these questions, I have struggled with my decision in choosing a place such as Wash Park as the site location for my final research project. Yet I brought all of this upon myself. I chose Wash Park when I could have picked somewhere else, anywhere else. How could I have been so irresponsible? The following poetry excerpt from my journal depicts the emotions raging in my heart after realizing that I had wronged many people I love and hold dear to my heart by failing to recognize that Wash Park is an exclusive space that turns its back on them.
I do not know where to start.
I do not know what to do.
But I find comfort in writing
So that is what I will do for now.
Write from the heart,
As Dr. Wood would tell us.
But will this even help?
Will it fix anything?
And make everything OK?
Is there really any point to it all?
My mind is spinning.
My heart is racing,
Not to mention aching.
I feel like someone has sucker punched me in the gut
And knocked the wind out of me.
Oh, it hurts.
But I deserve it.
All of it,
Including the nausea and dizziness.
I am angry with myself.
No, I am disappointed.
I feel terrible.
How could I have been so blind?
How could I have been so foolish?
Was I lying to myself?
Trying to ignore things I did not want to accept
Was I being stubborn again?
Irish women are notorious for being stubborn.
My stubbornness was inexcusable
Especially under these circumstances.
I could not forgive myself.
Because I had cherished a space
That stood for intolerance,
And so many other things I claim to stand against.
A space that turns its back on the very people I love
And hold dear to my heart
Because of what it represents.
Wash Park turns its back on people like my beloved, immigrant brother in-law,
My former Haitian and Puerto Rican students,
And my gay and lesbian friends,
All of whom face insurmountable obstacles, intolerance, and social injustice every day.
I cannot begin to understand what they have been through.
The many struggles they have endured.
And what they will continue to be subjected to for the rest of their lives.
I have never and will never walk a day in their shoes.
They will be the constant targets of intolerance by a culture that ignores them
And privileges people like me.
And I am part of this oppressive system because of who I am:
A white, educated, middle-class woman, born and raised in the United States.
How could I have contributed to their sufferings by failing to see,
Failing to acknowledge,
Failing to admit,
That Wash Park purports a privileged, exclusive culture that turns its back on them?
They are not in positions of power.
They are not privileged like me.
They are victims of an oppressive sociopolitical structure
That is deeply rooted in Wash Park’s problematic history.
By succumbing to my own naivety,
My own ignorance,
I turned my back on them too.
I betrayed them.
So as I sit here
And reflect on why I chose Wash Park as the site location for my final research project,
I choose to write again.
But this time,
I choose to write from the heart
And attempt to right the wrongs I have done.
Because I owed it to them then,
And I owe it to them now.
Despite the shame I still feel as I sit here and write this essay, I resist the urge to completely blame myself for choosing a site location such as Wash Park for my final research project. This is because I believe I fell prey to what many people are guilty of doing in life—I was chasing a memory; more specifically, I was suffering from nostalgia. Dickinson (2006) describes nostalgia as being “a particular species of memory” which is ” marked by an often bittersweet emotion of longing for a lost, better, simpler, and securer past, and is a memory that is often deeply connected to comforting spaces—in particular “home” (p. 217). Like Dickinson suggested, I too experienced nostalgia “as a direct response to the ease with which we ‘lose our place in time,'” and found comfort in a postmodern space, in this case, a public park, because they “locate individuals within a cherished past and familiar place” (Dickinson, p. 217).
I was helplessly drawn to Wash Park because of the way it made me feel; specifically, because it reminded me of a time and place I was so fond of. It reminded me of ‘home,’ which needless to say was not in Denver, Colorado. I did not want to admit what was really going on at Wash Park because I was afraid of losing what I searched so hard to find—feelings of ‘home.’ Yet I did not believe home was “a particular place that one inhabits, but more than one place” (Ahmed, 2000, p. 76). To me, ‘home’ did not necessarily mean being back in Boston at the physical residence of my parents but being in a place where nostalgic memories of my childhood with my family could exist. And in that space at Wash Park, they do not just exist, they thrive.
Before moving to Denver, Colorado, I lived in Florida for seven years and I hated it. Why? Because autumn does not exist there, at least not in the way that it does in New England. Autumn was always my favorite season and something I looked forward to each year. So when I was offered a scholarship to my university, I was overwhelmed with joy thinking that I could finally be somewhere that had four seasons, including my favorite. My exuberance was confirmed when I found that fairy-tale looking tree and the uncomfortable, hard, cold, old, rickety bench underneath it at Wash Park. That particular space offers picturesque views of the Rocky Mountains and of the beautiful, golden aspen trees in the distance. For the first time in several years, I found a space that reminded me of home. But in doing so, I neglected my responsibilities as a responsible researcher, which is why I write this essay now.
Since writing this reflective essay, I have thought a lot about myself and to what extent it is okay to pursue cherished memories such as these. In my case, I shut out the world and ignored what was going on around me in pursuit of cherished memories of my childhood. I did not own up to my responsibilities as a researcher by being reflexive about what I was bringing to the scene, what I was seeing, and how I was seeing it (Charmaz, 2006). Dickinson, Ott, and Aoki (2005) suggest that this can occur when people visit spaces that remind them of previously lived memories. Yet this does not pardon my lack of reflexivity. I let nostalgic memories of my childhood interfere with my responsibilities as a researcher and failed to think critically about the space I was interacting with. It was not until I read the work of Villenas (1996) that I realized I was perpetuating ‘othering’ by failing to question my identity, positionality, and privileged position as an educated, white, American woman, reared in the middle to upper-class, receiving my Ph.D. from a prestigious university on an academic scholarship. And now, almost two years after visiting Wash Park for the first time as a patron, I deeply regret not having engaged with my site location more critically as a researcher. Nevertheless, these errors have taught me valuable lessons about what it means to conduct responsible research that I may not have learned if I had not made mistakes along the way.
It has been almost two years since I visited Washington Park or Wash Park in Denver, Colorado as a patron for the first time. I grew quite fond of Wash Park of how the space made me feel; specifically, because a fairy-tale looking tree and an uncomfortable, cold, hard, old, rickety bench tucked underneath it reminded me of home. Whenever I sat on that uncomfortable, cold, hard, old, rickety bench tucked underneath my favorite fairy-tale looking tree, I was transported back to a time a place I was so fond of—my childhood, where I would sit for hours in my parents’ yard in Boston during autumn under my favorite childhood tree. But, in doing so, I neglected my responsibilities as a researcher by failing to think critically about what was going on around me in that space. I focused so much on how Wash Park made me feel that I ignored how it could potentially make others feel. However, re-reading through all of my fieldnotes and reflecting upon my identity, how I see myself, and my privileged position, have led me to view Wash Park very differently than I had before I began this reflective essay. In these ways, my interpretations of Wash Park have shifted dramatically over the past two years from a place of comfort to a place characterized by exclusion and privilege. After much reflection, I realize that signs of privilege are everywhere at Wash Park and that, together, these signs uphold a culture which is unwelcoming for people who are not white, rich, and well-educated.
I have also come to realize that Wash Park’s perpetuation of privilege may be a direct result of the park’s history. Efforts once begun in the early 20th century under the “City Beautiful” movement may explain why Wash Park has become more than a public park where residents of Denver can go to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Instead, it has become a space for the socially elite to flaunt their privilege. So what do these findings suggest about the sociopolitical purpose of public parks? Although this reflective essay focuses exclusively on my experiences one year after conducting an ethnographer of Wash Park in Denver, Colorado, the findings suggest that civic leaders and politicians may develop urban beautification efforts (e.g., public parks) in response to perceived threats to the status quo. Other parks, in addition to Wash Park, may have been built out of the belief that increased growth would eventually lead to the ‘decay’ and ‘demoralization’ of urban communities. Civic leaders and politicians in other cities across the country may have instilled fear in the public in similar ways by framing increased growth as a significant problem and urban beautification efforts (e.g., Wash Park) as the logical solution.
This is significant considering the prevalence of public parks in the United States. As our country continues to grow and more and more public parks are built, will similar movements be initiated in order to prevent the ‘decay’ and ‘demoralization’ of urban communities? In 2007, then President of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), Denver chapter, David Tryba, wrote in a speak out submission to members: “It is time to renew our commitment to public stewardship, to care for our inheritance of the legacy of the City Beautiful movement and to reinterpret the City Beautiful for the 21st century” (p. 1). Will Tryba’s call to reinterpret the City Beautiful movement for the 21st century lead to the creation of more public parks like Wash Park? Or could his call encourage civic leaders, politicians, and members of the community to come together and bring about positive social change by transforming Wash Park and other public domains that were erected out of the City Beautiful movement into spaces that are welcoming for everyone, particularly those marginalized by hegemony? Answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this reflective essay but raise important questions about the symbolic purpose of public parks for scholars to consider.
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