The Picnic: Public Parks and the Shape of Communication
For most of my life I’ve been oblivious to the presence of public parks. That’s not to say ignorant of their existence. I spent much of my youth playing in the parks of central New York, hiking through forested land along glens and gorges, walking along the shores of the Finger Lakes and swimming in the springs and basins where cool water pools under the hot summer sun.
For me, these places just were. I never took pause to consider their creation (or destruction), never contemplated their purpose or the fact that someone had to advocate for their conception and continued existence. These were public places we’d visit on weekends. They existed on the outskirts of villages and towns. Their lawns were scattered with families picnicking or playing ball, barbequing in the afternoon heat as sounds of music and laughter filled the air. There was space here; physical yes, but mental too. Space to breathe, to think, to allow us to be present.
Many of these areas were state or county parks, sites protected from private development and encroachment by corporate interests. Many had been established and preserved in the wake of World War I. They often came in the form of gifts or endowments made to the public by wealthy families in the region. Their infrastructure was later emboldened by Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which created many of the trails and walkways that continue to exist into the present day.
Even later when I moved to New York City, I often found myself trekking to parks whenever I had a free moment. Prospect Park, Orchard Beach, Untermyer, Fort Tryon. There was a different air there, people were friendlier, more relaxed. The parks offered an escape from the intensity of the city, a slight respite from its urban landscape. Park-goers came with picnic blankets, chairs, radios and coolers, temporarily claiming a small portion of these very public areas to do as they pleased. They arrived to see and be seen, each individual or group creating their own space, building a wall-less world where they might pass an hour, or day in leisure.
Over time I began to wonder about these spaces and the people who used them. Who were they and why were they drawn here? How did they delineate public and private? What was the purpose of these pubic spaces and who was allotted access? How did the physical layout of the space work to curate certain emotions and interactions?
It wasn’t until the 19th century that urban elites first began to advocate for public parks in American cities. Not unlike their European counterparts, they wished to beautify the cityscape and provide for the cultural enlightenment of the working classes. Early supporters included the likes of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted is particularly well known for introducing the first large-scale urban parks to America. His works include Central Park, Prospect Park and Tompkins Square amongst nearly 70 others.
Olmsted campaigned for parks based on their restorative and calming qualities and their benefits to social cohesion. He believed parks could, "Inspire communal feelings among all urban classes, muting resentments over disparities of wealth and fashion." And that their scenery would, "More directly assist the poor and degraded to elevate themselves," and "divert men from unwholesome, vicious, destructive methods and habits of seeking recreation." He sought to create spaces that would exist in contrast to the pace of daily urban life. They would exist to uplift and relax, but also would simultaneously serve to shift urban tendencies to align with the values and tastes of the elite classes.
Neighborhoods in urban America were exceptionally stratified at that time, and these public spaces often provided the sole source of non-work place interaction between classes. Many early advocates and developers of public parks saw this intersection as an opportunity to exercise social control.
In her essay, Central Park as a Model for Social Control: Urban Parks, Social Class and Leisure Behavior in Nineteenth-Century America, environmental sociologist Doceta E. Taylor explains, “By controlling how, when, and where many parks were provided; the distribution of parks; their size, layout, and management; the middle class could supervise the working class in their non-work hours and attempt to control their behavior…. To this end, Central Park was designed to maximize desired behavior and limit or eliminate undesirable ones. The park was heavily monitored and supervised and "bad" behavior was punished by arrests and fines. Although the park was promoted as one serving all the classes, Central Park and others like it were built to accommodate the interest and desires of the middle class. The working class and the poor were forced to abide by middle class mores in order to use these parks.” Access to these parks was a “privilege,” as granted by the governing body considering that the public meet specific conditions and acquiesce to certain modes of behavior. Who was meant to be included?
In practice, the term “public” does not lend itself to inclusion. It is only recently in American history that concepts of citizenship have broadened and there are still many groups who continue to be disenfranchised. By delineating which members of society make up the so-called public, and are allotted access to public spaces, a certain degree of behavioral control may be exercised over society as a whole. Public spaces provide a unique opportunity for the public to see itself, in the sense of measuring acceptable conduct against that of other social actors. This setting encourages conformity. The park operates as a self-regulatory mechanism in the most basic Foucauldian sense by imposing specific types of behaviors and interactions to reinforce certain norms and uphold social stability. Privacy is almost entirely nullified. The activities of each individual or group are on display to the greater public. The space is panoptic in this regard. This stage creates an awareness of self out of its communal-surveillance. Individuals choose how they will portray themselves with this platform.
Public spaces work to corral behavior and interaction in a number of additional ways. Authorities fine or arrest those who commit unacceptable acts. Many parks undergo periods of “cleansing,” the removal of homeless people and others deemed degenerate. There are closing times, designated entryways and exits. Lists of rules and posted signs indicate activities that are and are not permitted, and certain facilities are reserved for teams, or members of clubs that require yearly dues (ie. baseball fields, tennis courts etc.).
The physical design of urban parks plays into this effect. These spaces are not passive; their layout is very intentional. Each element is considered, whether to produce a certain emotion, attract a specific demographic of people or curate a specific type of interaction.
Olmsted spoke of the park as a work of art in this sense. Each detail was intended to provoke a response on the human mind. He placed emphasis on maintaining the absence of distractions and demands on the consciousness. He called this the “unconscious influence of scenery.” Historian Charles E. Beveridge explains, “[Olmsted] always insisted on the subordination of details to an overall composition whose strongest and fullest effect was to act unconsciously on those who viewed it. He vigilantly guarded against distracting elements that would intrude on the consciousness of the observer.” The components of the park, according to Olmsted’s theory, are intended to exert influence on the actors within without their recognition. This begs the question, “To what extent does spatial arrangement influence human thought and interaction?”
In the urban setting, a park’s design may be intended to create the illusion of nature, to conceal the cityscape or transport the visitor from life outside. The flora is carefully selected; the walkways, ponds and groves are placed at measured distances and the land itself is tilled in a deliberate manner. The physical layout of space is inherently tied to what occurs within. The flow of foot traffic, the places where people choose to sit, the amount of privacy that is accorded or the types of group recreation that may occur. The facilities present determine which activities will be possible and which demographics of people are being appealed to.
However, it is significant to note that the design may only encourage, it does not command. It falls to the public to interact as they see fit. The public interacts with design elements, appropriating and repurposing them at will. Parks have unintentionally become assembly grounds for political movements, havens for the homeless or nighttime meeting places for social and sexual deviants. Often, they will inevitably became gathering places for the poor and working class to the cramped living quarters in overly dense cities.
At certain historical moments, these spaces have become suddenly contested, conflicts arising over appropriate park use and behavior. The People’s Park in Berkeley and Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan offer prime examples. The physical spaces themselves are in constant flux, at mercy to the norms, whims and standards of the time, as are the ways the ways in which people choose to act, to interact, to feel and communicate within them.
The Picnic stemmed from my interest in public spaces and a desire to consider the broader socio-political and spatial contexts of these spaces. I seek to understand the way space shapes dialogue, interaction and emotion, how physical design elements are used in this context and the outcomes that they ultimately produce.
The images that follow were created in the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo, Japan. Shinjuku Gyoen was initially constructed in 1906 as an imperial garden belonging to the Naito family. Much of the garden was destroyed during World War II, and its jurisdiction was transferred to the Ministry of Health and Welfare in 1947. Two years later it opened to the public as Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and now exists under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Environment.
Shinjuku Gyoen is the first site in an ongoing series. I chose this location because of its aesthetic appeal. The beauty and thought are unparalleled in America’s public parks and gardens today. It takes the idea of a curated landscape to its extreme and epitomizes the notion of the natural within an urban landscape. Shinjuku Gyoen has an entrance charge of 200 yen ($2 USD). This fee surely impacts the demographic of visitors to the park.
In choosing this location, I realize the inherent dynamic that exists. As an outsider, I act as a voyeur observing a culture that is foreign to me. Certain intricacies will certainly be lost upon me. The power dynamic that exists between photographer and subject must not be disregarded in this sense, and is amplified by my social and ethnic background as a white, American male.
The Picnic explores the intersection of public and private against the backdrop of the park. It examines the ways people interact with these public spaces, the way people create a private sphere within these public spaces, the way they portray themselves to the world. It considers the purpose of the space, their exclusivity, and the ways architecture works to reflect and affect social norms, and shape communication.
what's your point?
tip of the arrow, top of the tongue
what’s your point?
is it even an acute degree?
i don’t believe it’s sharp enough to pierce the source
but then again i know i play the doubtful because i love to see you relish in the golden underdog place
and watch yourself gain when
you prove me wrong again
A Conversation with Jahmal B. Golden
Jahmal B. Golden is a NY-based poet and performer. They are the curator of Fox Wedding, a reading and performance series, and author of Yves, Ides, Solstice, a collection of poems published in 2017 by Easy Village Publishing.
Jahmal and I made plans to meet outside the Prospect Park subway station on a hot July morning. We’d met at a reading a few months prior and had been tossing around the idea of a doing an interview ever since. Jahmal arrives dressed in white, a few minutes late, and we begin to make our way through the park. It takes us a good 45-minutes to settle on a suitable place to do the interview, a grassy hilltop overlooking a large open field. We sit in the shade and begin.
At the release for Yves, Ide, Solstice, you mentioned that you’ve been reading some of the poems in the book for quite a while now. Have they evolved over that time?
I think that at the book launch I mentioned that because it was getting to a point where I’d compiled those poems rather quickly and I spent a lot of time editing. Some of the poems are things that I wrote—for example like “Moonstruck.” I read it at another reading and it sounded completely different. It was just a completely different poem.
I guess more of the challenge with this book was editing and refining things to a quality that was like more ‘now’ for me. I had to kind of—in a way modernize everything. But there are also poems in it that are brand new.
Did you know when you were writing these poems that you were like writing them to be part of a book, or was it something you realized later on in the process?
When Kaps (Alex Kapsidelis) proposed it, I liked the idea of it because I’d been writing for years. So to answer your question, no, I didn’t know it was going to be in a book. I just write very profusely and I edit very frantically. Sometimes I have a moment, or a few days where I can’t get some of the work that I’ve written out of my head and then I just kind of sit with it and fine tune it. So an excuse to stop doing that was to get them published. Like I said, some of the poems are really old and I was like, “Okay, one last edit.”
What would you say the book is about? I know that’s a hard question to answer…
It totally is. I knew you were going to ask that and I was on the train like, “What the fuck is this book about?”
I mean, I don’t necessarily think that a book has to be about a specific thing, but I was curious as to what your take on it would be.
Well, I guess the easiest way—people ask what the triptych is about and why that’s so central to this sort of narrative. It was mostly that the character Yves in my life and the main voice in the book. They put a lot of pressure on the Trinity, the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, or whatever. I have negated Christianity in a lot of ways especially in my work and so there’s still part of me that holds onto that mythology.
Were you raised Christian?
Not raised Christian, but in proximity to Christianity always. My grandmother and all of her immediate family, my mother was definitely the black sheep of our family by not participating in Christianity at all. So I grew up really under her. I would go to church when my grandmother had me, which was very often, but I knew I could keep a separation from it. It made me think really hard about specific images and tropes in the Bible and so I always liked the idea of this Trinity and that there was some sort of wholeness there.
Threes have always followed me in a weird way. But this particular triptych was like—can you canonize love in a way? Can you apply or fuse the Spirit of what you think is holy and what love means to you? Yves was the last part of it because Yves is kind of like the completion, but Yves is like the beginning and the end, as Yves are literally. And then the Solstice—that whole chapter is in the beginning. Whenever I think about the Solstice I think about this looming daylight and I think about the summer solstice.
One of the poems in the first piece ends with, “My days are made of this.” And so that whole part is just dealing with the fact that your life is what your life is made of, and what it looks like under a spotlight. Then the middle, Ide, is this wavering omen of like, “Is it coming to an end?” or “Did you miss what was just beginning for you?” I guess if were to say what the book is about, it’s about going from being sure about love, to being unsure in love, to kind of giving up love.
Do you think they reflect the things that have happened to you in your life?
In a way, yeah. I’m really thankful for my experiences with intimacy, but these are kind of like my confessions, it’s like confessing the things that I don’t want to ever say to people in particular.
How does the phrase “Be Holy,” tie into your writing?
“Be Holy” started with another weird triptych. My father used to say, “Peace, perfect peace,” or he’d put a P and a small 3 next to it and that was like his holy mantra or whatever. Little things like that stick with you as a kid. These threes meant a lot to me. I was always thinking about what was holy and how to claim it. So when I was younger also I thought it was really clever to say “Be Golden,” because my name is Jahmal Golden.
And actually the first book I ever compiled was when I was eleven. I compiled the book, laid it out and made my Mom help me print it and get it bound. It was called “Be Golden.” I thought that if there was going to be a next chapter, it had to be “Be Holy.” [laughs]
Traditionally speaking, you have this narrative of the writer as a solitary person who spends a lot of time alone, but you seem to be like very social. How does the writing community and the performative aspect of your art and play into the writing process?
I do spend a lot of time alone. More time than people suspect. But as far as writing goes, I tend to reflect a lot of what I’ve written about and experiment with it in performance art. That’s my relation to performance in writing.
As a writing community –I feel like it’s very separated and very fragmented around New York. I oftentimes don’t even feel like I’m a part of the writing community. There are a lot of poets that I really admire, but I pretty much shut down the Fox Wedding for a lot of reasons, and it will come back, but right now, I needed a break from that too.
That’s interesting because I was going to ask if you felt like there is a strong sense of community here and if it pushed you in certain ways.
It became very self-serving to people. There are a lot of people who had never read in public and that was what I was hoping to foster. I realized that people were really only coming and participating so that they could hear themselves or that they could be heard. There’s nothing really wrong with that. It just wasn’t what I wanted, I wanted a community. It turned me into a more critical person. And then I was like, “I don’t like this relationship to poetry in particular because it means so much to me.”
I think it’s good to have a critical take, especially of community because it’s very easy to get caught up in these circles and kind of like lose track of why everyone’s there.
Right, it was really that the message was being lost and the point was the poetry but I also really wanted to bring people together in a way where it wasn’t just queer. It certainly wasn’t just going to be gay at all. I didn’t want it to be a lot of this cis versus trans bullshit that I experienced at some of the later readings and parties I was doing.
There was a few times where I just caught myself so upset the end of a reading. It also had a lot to do with the spaces that I was using, doing a reading in a place where people can have alcohol and that anyone can be in there. It opened a lot of people to certain risks.
As far as it not being as safe of a space because anyone can show up?
Well I liked that quality. But also people being drunk and hostile or defensive, or just too reactive. It became really hard for me. I think another reason why people think that I’m very sociable is that I don’t box myself into a corner with who I associate with most. I’m not only hanging out with other trans people. I’m not only hanging out with Black people. I am not trying to only hang out with cis white men or anything like that. I just have a lot of people from all over that I think I can meld with, that I can assume there can be some sort of mutual respect that we don’t even have to discuss my intersectional existence all the time.
It must take a certain level of confidence to live that way.
It’s not really confidence. I just realized that I didn’t want to live in a way where I couldn’t be everywhere. I’m fully aware of the fact that spatially I can’t be everywhere. I’m fully aware that I can’t just exist in certain parts of America or Europe or anywhere really. That’s just unsafe entirely for me, but I was like in New York? I want to know everybody and I want to be able to communicate my interests with like-minded people regardless of how I present to them. But as I said, organizing and doing more event planning stuff, I realized that that is actually something that you can do. It’s just a lot harder.
Especially when you’re the one who’s mediating it and bringing all these different types of people together.
Exactly. I had to answer to everyone, anyone who ever felt like a victim, anyone who was offended, anyone who just had something to say.
Did you feel like there were constructive things that came out of it?
Absolutely. There are people who I know would not talk at all, there are people who would never have come into contact with each other if not for in that circle. I mean, hello, I solidified my book at one of my readings. I’m really happy that some people get to see my true colors as far as how I felt about censorship in some of those readings, I knew that sometimes it was going to be hard, but I was definitely not going to tolerate censorship on behalf of an audience or a community.
What do you mean by censorship?
Censoring someone’s work. In particular, like reacting to someone’s work as if it didn’t deserve to be read or heard. I started this reading the day after Trump was elected. I was fully aware that there was going to be a lot of things said in this space that I wasn’t going to be able to control things that obviously needed to be said and heard.
I had a few people at certain points ask, “Who are all these cis men reading at this reading series?” I had never specified that this was a queer event. I had to come into contact with censorship in a way that I never had to before. I was just like, “Why are people expecting this of me?”
So you eventually stopped hosting readings at a certain point?
Not entirely. It has a different shape right now. I do this party now called the Fox Eclipse where I take some of my favorite and most dedicated readers and had them start working with producers that I know around New York’s scene. And those producers would DJ at the event while the reader reads and it became this spontaneous performance series. I’ve done three of them now, they’re really fun. I needed to back away from the structure of it—the structure of having a reading.
I think it’s always interesting to step back and find new ways to share these kinds of things because it does get stale when you are constantly seeing art of any kind presented in the same format over and over again.
Right, and it has to. Innovation is key even though part of me is like that’s really problematic. I’m not worried about keeping current. I’m a writer. I’m using one of the most antiquitous styles to make my work.
It always interesting when you can take a space and transform it to be whatever you want, regardless of how it exists from day to day.
That was how the Sampler was when I started readings there. The thing is, I go to these places all the time and never have to confront half the things that I know some of my friends would. Maybe that is sort of a confidence thing. A lot of people don’t have the luxury of being so confident. Even myself, as I kind of changed a little bit more, I realize that people are paying a little bit more attention to me because I’m pushing the gender lines a little bit more.
I mean I’ve always not been very gendered. But to some people it’s becoming more apparent. But some of my friends have it a lot worse. And so it is something to be an organizer and an event planner, I always have to consider that.
You have to bear some responsibility for…
Everything that could happen at the event.
I mean, honestly it’s a blessing to see it happen in a safe way, but you’re always aware of the smallest micro aggressions that could turn into huge events. They could be huge impactful moments.
It is interesting the way different spaces come in and out. You kind of use them for whatever you can while it’s possible and then they’re gone and the community still exists but is always adapting itself to whatever new spaces are available—maybe New York is specific to that.
I wonder. I wonder. I think that the landscape of New York is always changing and it’s part of the job of any POC to kind of clock gentrification for what it is, and also to try to own it. Not own what’s happening, how detrimental it is, but to use it to your betterment, rather than to reflect on how terrible the act itself is. Either to protest it actively or to use what’s around you and make it something for you and the community that’s still there.
What are you working on next as far as writing or a new event series?
I want to compile this collection about family that’s kind of digging through a lot of my memories that I prefer not to think about. It’s been nice. I think that abstraction is one of my greatest tools. It’s helped me through a lot of my own trauma. So currently what I’m working on is like unpacking my trauma.
But then there’s another collection also. I have a bunch of poems based in this mythology of New York, kind of like projecting my own internal mythology onto the city landscape. I always thought that would be a really interesting collection to have fleshed out. I’m working on these two things right now. I actually have some really good new stuff for both of those. That’s really exciting.
Have you been reading new material at all?
So Yves, Ide, Solstice is a little bit more than a dozen poems that I have been working with and reading for a while, but I still have like a hundred poems that just feel like thoughts. But generally I write so much that I can read a lot of new stuff, but I’m far too in my head to do it sometimes, and I’m like, “Oh no, this is just absolutely not done.”
But right now, I have this poem called, “I’m Going to Shut You Up.” It’s my war cry right now. And it feels really good. I wrote that right before the book came out and I was like, “Oh yeah, this is the next step.” I have no idea what it’s for. I’m not writing it for a collection, but it’s just a poem that I really identify with right now. I read that one recently. So yeah, I’m always writing. It never stops.
I was also just asked to help create this live stream performance series in September in my friend’s new space. Stay tuned. I’m probably going to be asking a lot of people from all over my life to kind of participate in some sort of activity in front of a camera for this strange sort of Warholian archive my friend is building.
Does it have a name yet?
No, not yet. I think that he might propose something. I might change it for my curation for that. I wonder if he’s going to work with other—a few different artists to like curate different things. Right now, I think it’s a trial of four weeks that I’ll be doing it. Yeah, I’m excited for that actually. I’m excited to see like what the fuck I’m going to try to do.
If I forget,
may I always remember
I surrender to you.
Countless lives have come to pass,
Nothing but misery seems to last
A life lost in material gain,
Woven through pain
And when at last the towers fell,
I felt the heat of flames,
Rising from the depths of hell
Held within the hands of man,
Burning skies above a ravaged land
And from those flames I heard you speak
In a symphony of voices,
Tears in celestial harmony
My dear friend, do you remember me?
With words falling like gentle rain
from your sacred lips pressed
I close my eyes
to receive the kiss
Please accept this humble offering,
For, in the movement of surrender lies
Under no false pretense or guise
The beauty of your lotus eyes.
I surrender to you.
The question has become this: what use are words today? If I write and am misunderstood, misread, misconstrued, have I amounted to anything at all? In a world where the systems and structures in nearly all societies exist, and always have, to benefit the few, what can I do to remove myself from the cycle of consumption and the greedy, usury homeostasis that is Modern Culture?
My anarchy has laid the bedrock for which all of the actions in my life have been based to date. It has brought me here, concluding: the real good in writing and reading is that even if nothing is directly gained for the spirit, soul or mind then at least you have taken time away from the oppressive onslaught of advertising and propaganda that is ubiquitous in a world where screens scream when ignored. The time in which we use to read and write well, the honest moments, are done alone, in quiet contemplation. Clandestine. A rare respite in which a person may still be their self, think for their self, consider their self. I realized that even if what I write falls to the realms of dusty shelves and unclicked links it will not matter, the important thing will be that I said it, and said it as best I could.
While trying to shake the feeling that I have been running in place I realized that losing a feeling is not always the same as a real change. Complacency is a state of mind as much as it is a state of action. Confounding myself with countless distractions only served to bury me deeper. So, while I muster the strength and courage to do what must be done I will work within this small forum to try to move forward. Reading. Writing. Publishing. This is an invitation to anyone who has the same feelings, the same pause, the same fire. Number this in the places you know you are welcomed and respected. Visit and contribute, and I will do my best to engage.
Submissions and inquiries may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org