Monday, August 15, 2005

No (More) Walk In the Park

A popular gathering place of great renown in the City of Pittsburgh may soon be no more:

Schenley Park's Prospect Drive is a woodsy cul-de-sac where men have long come to meet men -- and not just to chat about lawn care and engine repair.

"The area is a significant cultural spot for the gay community," said Jeff Howells, managing editor of Out magazine, a regional periodical for gays, lesbians and bisexuals. Howells, who has been openly gay for 27 years, "grew up knowing that Prospect Drive was called the Fruit Loop."

How old is he? Maybe around 45-50 years old, if he's been "out" for 27 years? You'd think that they would have changed the street signs by now. I can just imagine old ladies on a bus tour of Schenley Park.

TOUR GUIDE: Formerly called Prospect Drive, this section of the park was officially redesignated the Fruit Loop several years ago.

OLD LADY #1: Why is it called that?

TOUR GUIDE: Because of its reputation as a good spot to pick, uh, fresh fruit, over the years.

OLD LADY #2: May we get out and pick some of the fruits?

TOUR GUIDE: Oh! Look! You can see downtown Pittsburgh from here!

(Okay, no more levity for at least one more paragraph.) Why is this Pittsburgh institution suddenly under assault?

By next summer, Prospect Drive regulars may have to share their space with a 225-foot-by-80-foot city maintenance facility, and the trickle of cruising cars may be joined by rumbling Department of Public Works ride-on mowers. That possibility worries gay community leaders and some Squirrel Hill residents.
But doesn't the DPW already have a maintenance facility in the park?

The department's Schenley Park maintenance unit is being pushed out of its current digs above Panther Hollow by the expanding Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, said Public Works Director Guy Costa. That will leave 16 employees, two pickups, two light dump trucks and several mowing tractors without a home base.

"The Phipps wants us out now," said Costa, citing a 1993 agreement between the city and the conservatory giving Phipps the right to tear down the city's worn garage. "I have nowhere to go."

The city DPW is proceeding correctly according to the law. Contractually, the conservatory can kick them out. Since the park is city property, the city should be able to construct a new facility wherever it wants to inside of the park. So why pick the "Fruit Loop", of all possible places?

The city's Regional Parks Master Plan, completed in 2000, suggests that Prospect is an "underutilized" spot suitable for a maintenance facility.
But the DPW doesn't want to go to the trouble of ruining everyone's fun. There are (if you'll pardon the expression) alternatives:

"An option is maybe we relocate the circle," said Costa, standing among the trees where he says a truncated Prospect could end in a smaller circle -- maybe even with a flower garden.

That idea didn't appease most of the men hanging around Prospect on a sunny late morning.

Of course it didn't make them feel better about it. The city is evicting them because it was evicted by a place that hosts flower shows. Putting in a flower garden is like rubbing salt in the wound. On another level, if the city thinks that giving the gay men a flower garden would be a nice gesture, why don't they throw in a sound system that plays show tunes at all hours of the day and night?

Well, maybe because there is another branch of city government that has a problem with the cul-de-sac being used at all hours of the day and night:

"I guarantee some [gay] people will view this as, 'They're trying to run us out,' " said Howells.

That sentiment already exists, Howells said, because police sometimes sweep through Prospect right after the park closes at 11 p.m. -- something he says is not routinely done in other park areas.

Police spokeswoman Tammy Ewin said such sweeps aren't done daily. She said some people had been charged with open lewdness on Prospect in years past but added that the department hasn't seen "any major crime trends" in that area recently.

"I think it was in the back of someone's mind [that], 'If we build it here, we'll get rid of the queers,' " Howells said. He added that he doubts the city would "make such a decision solely on the basis of eliminating a gay hangout."

Victim mentality alert! Perhaps it does not occur to everyone concerned that the police might be sweeping that particular area of the park because that is where people are violating the park's hours? In other words, the police are enforcing the law. And there haven't been any big problems in the area in a while. Perhaps there are some cops doing a little cruising of their own, if you know what I mean.

Costa said Prospect's current use didn't factor into the city's thinking. The spot is attractive to his department for the same reasons it appeals to gay men.

"It's secluded. We'd be out of the way," Costa said.

The city and the cruisers like it for the same reasons? Maybe there is an answer after all. Let's ask HILLARY.


HILLARY SAYS:

Common goals require common solutions! The Department of Public Works must only hire employees who are thin, single, and neat.

Not that there's anything wrong with that!

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