Past, present and future came together on a brilliant East Mountain Saturday afternoon as some 80 residents celebrated a new life for their two-decade-old Sunflower Meadow Park.
The Sept. 24 festivity included a ribbon cutting, brief speeches and attendance of several invited Bernalillo County officials, but the event was not about speeches and formalities.
What it was about was how and why this park came to be; what is happening to it now; and what it means to the future of neighbors and neighborhood.
It was about remembering longtime resident Ellie Trotter, who first imagined the park and sparked the neighborhood effort to build it before succumbing to Parkinson’s Disease in 2012.
It was about the older couple dancing in front of a playground, the pair of musicians strumming guitars on a bench, children swinging from a tether rope.
It was about long-time strangers introducing themselves to their next door neighbors, and old friends reuniting after silences that lasted far too long.
It was about a neighborhood that had planted community roots 20 years ago and that then started to lose them—and now may be finding them once again.
Most of all, it was about—as I wrote in a Mountain Musing column in 1997—how the Raven-Skyland Road neighborhood created an unusual community-built park, and then found, to its delighted surprise, that the park had created a community.
My wife and I were among the dozens of men, women and children who conceived, organized and helped design, finance and construct the park in the late 1990s. On Sept. 24 of this year we were among the few old-timers still living in the neighborhood. As is common in this transient state, many residents had moved away, and a few had died.
Susan Smith, prime organizer of the celebration, persisted in calling these survivors “the founders,” as if we had just written the Declaration of Independence. Which, perhaps, in a small and strange way, we had. For we had discovered that the experts have it wrong when they talk of leaders leading and ordinary people following. We had found that where ordinary people lead, in a unified and disciplined and reasoned way, leaders and governments and officialdom will follow.
The beginning was in 1996. There was a 4-acre triangular open field in the heart of the community, where its two principal roads, Skyland and Raven, intersect. The field was overrun with dense underbrush and had a single dilapidated mobile home parked in the rear near a grove of trees. Although the field was unkempt, it was a precious open space in a neighborhood bereft of parks, where simply staring at Guadalupe and Manzano peaks to the south and watching the stars at night were a way of life as sustaining as food.
Then one day in the fall of 1996, Robert Foster, owner of the property, posted a for sale sign on it. It shocked the community. With a residential zoning of 0.75 acres, the field could be filled with five mobiles homes, five garages, five septic systems, five wells, five driveways and five power lines. Our only large semi-public open space could become a rural slum.
With this dystopian vision as our spur, neighbors organized, persuaded Bernalillo County to buy the land and proceeded to plan something Bernalillo County had never seen: a community-built park.
With some dozens of residents participating in one way or another, we designed a park, selected equipment, created a handsome sign and bulletin board, got zoning and planning approvals from the county, set up parking areas, and created a basketball court, a playground, a volleyball court, a picnic area, and a path for skateboarding, bicycling and strolling. We held meetings every week for months. We raised money with a spaghetti dinner, bricks bought by businesses and individuals, T-shirts and other ventures.
And lo and behold, two years later we had a park. However, it had no name. We ran a contest among area kids and one of them noticed the flowers that flourished where brush had been cleared. His name won out: Sunflower Meadow Park.
For a few years the park was widely used. Kids played basketball and bounced on the seesaw and climbed the jungle gym. Families threw birthday parties. Neighborhood moms congregated there to socialize while their children cavorted.
Slowly, however, time and neglect started to take a toll. The trash cans were not emptied regularly. The water fountain broke down. The seesaw became dangerous and was removed. The volley ball net was stolen. The tether rope and ball disappeared. The basketball court started to crack and the skateboard path developed potholes. In the open meadow weeds sprouted among the sunflowers and there were reports of snakes hiding in the brush.
Finally two initiatives came together: county park officials decided to invest some time and money in fixing up the park, and an association representing about 40 homes in the southern corner of the neighborhood applied for and received a grant to improve the park and hold a celebration.
The skateboard path was repaved, a neighborhood tiny library installed, the tether rope and volley ball court replaced, new playground equipment added, trash cans installed. A local artist repainted his dramatic sign, the bulletin board was upgraded, benches installed.
On Sept. 24 it all came together. Signs were posted around the neighborhood and email alerts sent out over social sites. My wife helped supervise the new library and I signed up for a planning committee. Officials who had helped with rehabilitating the park were invited. Neighbors brought ice and cookies and lemonade. Another author and I signed and sold our books. Add a smidgeon of music and dancing and the squeals of children playing and the chatter of old and new friends, and you have a party.
Our little neighborhood along Raven and Skyland roads has expanded dramatically over the years, with more than 500 houses where a couple of decades ago there had barely been half that number. We have some more families with young children and more retirees. We have more people with the time and interest to use the park and the incentive to maintain and cherish it. With a large number of still undeveloped lots, the population will undoubtedly continue to grow.
Now we have something few people get, a second chance. A chance to value the park that we had started to let slip through our hands. The Sept. 24 celebration was a great kickoff for our second chance. Now it is up to this disorganized, chaotic, diverse and scattered neighborhood to seize the chance.
Beyond our own neighborhood, there is a lesson or two in our experience. One is that neither popular action nor government power is the answer to our problems; the answer is in the alliance of the two—bottom-up initiative and top-down help.
The other lesson is that a key to creating the park was the collaboration of the conservative Republican commissioner Houston and the liberal Democratic conservationist Trotter. Ideology was, as it often is, irrelevant to our real lives.