Park Socialists

Park Socialists

Chicago’s steel mills are forty years gone to brownfields. Most of the union halls are shuttered. Yet the parks, with their fieldhouses and pools and quiet preserves, remain as enduring gifts from social visionaries.

Central Park, Winter by William James Glackens, c. 1905 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The following is part of a series of essays, Why Im (Still) a Socialist, in our Fall 2022 issue.

During my adolescence in the 1950s, I began to understand that, in my immediate family, we were socialists of the democratic variety. My father was a labor lawyer and a staunch believer in collective bargaining. My mother, an English teacher at Queens College, had spent the Depression years as a social worker. New Dealers and active reform Democrats, their socialism was made manifest in the New York City institutions they cherished: public-sector unions, public education, public libraries, public housing, public health, public parks.

Both were dubious about the left-wing parties, especially the Communists. Bolshevism had seemed wonderful and romantic to me, but they told me about the Moscow trials and had me read Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and The God that Failed. They loathed Stalinism and fought bitterly with my uncles and aunts who were fellow travelers. 

My own intellectual and social commitments were shaped in the 1960s and ’70s in Chicago, where I studied “human ecology,” a Midwestern empirical approach to sociology. Outside the classroom, in the heat of antiwar demonstrations, I learned that I was not a revolutionary who would occupy the university administration building. More interested in street-level democratic politics, I found a home with steelworkers on Chicago’s far southside, where I studied the dynamics of class, race, and ethnicity in and around the giant mills. 

My steelworker friends also helped me learn about the tortured natural environment of the Calumet industrial region, where marshy lakes and sloughs are often lined with slag. In the southeastern industrial reaches of Chicagoland, thanks largely to the 1909 regional plan created by architects Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, one is never very far from a public park or prairie open space. My wife and I walked with our first child on Rainbow Beach Park on the South Shore, in the forest preserves beyond far Hegewisch, and in Calumet Park, the southernmost gem in Chicago’s necklace of lakefront parks.

Chicago’s steel mills are forty years gone to brownfields. Most of the union halls are shuttered. Yet the parks, with their fieldhouses and pools and quiet preserves, remain as enduring gifts from social visionaries like Burnham and Bennett and from the progressives of all social classes who sponsored them. The Chicago school of economics insists the market will provide, especially when freed from collectivist meddling. But like other public institutions, parks are never “provided” by market forces. They exist by dint of inspired leadership and popular demand. Like all institutions producing public goods, they must have active publics. They cannot be taken for granted.

In 1973, I returned to New York to run a research group about urban parks and open spaces funded by the Department of the Interior and housed at the CUNY Graduate Center (where I met Irving Howe and became a Dissent socialist). My assignment was to work as a social scientist with National Park Service park managers, scientists, and planners. The recently passed National Environmental Policy Act required the NPS to justify its plans and projects with data about costs and benefits to the environment and its “user publics”—exactly what a human ecologist is trained to supply.

The national parks and the ecosystems they protect are barometers at the forefront of American environmental policy. The great parks are also powerful generators of regional economic development, producing streams of visitor dollars for rural regions. Yet their popularity and importance in the nation’s economy have not prevented them from undergoing periods of damaging fiscal austerity. In the 1980s, many of the nation’s “crown jewel” parks like Yosemite were being run down by hordes of new visitors. At the same time, budgets for public parks were being cut in a frenzy to “shrink government.” In New York, even Frederick Law Olmsted’s original masterpieces, Central Park and Prospect Park, began looking shabby and neglected. 

Since the 1990s, the national parks have continued to increase in number, and their maintenance has vastly improved, with the help of federal tax dollars. City parks administrations have had to be more innovative. In New York, the Prospect Park Alliance and the Central Park Conservancy enlisted volunteers and raised millions from donors to restore (and now manage, under city leadership) these essential New York City landmarks. 

Cities and towns across the country have embraced such public-private partnerships. For many of my socialist friends, these efforts to restore and manage city parks are viewed, understandably, with deep distrust. Raising money from donors and corporations risks privatization. But privatization isn’t a new threat: thoughtless city leaders had private golf courses inserted into parks designed by Olmsted in Buffalo, St. Louis, and Louisville over a hundred years ago. Golf happens. Only informed and active citizens can ensure that parks remain public and accessible to all. 

Park conservancies in New York and other cities where I have worked have enhanced park environments and broadened public access. The staff and volunteers that they attract to their ranks are dedicated to the environment. Most would not think of themselves as socialists. Yet to succeed, they must organize across neighborhood boundaries to form an inclusive community that feels a commitment to protect and enhance their parks. I think of them, and myself, as “park socialists.” We are an important sub-species of green socialists, organizing in the threatening Anthropocene.

None of my children or their children know much, if anything, about twentieth-century Marxian socialism. Still, I think of them as socialists, like my parents were, like I am. They are all involved in prosocial causes and pro-social organizations. The college-bound grandchildren are figuring out their politics, but they are green socialists for sure—and therefore, like their elders, they’re worried socialists.

William Kornblum is professor emeritus of sociology and psychology at the CUNY Graduate Center. From 1973 to 2008, he directed a Cooperative Park Studies Unit for the National Park Service devoted to research on public of use of parks in metropolitan areas. His most recent books are, with Stéphane Tonnelat, International Express: New Yorkers on the 7 Train (Columbia University Press, 2017) and Marseille, Port to Port (Columbia University Press, 2022). He joined the Dissent editorial board in 1973.