Playground Love

Last year I was back in Oklahoma for a few weeks and I mistakenly took my daughter across the street to the park, or should I say the Playground of the APOCALYPSE. The park had seen better days. A patina of neglect coated the equipment. Rust and thick spiderwebs blighted the slides. One whole slide was missing. The swings were just seatless, dangling chains. And the only souls around were a group of homeless men drinking mouthwash and cheap beer on a nearby bench. After a few minutes we went back to the house and watched more TV.

Neglected parks are pretty depressing. What once held the promise of fun, laughter, and community now lies abandoned, like some monument to misspent expectations. What was even more depressing about this park was that it was in the center of the city. It should have been crowded with kids playing and with parents watching. Yet, it was more like Mad Max’s salvage yard than a playground.

The desolate playgrounds of America stand in sharp contrast to the bustling parks in Croatia. During the warmer months we spend hours at one of four neighborhood playgrounds around our apartment. Children run around, swing, slide, and spin themselves dizzy on the um... uh... that big thing that makes kids dizzy. The steady traffic of excited ice-cream-eaters flows between the park and the nearby corner store. We parents talk to each other, while sitting, standing or holding the hand of a slide-bound toddler.

Sadly, in the American midwest it is rare to see such a flurry of activity at any park, especially on a daily basis. The reason for this is the ever present backyard. Is it too much to say that the backyard is the ultimate bourgeois luxury? An unnecessary space, predicated on ownership and convenience? An instrument of Americans’ sense of alienation and isolation? Mmm... Probably. But what was once part of my American dream, a house with a big backyard, now seems an anathema to me. I don’t want a backyard. I want a vibrant park. I suppose the silliness of backyards was apparent to me when I was a kid. When I was six I even made a hole in the fence in our backyard so that my friend (whose backyard abutted ours) and I could more easily get to each other’s house. It was only with age did I start to believe in the power of fences and property lines.

Since living in Croatia, I feel, even as a foreigner, like I am more a part of this community than I have in many of the places I’ve lived in the US. And I think this is largely due to Zagreb's lack of backyards. Without our own space we are forced to use the public spaces around us. We are forced to see each other, to meet each other, and to know each other.

Though backyards may brim with life for some households, they segment the street’s social life into private units, turning the attention of each house inward, making it the very center of its own world. I prefer the playgrounds in Croatia. In Croatia, the park is the center of the neighborhood’s universe, and all of the private little apartments are just silly satellites caught in its orbit.