As Year of the Park continues, we will be documenting every park in Champaign, Urbana, and Savoy, Champaign County Forest Preserves, along with other odds and ends between July 2020 and more like August or September 2021. You can see what has been covered thus far by clicking here. If you have suggestions or ideas or feedback, feel free to contact us at info@smilepolitely.com.

NAME

Douglass Park 

LOCATION

512 E Grove St., Champaign

Photo by Tim Bailey.

 

HISTORY AND FEATURES

There is a lot to love about Douglass Park; it is the marquee green space in the north part of Champaign, a city with a long history of racial inequity. This park is the centerpiece gathering spot for many of C-U's Black communities. 

The Champaign Park District has been working towards creating more amenities in this park for years, however, and they have been partnering with local organizations like Unit 4 and First String Baseball to bring more equity and possibility for the folks who live nearby, and for all of the rest of us who wish to enjoy the lovely space that it truly is. 

There's a great splash pad for kids, one that will always bring me great memories watching my sons play, learning how to enjoy water games with kids they've never met before. 

Photo by Tim Bailey.

I love the hill here for sledding in the winter, or rolling over and over in the summer. It's small, but big enough for a child to feel like they've accomplished something when they reach its summit. 

First String Baseball makes its home here, and Peter McFarland has done such an incredible job placing a priority on the game of baseball at this park. It's a great Little League field, and there's a snack bar, plus ample seating for family and friends of the players. The organization has a simple identity, and that counts for everything: 

First String, “A Community Team, Inc., hereafter First String, Inc., is an organization comprised of individuals committed to building local communities by guiding youth in becoming productive citizens. First String, Inc.’s practices have a direct impact on the communities of northwest Urbana and northeast Champaign as we use baseball and other sports to teach integrity, good sportsmanship, honesty, fair play, loyalty, and respect for oneself and others. With a holistic approach that reinforces these characteristics, First String, Inc. aims to help youth become well-rounded, trustworthy, and compassionate individuals ready to make a marked but positive difference in the world.  

a baseball diamond Photo by Tim Bailey. 

Booker T. Washington elementary school is on these grounds, as is a branch of the Champaign Public Library. Comprehensively, it is one of our most amenity filled parks, and on any given day, you will find family and friends gathering to celebrate a birthday party, or to have a family reunion.

The smell of BBQ wafts through the park, making it hard for those looking to take advantage of the Fitness Trail that exists on site. It's a small walk of just .75 miles, but along the way, there are a dozen stations that have exercise equipment that can offer you a full body work out if you are willing to put in the time. Fact is, we should have a lot more of this in Champaign-Urbana, and I am hopeful that the park districts keep implementing it into its future park designs. Not everyone wants to and can afford to join Crunch Fitness, and for a lot of reasons I won't list right here. 

Photo by Tim Bailey.

Beyond that, one of our best pieces of public art exists here in Douglass Park, a sculpture called "Frederick Douglass: In Rememberance" by Preston Jackson. It is a marvel.

Photo by Tim Bailey. 

The park was founded in 1931, and has been at the heart of C-U's Black communities ever since. CU Days, an annual celebration that takes place in the park, is one of the more engaging and unique events that the Champaign Park District puts on each year. Whether or not it happens in 2021, as a result of the pandemic, is still under review, according to the park district, but it would stand to reason that 2022 will be an epic event of magnificent proportions. It damn well better be. 

ASSESSMENT

I don't think I am probably the right person to analyze and detail the history of this park, or the deeply troubling history of its funding and engagement. I can't point towards any specific data sets or actual proof that Douglass Park, along with the other north side parks, have been underfunded or underserved in any way. I haven't done the concrete research. But I have spoken to people, who absolutely wish to remain anonymous, that have told me that until the turn of the century, the disparity was massive.

What I can tell you is that it has improved, and that there are people working inside the Champaign Park District who have acknowledged to me how badly former administrations have behaved with regards to its development. This is a great thing, and something to improve upon. 

I can also tell you with certainty that more police cars cruise this part of town than almost any other. And finally, I can tell you that in 2021, we aren't nearly close enough to righting the wrongs of the past in Champaign-Urbana with regards to race relations or the systemic racism that permeates every single aspect of our city. That's a fact. 

The best I think we can do, at the moment, regarding a park like this, is to go enjoy it, and to contact your local officials, your councilperson, the park district, and ask to learn more about what they are doing to make sure it is a safe space for the community that surrounds it, and to ask about what efforts are being made to continue to invest in it. 

There is a long history of whitewashing historically Black spaces and people and culture in this nation. So, go to this park, visit it and enjoy it, but remember, this is not cultural tourism, and most importantly, if you are white person living in a different part of the city, make sure you are just as welcoming to "your" park as this community is to you at "their" park.

Our goals should be equality, but let's not forget that we're not starting from equal spots, so to speak. 

Support it in other ways, too, and however you can. Tell the people who work for the City of Champaign to build a Public Arts Program that would place emphasis on programming and engagement specifically at parks and programs that exist on the north side of the city. Find ways to get involved in ways that are helpful, and not harmful. Do that, all the time. 

Douglass Park is one of my very favorite parks in town, and it's possible that if we collectively funded it the way it deserves to be funded, it would be something to celebrate even more with each passing year. 

Top photo by Tim Bailey.