Diamonds in haystacks

Violet Hill Gardens, London NW8

This city has grown so fast that where Target is, you know, the shopping district, still shows as green and dirt on Google maps. It’s a super-secret Super Target; a local shop for local people. Spies, as we know now, are everywhere. You really can’t be too careful.

The children are a bit too old for playgrounds, but still in need of exercising. There is a pool and there are sports, but a dog needs a park.

In London, you are never far from one. Bench, bit of trees, get your mind off it, read your map. Fancy houses may surround vast communal gardens or be ringed around private squares, but everyone has access to a park. If the UK had a constitution, this would be in it.

London parks are maintained by the Council or the Corporation of London. They post their hours, their history, a map of amenities and nearby tube stations. Some have a place to buy hot or cold drinks and something to eat, from a packet of crisps to full fry-up. Some surprise you with small zoos, a wading pool or a miniature steam engine. Kenwood House, in Hampstead Heath, has a free gallery with a Vermeer that wasn’t in the big Vermeer show that traveled the world, a Rembrandt, a Reynolds, a Romney. In the evening, they close or hold open-air theater or opera. You can go to Regent’s Park and discover a festival of Asian dance or a green fair with solar-powered rides.

In London, ice cream trucks park by the gates. “The Music Bus!” my husband and I would  exclaim, knowingly. When the girls were very small one came down our street every night. We lived on the third floor; even if you started running, you’d never make it; bus of sorrows and dreams deferred.

London playgrounds have bathrooms with silhouetted attendants behind lighted opaque glass cubicles, having loud arguing phone conversations. They are well tended, at least in central London. Violet Hill Gardens was obsessively maintained. Who in the NW8 vicinity has not been told off by the grounds keeper of that tiny park, stewing in his little shed by the gate to the playground, resenting the children and their parents?

Parks should have names.

The public spaces and parks here seem arbitrary rather than well-dispersed and planned like a basic amenity, like immunization or National Parks, which are in a different category entirely. Here there is so much green space and so much development that a field might not be field forever. Maybe it is a transitional park. It’s hard to tell if you’re allowed to be there. Office or industrial parks here are really set in green space, with trees even, versus an industrial park in the exurbs of London, all grey and horrible and ironic.

The biggest playground I have found so far is built where the airport used to be, out where the fire department practices putting out fires, which would be a huge bonus if it happened while you were there and if you had small boys. Enterprising mothers probably call ahead for the drill schedules. The climbing structure itself is impressive in its size and complexity but given its desolate location and how few people have been there the few times we went it felt like a kind of timbered leper colony.

Other parks exist in spaces that appear at first passing to be undeveloped land but when you zoom in you see parking and a paved path. If you want something to eat you should have driven-thru Hardee’s at the last stoplight. These ones have benches and picnic tables, but no water fountains, bathrooms or cafs. Everywhere else, people are trying to sell you stuff, there is always some extra add-on or offer on top of that, but not here. That commercial void tells you the perceived value of public space or the people who use it, the people who need it. There are lots of private, indoor playgrounds to go to, where your children can play safely. The pet superstore where we took the dog for basic training invited us to bring the puppies to the store to practice loose-leash walking and socialization.

A park we never knew about until someone told us about the lake where we could take our dog is vast, but you would drive past it, as we did, for months, without ever knowing that’s what it was: a sleeper park, biding its time. I’m still not sure it’s all park, maybe we were just trespassing. The dog was not interested in swimming, but there was also a stream where my daughter caught minnows and declared it the best park ever. We walked almost all the way to a big road and I started wondered about sinkholes, if you had any warning when they were around.

There is one big, named, park downtown, well-tended, configured for free wireless and inhabited by a herd of Muscovy ducks, where the city holds free summer concerts and open-air movie nights. There is a state park on top of the mountain, with trails and breathtaking views of the spruce green and layers of hazy blue hills. There is a greenway along a creek, where the dog could theoretically go swimming, if it wasn’t still mistrustful of getting wet.

The wasteland out by the fire station provides a midway for a fall carnival. My children have grown up attending Bank Holiday fun fairs and last fall we felt we should honor the tradition of pissing away money on ride tickets.

We took my older daughter’s classmate with us. “Can we stay for the haystack?” she asked us. Like the top-of-the-fifth entertainment at the ball park, where women search through sawdust for a diamond or children run a dash pushing supermarket trolleys for prizes, this is a haystack hiding quarters and five-dollar bills. The children assembled 30 minutes in advance but when the time came allowed themselves to be arranged in age order and stayed calm. A free chance to win free money is exciting to contemplate but it’s all about the build-up, our persistent belief that there are gems to be found if we are willing to look.

Having torn through the virtual hay of our new terrain, we have discovered Dog Park. It is downtown, under a highway overpass, next to freight railway tracks and across the street from some public housing. Aside from meeting the essential need for off-leash energy-burning and dog socialization, the reason I like Dog Park is that it is a city park. You do not know who will be there. You meet people outside the social tribe settings of pool and school. You may have no common ground other than your dogs.

Here we meet the dog people, the old and young, the hipsters, a cross-dresser, people who say things that make you go, Hmmm, such as, “I’m a bigot, but not a racist,” people with dog-based routines, tattoos, advice about dogs. Two women and a girl with hair down to their waists and T-shirts with slogans about Hell, and lovely dogs, who made me think of the kind of people who might wind up on Wife Swap, an arty girl and her matchingly, multi-toned and textured arty dog. People who are not all like you, which is what being in a city, even a very small city that is more like a town, is all about.

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