I live on the bank of the Deschutes River. In this stretch of about a block, the river divides two distinct sides of our city, the east and the west. The riverbank is a public space open for everyone. But people do not always agree on how to best spend a hot summer day.
Davis Park is on the East side of the river. It has the perfect combination of shade and privacy for people to hang out, let loose. Teenagers used to come here to make-out, or drink some beers. Now, on hot days, it’s where many go to cool off, including the ‘down-and-out.’
On the West side of the river, where I live, things like birding, jogging, and swimming are the norm. It is a different kind of park over here.
I am riding along with Officer Marc Tisher as he patrols his beat of more than 50 city parks. We stop at an intersection and I see two tanned guys chilling at a bus stop. Tisher rolls his window down and gets their attention.
I recognize the men. For the past two summers, these two have often made Davis Park their daytime home. In a way, they have come to represent the character of the park. “You guys been keeping Davis Park clean for me?” Officer Tisher asks them.
“Yeah,” Matt, one of the men answers in an upbeat, friendly voice, “We’re going to the rapids. So meet us down there.”
Tisher laughs and says, “Alright. Are you guys going to body surf it today?”
Matt replies, “It’s eighty, I might get wet.”
It’s a light hearted moment of laughter on a hot summer day.
For years though, Davis Park’s shenanigans went un-policed, so Davis Park has become the place, which all cities and towns have, where local customs are at odds with city laws. But about a year ago, the parks department proposed building a bridge between the two sides. That got people’s attention on my block.
Paul Stell is the Natural Resources Manager for the Bend Parks and Recreation District. He says they’ve tried most everything to enforce local laws and regulations in city parks. The Parks Department even got rid of the park rangers, “Because they did not have full authority,” Stell says, “because they couldn’t make citations or arrest or you know, carry a fire-arm and take care of business.”
Now there’s a parks cop. That’s who you met earlier, Officer Tisher.
The increased law enforcement, Stell says, is necessary because city parks still serve a critical function. “On a hot summer day it’s a great place for anybody. They can be there from when the park opens ‘til the park close. And if they don’t have any other place to be that’s a good place to be but there are rules and we need to follow the rules. That’s the only issue.”
Here in Bend the rules are basic; no criminal activity, no endangering the peace and safety of others, no drinking alcohol or possessing an open container without a proper permit. If people can agree to this, Stell says, those living close to city parks have an obligation to “let it be” for the entire public.
“Living next to a park is a commitment,” Stell says, laughing.
Stell does not finish his thought. But I know what he means. Residents have no control over public land bordering their property. And there is a steady flow of different people and habits.
On my block, some homeowners, want to project their idea of how the other side of the river should be. People on the West side engage the police like my neighbor, who I’ll call Sam. She didn’t want her real name used. “You know, we tried to figure out how to solve this problem.”
I ask, “What problem?”
“The problem,” Sam says, “of unhealthy and unsafe behavior dominating a small community park.”
Sam says a group of men show up around ten each morning in Davis Park. They claim a picnic table and spend all day there, drinking and smoking. “And that would happen every sunny day,” Sam says. “Two people would come and secure that picnic table. The hotter it was, the earlier they’d come. So that they’d make sure they had it for the whole day.”
I ask Sam what she means by ‘unhealthy.’
“Unhealthy is open container drinking,” she says, “people getting so intoxicated or high on something that they’re yelling at people in the park and across the river, including children.”
Marion Davidson lives across the street from Sam. She’s another block matriarch. She also wishes Davis Park felt less menacing. But says she still likes it here, “There’s a wildness about living next to moving water the voice of god as the Old Testament says. The sound of water, is… I forget but you can look it up.”
Marion says people in Davis Park should be more discrete. “Being part of the community, if you are going to drink, you should do it surreptitiously rather than out in the open and not get so drunk that you yell at people and cause a disruption. I mean it’s against the law having an open container in a park I do believe.”
Marion is a retired lawyer. She spent decades representing people like those across the river. But the way she says that, ‘it’s against the law,’ it’s an easy way to make a grey situation black and white. We all do it. So I push her to give me a sense of how she feels about it on a human level.
“You know what I was thinking about was when I went to college?” Marion asks me as she prepares a summertime meal. “We studied the contract philosophers; Locke, Barclay, and Hume. And the problem with Davis Park is there are some folks that really don’t have any reason. They’re homeless and down-and-out. Sound like having issues with drink and drugs and so they have no reason to abide by the rules of the community. So there is no social contract. So the question becomes well how do you enforce laws with people like that?”
“My name is Chris Clouart, Managing Director of the Bethlehem Inn, Central Oregon’s largest shelter serving men, women and families.”
Marion got me thinking about social contracts and how exactly we establish customs and laws in places like Davis Park. Clouart, a longtime Bend local, says for a city the size of Bend, the scale of social services here is too small. That means individuals in our community must provide support. And Clouart says, that support is not just food and shelter. “It’s a wonderful quote,” Clouart says, “which is that the law prohibits equally a rich man and a poor man from sleeping under a bridge. A rich man would never need to sleep under a bridge. But the thought that there’s a sense of equality, that there’s an equivalence there, is ridiculous. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Bend has an oversupply of brew pups and golf clubs. So if a person with a bit of disposable income wants to crack a beer on a hot day, they’ve got plenty of places to go. But Clouart says many people in Bend have a tough go of it. “Their choices in life are fairly limited. So if you don’t have much money and it’s a nice summer day, where are you going to go? You are either going to go to a library, or your going to go to a local park. Which is your park as much as it is anybody else’s park. The question has to be what are the modes of behavior in that park?”
Clouart makes an important distinction between law and custom. “So, law is the thing we tell ourselves we want to do, custom is what we allow to happen.”
Right now, those two concepts are not aligning at Davis Park. Clouart is a humanist. He sees the need for dialogue between all the park’s users. But until that happens, it falls to the police to decide what’s allowed and what isn’t.
Tisher and I are back at the bus stop where we ran into Ron and Matt. After they head off to the river, Tisher shows me their records. He points out a few thefts and DUI charges from back in the early 90’s. After a few more hours driving around, Tisher decides to check in on Ron and Matt at the park.
We are on the West side of the river, looking into Davis Park. We bump into my neighbor Marion walking her dog, “Everybody’s out. It’s sort of like Alaska. This is one of the first lovely days. Everybody’s sort of getting their sun. Hey Officer Tisher. Our champion. I have a spotting scope if you need one. ”
Tisher jumps in his patrol car. He says approximately six people are partying in Davis Park, among them, two guys on parole who shouldn’t be drinking. They could possibly face jail time. Tisher also says one of the parolee can be difficult when he is drunk so he calls for a backup. By the time we have driven Davis Park, two officers in a police car pull in behind us.
Tisher questions Ron, Matt and another guy I know as Mr. Mills. Tisher is interested in their backpacks. He scans for open containers. “How about the main container or the main pocket?” asks Tisher, pointing to a backpack.
Ron Fields, the man Tisher is speaking to about his backpack asks if Tisher has a warrant.
Tisher says, “This is what I got to do.”
Mr. Mills says, “I got closed beers in there buddy. Closed ones, all right?”
“That’s all right,” Tisher says.
The conversation escalates. Tisher demands Mr. Mills take a seat, “Mr. Mills sit down right there.”
“Ok.” Mills says. “Whatever dude.”
Mills face reddens. His muscles tighten. About now, Tisher calls for a third backup. He then asks Mr. Mills if he is on probation.
“No I’m not on nothing buddy,” says Mills. “Not since August 8th of 2000, homeboy.”
“Why are you upset, Mr. Mills?” Tisher asks.
“Because,” Mr. Mills says, “You want to walk around here and throw some guys around here. Let me get the hell out of here. This is the last time. I ain’t coming down here no more. Every time I come down here the police show up.”
The fourth officer shows up. Ron, Matt, and Mr. Mills all seem glad to see him. “Hey,” Mr. Mills says, “It’s about time.”
Officer Tisher opens his ticket pad and writes Fields a citation and an exclusionary notice, meaning he cannot enter a city park for three months. Here’s how Ron Fields feels about all this.
“We’re not friends anymore,” says Fields.
Tisher replies, “You told me that three months ago.”
“I know,” Fields responds. “We’re not friends. I ain’t hurt nobody down here.”
“This place cleared out pretty fast,” Tisher says. Tisher and I walk back to the police car. As we walk along a gravel path, Tisher asks if I noticed how fast this situation could have gone “south.”
Had I been watching this scene from across the river, besides the cops, it would have seemed normal; Ron, Matt, and the merry-makers pretty much keeping to themselves. But here is the thing. I am at the river daily. I notice most people break some sort of law or rule here; some drink alcohol openly, dogs run amok off-lease–all against city code. And I’m talking most visitors, just regular folks. No different than Ron and Matt, whose biggest crime perhaps is treating Davis Park like their living room. Yeah, I have seen Ron and Matt get too drunk, yell at people. But it has been rare.
There has been no dialogue. No discussion of what the customs in Davis Park should be. The law has been enforced, but I’m unsure we have made our block a better place. Certainly it is less welcoming. And the band of rag-tag men- they will simply move on, maybe to another park. The problems unresolved.
Later this summer, on another scorcher, I floated a section of the Deschutes with my two children. Life jackets on, we jumped in a mile upstream from downtown. We carelessly floated, our bodies bobbing all the way. Near downtown, we got out and sun dried. I looked across the street at the bus stop. There stood Matt, one of the usual suspects at Davis Park. Although this time he did not look the part. His body exposed to the sun, his arm around his little girl. He had been floating the river too.