Oval Park: A Community Conversation
This article isn’t about Peter Frampton, and it’s not about the Oval, and it’s certainly not about the rumors that have been flying about the park. In a roundabout way, this conversation revolves around these subjects, but the angle is the conversation itself – and why the conversation matters.
Now that August 29 has come and gone, and now that the local paper has given its perspective, maybe the time has come to lay the question to rest: why did Peter Frampton cancel his Guitar Circus performance at Visalia’s Oval Park? If you’ve been involved in the conversation and – what has been for some – the controversy, then you’ve probably heard the rumors anyway. Whatever the reason, the cancellation was to some a kind of victory, proof that the park can’t be anything other than what it already is. But for those who believe the Oval can be transformed, the conversation is only just beginning.
It’s public knowledge that a handful of tweets about the Oval’s negative reputation were posted to Frampton’s Twitter account. Does that really surprise anybody? For years, Visalia residents have considered the Oval the central hub for its homeless, druggies and prostitutes, a kind of local Skid Row. Go for a stroll in the park and you might step on a needle, it’s been said. When the City of Visalia and the Visalia Rescue Mission (VRM) partnered in 2011 with the objective to revitalize the park and its surrounding neighborhood, that negative perception entered a public conversation and became a hurdle to a very real question – is revitalizing the Oval even possible? That conversation became even more public, if not less courteous, when Ryan Stillwater, Oval Venue Coordinator, announced on Facebook that Peter Frampton would be performing at the park this summer. Because anybody who’s spent time online knows: the Internet is where reason goes to die.
So did negative perception pull the plug on the concert? Stillwater, a VRM employee, admits the reason is more complicated. “It’s widely known that ticket sales weren’t as high as we wanted them to be, but they were still higher than any event that’s ever been held at the park before. So, in that sense, it was a total success.” Beside lackluster ticket sales, Stillwater admits the park’s layout was an additional problem. “Logistically, it was far from ideal.” Trees, benches and the gazebo obstructed views. Rumors persisted that safety was an ultimate concern, but Stillwater insists that was never an issue. So then why did Frampton cancel?
Is it possible that a few negative posts on social media led Frampton to cancel his performance at the Oval? Is it any less possible that some Visalia residents maintain and perpetuate an idea about a park that they’ve never even visited? Stillwater can’t exactly say, but he does admit he was surprised by the backlash on social media. “There was just bashing, bashing, bashing,” he says, referring to tenor of the comments left on the Facebook page for the event.
Most of the rumors were rooted in an emotional response to the assumption that the concert, as a project, would fail. What’s the point, since one concert can’t change the Oval? And to a degree, Stillwater agrees. “It’s not like the rumors came from nowhere; the rumors came from a very true reality. But a past reality was put on a current situation.” Stillwater continues, “Rumor runs rampant. One person says prostitutes, so everyone says prostitutes. One person says dirty needles, so everybody says dirty needles.” And until the community is willing to visit the park, those rumors will persist. The hope behind bringing Frampton to the Oval was simple: get people to the Park, and get their opinion to change.
“The local stuff has been tried – farmers market, local bands, that kind of thing – but we needed something unique that would draw,” says Stillwater. “Because people are right, the people who posted online, ‘this concert isn’t going to do anything and as soon as the concert is done it will go back to normal.’ They’re right, at the end of the day it was a special event.” But for Stillwater, the concert was a means to an end, “to get people there who had never been there before, the people who sit on Facebook and say things about things they’ve never experienced firsthand.” Stillwater gets it. “Who cares about Frampton or Buddy Guy, who cares about a concert? What I do care about is that there’s been a black hole in Visalia that is the Oval Park, and people are content with it. I was content with it. Why is that?”
In the summer of 2013, Stillwater was faced with that very question. He had worked at the Fox Theatre for seven years, but he and his wife decided it was time for a change, “to take a leap of faith.” Within two weeks of his resignation at the Fox, a friend contacted Stillwater to let him know about an opening at the Visalia Rescue Mission. “I felt pretty skeptical that I was even qualified,” he admits, and his wife joked, “you don’t even like people that much.” But Stillwater graciously accepted the position, he says, as a means to personally grow.
Stillwater began the job with the same misconceptions that he is now trying to change. In his first months at the job, he kept the door of his office locked, which is in the park, even when he was inside. “I always felt embarrassed by that, foolish I guess,” he admits. “So I had to make the choice: these are people, and they have needs like everybody else. They need community, they need connection, they need people saying, ‘Nice to meet you.’” So, he unlocked the door.
What walked through that door was real conversation, real transparency and real relationships. Stillwater, like many Visalians, had believed that Oval “locals” were homeless. That assumption has inspired well-meaning individuals to leave food and clothes for the people who spend time at the park. But as Stillwater quickly learned, they aren’t even homeless. “I was wrong,” says Stillwater. “The issue isn’t even hunger. There is a helpful response and it’s not a box of food or clothes or even a ‘God bless you.’ It’s giving someone yourself. It’s being honest.” That currency is the only way to truly combat poverty, and when Stillwater actually gave himself to the neighborhood, that led to some very interesting, if not always comfortable, situations.
Once, a man approached Stillwater asking for 30 cents, and Stillwater declined. “He asked, ‘why not?’ and I said, ‘because I don’t know you, man.’ And he got quiet, and he was like a foot taller than me,” Stillwater laughs, “and then he wrapped his arms around me and said, ‘your momma raised you right.’” Stillwater could have given the money and limited their interaction to a monetary exchange. But when Ryan refused the 30 cents, he actually gave the man a whole lot more: honesty, transparency and mutual respect – the foundations for a real relationship.
Three months after Stillwater accepted the job, he and his wife and three children moved just three blocks from the Oval. “Because how can you care about a community if you don’t live there,” he asks? And what’s more, Stillwater says he’s never felt unsafe. It was a process though, he admits, to bring his kids to the park.
Recently, his daughter made a birthday card for one of the “harder characters,” a park regular. “You could tell he was really touched, […] he was almost brought to tears.” And Stillwater has noticed other changes. “When I first started, [the park] was full of carts, full of people.” Now it’s cleaner and people are less suspicious of each other; he even recently saw a family eating ice cream at
the park. “That,” says Stillwater, “speaks volumes as to what’s changed.”
The revitalization of a neighborhood begins not just with individual action, but also with a belief that it’s possible. For the Oval, change can only happen when our community stops believing that the park is beyond hope. For Stillwater, a quote helps put his position into perspective: “it is better to light a single candle than sit and curse the darkness.” “As soon as I read that [I thought], that’s what we’ve been doing, we sit and curse Oval Park and the neighborhood.” To quote Frampton, “the sweetest fragrance, it brings a wind of change,” and change is a coming.
There is a sea change of late in the public opinion toward the Oval, though it’s been overshadowed by a few loud and public opinions, and by the rumors surrounding the cancelled concert. One Visalia native, Doug Hurt, a lawyer and musician, is donating back to the VRM the $180 he spent on the tickets. And he encourages others who can afford the tickets to do the same. “I’m a lawyer, I earn a lot of money, and I live in a very nice neighborhood, but I’ve never been to a blues club in a gated community.” Hurt knows that stepping out of comfort zones is where the music really happens.
“To see Buddy Guy live is a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity,” but for Hurt, the real disappointment wasn’t missing a chance to see a blues legend, it was realizing that Visalia failed to support its own community. “We are all inextricably connected in some way,” says Hurt, “and the best thing that one can do is to help someone else.”
This sea of change has brought a new approach and atmosphere to the park. The Visalia First Assembly has, through conversations with Stillwater, adopted a different approach to the Oval.
Formerly, the church sent groups to deliver food to the park, but now about five to 20 of its members go to the Oval just to be there. Every Monday, they buy food at one of the local restaurants and eat at a bench. It’s that simple. The intention, says Jason LeFaive, pastor of community services at Visalia First, “is to create relationships that are lasting and have value, and not to be a face for fi ve minutes and then just walk away and say, ‘well, we did something good,’ and then never stop there again.” So now LeFaive and Stillwater and other members of the church show up, they sit, they eat and they stay. And in a non-committal way, they are actually making a serious commitment to be a part of something that, in the past, they might have too quickly forgotten.
“For us as a church,” says LeFaive, “our heart is that the city of Visalia would no longer see a north side and a south side but just see Visalia.” Because, he adds, “at the end of the day we’re all part of one community.” LeFaive points out that one woman in the group, in her 60s, “has lived in the community for a number of years, and never once had been to the Oval. She just never had the desire,” he says. “But the great part is that she took the risk, and became vulnerable. And she was floored by how beautiful the park actually is.”
And that is where the conversation should start. Not with rumors about Peter Frampton and not with preconceived ideas about the Oval, but with vulnerability and humility.
Stillwater would remind us that we are our brother’s keeper – that we’re as responsible to them as they are to us, but that our responsibility is also much more than an exchange of 30 cents or a sandwich. What’s at stake is more than the Oval, more even than our community. We are the ones at stake, because without vulnerability and humility to each other, we will have closed off ourselves from a world of hope and possibility. So before we ask if it’s possible for the Oval to change, maybe we should start by asking ourselves: am I ready to change?