A Chat with the Park Picnic Project Folks

The Park Picnic Project is a group of friends who set out to visit every St. Louis park, have a picnic, and share their experiences. Nick Spieser, Claire Wolff and Liz Kramer saw the project to the end, with contributions from others along the way, including Sonia Emmons.

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I first became aware of the Park Picnic Project on their website. We met up back in 2015 over coffee to get acquainted, share some stories and discuss potential collaboration as fellow park lovers. The conversation culminated in us working with the City of St. Louis’ Parks Department website curator to help update information on the official city website and provide photos, pro bono. We also ended up collaborating on joint posts on Forest Park.

I was thrilled to learn in late 2018, the group completed their goal of visiting, and picnicking, in all 108 parks…heck, maybe it’s 105 parks, we’ll get to that.

It wasn’t without much work and dedication, it took them ~4 years to complete…5 picnicking seasons. During that span the group overcame a serious bike wreck, much non-cooperating weather, scheduling snafus, life changes and other things that pop up along the way.

But, they never quit. They did it.

I am happy to know another group of people so interested in our amazing, if not underutilized, city parks. Kindred spirits is a safe description.

When I blogged on all the parks, I was flying solo for most of my visits. Some I spent less than 10 minutes in and talked to no one. Some I got into altercations, some I fell in love with for various reasons (Fremont Park is my dark horse for best park potential). Yet the thing that helped me keep slogging on was the rich, sometime hilarious conversations I’d engage in with park goers.

But, the Park Picnic Project idea of meeting up with friends, having a snack or meal together and documenting the experience is so sweet, social, original and good-spirited. Sharing the experience online was the icing on the cake.

I watched on their website where they’d document experiences including topics like who was there, what was consumed, park assessment, picnic assessment, pertinent research and facts, links to other reviews and descriptions, discrepancies with the city’s info, park recommendations, nappability, nearby features, fellow park people and access (stating public transportation options, etc.).

They added history, photos and shared experiences, sprinkled with a keen knowledge of recent events and politics in the area that are affecting the park. I’ll use Marquette Park as an example. But please, do you yourself a favor, and read through them all for a wonderful and honest perspective on the parks they visited.

The summaries were democratically derived and a work of the group, not the individual poster.

I tried to play it cool, but I was giddy to read a new post. It’s reassuring to know other people really care about our parks and have perspective based on experience and light research...and, are willing to share their experiences.

These posts occurred from roughly June, 2014 - August, 2016 documenting a rock solid 63 parks. These hobbies take time and can turn into work (unpaid) and the group eventually switched to Instagram to round out their summations of their experiences.

Sadly, I have limited time/interest for social media, being more of a reader than a clicker. So, I lost touch with many of their experiences shared on Instagram.

So, I sat down with Claire, Liz and Nick to get a feel for their experiences over libations at a local watering hole.

I had many questions for them. I’ll try to recap our conversation.

First the start of their project stemmed from Liz’s desire to visit every beach in the city of Chicago. When she moved back to St. Louis after several years away, she wanted to embark on another project that would keep her living in her footsteps, and engaging with others. She got some friends together and it was so. They were going to picnic in each park. Claire was influential in this decision. They invited friends to join who maybe hadn’t been to North City or other off the beaten path places. Share the love, right?

Nick, initially skeptical of the picnic idea, thinking too much work/planning may be required joined up anyway, later admitting that the picnic made their process intentional and provided structure and the planning necessary to see it through.

It worked.

They started elaborately, planning recipes and meals and researching gluten free options, etc. The realization that some parks have nothing…NOTHING…going on (I’ll use Minnesota and Hill Park as an example) made for an eased level of comfort in just showing up with cheese and crackers, carrots and humus, or a Vess and chips.

Claire wanted it to be a lived experience, and not just jumping out of a car, snapping photos and leaving.

This right here is the beauty of their project. That and the fact that a lot happens in your life in 5 park seasons…they mentioned the ability to talk and stay connected through life, relationships, job changes, injuries, etc…friendship was a separate gift that this project bore.

Their original plan was to visit the parks from smallest to largest. Some where out of order, since I persuaded them to do a post on Forest Park.

The number of parks was even up for debate early on. I mean, Nick claims there are 105 parks, 14th Street Mall, Tambo and May Amphitheater Parks are gone now. I think he’s right we’ll stick to 105 St. Louis parks.

I had to know their favorite spots. Parkland Park was mentioned for its brutalist beauty, they thought it could be the coolest park in the city. Clifton Heights for its neighborhood scene and uniqueness, Ivory Perry for the best concert series…but, most surprising of all to me was Bellerive Park, where they cited the best views of the River and a bona fide concert series. Also St. Louis Place Park for its concert series. Samuel Kennedy park, which in hindsight, I completely agree, it’s so NYC/Boston pocket park to me.

When I asked about improvements needed as a whole, less rec space was mentioned. There are so many underutilized ballfiields and other sports entities not in use. More open space with ecological focus on good drainage and better habitat, useful greenspace. Mowed weeds do not make greenspace. Wildlife and other areas are in order.

We both agreed we have enough parks to serve a city our size with a dwindling population of ~300K. “Nearly every neighborhood has a park, maybe save for Collage Hill.”

They mentioned the idea of “branding parks” and promoting their unique features or evolved uses. For instance, De Soto Park which has an incredible soccer culture about it, complete with Hispanic/Latino food and good vibes. Former Eastern Europeans are part of the culture playing out here as well. This reminded me of my visit here in 2013, when I experienced the same thing. It’s a great idea, why not promote the features and activities at these parks. I bet most people in St. Louis have no idea this sub-culture exists.

Why not try to make the parks more unique, more a reflection of the local neighborhood or the artists in the region. For instance, the same cookie-cutter playgrounds are boring and uninspiring. Why not hire local artists to design play spaces for kids. Make it STL and not boring “anywhere” spaces.

I thought that was a fantastic suggestion.

We talked about the needs within some of our parks. Maintenance is especially lacking. The Parks Department mows and weed wacks, little else. Good parks are in places where the neighborhood cares and tends to it. If you don’t have that oversight, the parks are maintained at the lowest level one could expect.

One of my main take-homes from visiting all the parks was the same. If the neighborhood doesn’t engage and take on a park, it’ll reflect the same lack of care as the surrounding properties. This is a reality of life. Why would someone care about a park when they don’t or can’t care for the residences or alleys?

The PPP folks mentioned that if there is an organization or foundation set up by the neighbors, the park has hope. If not, their on their own.

We talked about naming parks after people. Some are deserving, some are less so. But, they mentioned that Catalpa Park changing to Gwen B. Giles was a righteous switch. True.

“When you put in the work and get the respect of the neighborhood, you deserve a park to be named after you”, they said. For sure.

What do we have too much of? Baseball fields. No one plays baseball in a pick up way. Organized baseball needs righteous places, where are our SLPS teams going to play? We need designated, devoted, cared for places (but only a few) to meet those needs north, central and south. The rest can be re-purposed.

I asked if they had any negative experiences. Sure. You are going to deal with certain places that are open drug dealing situations. Russell and Chambers parks were mentioned, mine was Rumbold Park. Depending on when you visit, you can get a full dose of people using the parks to forward their dealing in a fully public place, unbothered by the police or the neighborhood. This is reality here and everywhere in the U.S. and likely all over the world.

In my experience, some solicitation was more matter of fact, transactional or even cordial in nature, in others it was more of a get the f out type of situation. I usually bristle at the latter claiming I have a place here and ain’t leaving…in other instances, the spidey-senses indicated I best get out.

That’s just me though, someone else may be completely comfortable.

When I asked PPP about their web-traffic, they said it really took off when they switched to Instagram. They were recognized by strangers who had read of their work on a couple occasions, they eventually made business cards and handed them out to folks asking about their project.

So what’s next? Nick has a personal goal to visit all the minor museums in the region (e.g., the Griot, miniature museum, wax museum, Campbell House, etc.). Claire is giving thought to exploring the city and county parks and spaces that are not official parks. And, Liz is giving thought to resurrecting the Kick Ass Awards, which have been out of commission for several years now. The awards honor people doing cool things off the beaten path in St. Louis.

Best of luck to this generation of St. Louisans. If they can see this project to completion, the sky’s the limit.