Park Name Changes

I visited all 108 St. Louis parks back in 2013 through 2015, publishing a separate blog on each one.

One of the joys of that endeavor was researching the names of the parks. Many, but not all, are named after a person, some I already knew, but most I did not. This ignorance provided some more of the mysteries I crave when trying to understand the city I’ve called home for 24 years.

Some of the newly found people that have stuck in my mind from that project include Charlotte Rumbold, Father Filipiak and Ruth Porter. These three likely would not have been brought to my consciousness had it not been for my interest in our parks.

I was recently doing some research for a fellow parent with kids in the city schools looking for a baseball field for a local school to practice. While digging into it, I came across a new one: Gregory J. Carter Park. What? That name did not ring a bell when I was researching the parks hard and heavy ~5 years ago.

After a couple clicks, I found that Gregory J. Carter Park was formerly named Dwight Davis Park in the Walnut Park East Neighborhood.

Per the St. Louis website, the park was renamed for Carter, a politician who died tragically in a crash while driving a truck for UPS.

Name changes happen, some take with the public, some don’t. Did you know the Poplar Street Bridge is named the Bernard Dickmann bridge? Yeah, I’ve never heard it called the Dickmann…likely for good reasons.

St. Louis streets are renamed occasionally, so are our neighborhoods. Some people refuse to accept change and nostalgia holds sway. Some still call MLK Easton, others call Botanical Heights McRee Town. That’s their choice, but the accurate name is the current one, that’s just how time marches on, whether you like it or not.

Schools get renamed as well, there is a healthy on-going debate about renaming Kennard Classical Junior Academy in the North Hampton neighborhood. Statues in our public spaces come and go, usually in an effort to keep up with the times and the political/social aires of the day. That’s a healthy thing. Time marches on. Debate should occur, and it’s a healthy discussion.

When it’s all said and done, parks tend to be a reflection of the community in which they reside. Maybe there are few exceptions, like Forest Park which has institutions within it that are the region’s, not just the city’s or the surrounding neighborhood’s.

If there was a local beloved celebrity, official or longtime park supporter, I suppose it’s okay to make the change. It’s kind of charming and refreshing.

Heck, the neighborhood I’ve lived in most recently is Fox Park, we have a single park called…Fox Park. Underwhelming? It can be a bit confusing and duplicative. I can think of two strong and dedicated women who’ve fought harder for dignity, equity and general upkeep of Fox Park (the park) that would be a lovely name for our park. I’m open to naming things after citizens who loved the park, not just politicians who worked the area for a brief period of time.

But in the aforementioned case, comparing the accomplishments of Davis vs. Carter, you could certainly make an argument that Davis had a far more lasting impact on St. Louis’ Parks and is maybe more deserving of a park name from an objective review of their lives and contributions to St. Louis, especially the park system.

Let’s take a quick, surface look at these two men’s accomplishments.

First Davis.

Dwight Davis led an incredibly successful life, including the change in thought patterns on parks being public spaces to be used by the people for athletics and not just as decoration/show places:

davis.jpg

In 1911, he (Davis) was appointed St. Louis Park Commissioner, and in that post made local history. Intensely interested in recreational facilities, he had the conviction, that public parks were intended for public use, not merely for appearance sake. He laid out baseball diamonds, tennis courts, golf courses and stirred up enthusiasm for outdoor sports. Mr. Davis was the man who took the "Keep Off The Grass" signs away from Park lawns and invited the public to make free use of every facility offered by his Department. Public Parks, he argued, belonged to the public. As a result, the organized use of municipal Parks for recreation centers spread throughout the country." (source)

That is a revolutionary thought…and better yet…action. He didn’t just yap, he actually did it.

Davis was born in St. Louis, the son of a former St. Louis Mayor Oliver Dwight Filley (1858-1861). He went to Harvard and received a law degree from Washington University. He was a veteran of the Army. He was St. Louis’ public parks commissioner from 1911 to 1915 when he expanded athletic facilities and created the first municipal tennis courts in the United States.

He served President Calvin Coolidge as Assistant Secretary of War (1923–25) and as Secretary of War (1925–29). He then served as Governor General of the Philippines (1929–32) under Herbert Hoover.

Maybe most important to his St. Louis contributions was his philosophy on parks as public areas to play sports of all kinds, especially tennis. This legacy lives on today as most parks have some kind of sporting facility.

Would Arthur Ashe have been without the groundwork that Davis laid? Who knows.

davis cup.jpg

Ever heard of the Davis Cup? Yep, that’s him.

The Davis Cup is the premier international team event in men's tennis. It is run by the International Tennis Federation and is contested annually between teams from competing countries in a knock-out format.

In 1900 Davis developed the structure for, and donated a silver bowl to go to the winner of, a new international tennis competition designed by him and three others known as the International Lawn Tennis Challenge, which was later renamed the Davis Cup in his honor. He was a member of the US team that won the first two competitions in 1900 and 1902, and was also the captain of the 1900 team.

He played for the United States tennis team in the 1904 Olympics, in both the singles and doubles tournaments.

His tennis legacy and contribution to St. Louis Parks is immense and lasting.

Sadly when I visited this park back in 2013, the tennis courts were recently renovated but the nets were destroyed by the park users. Damn shame.

So Dwight Davis will no longer be recognized for his contributions, but the tennis courts, ball fields, golf courses, etc. in our city parks will be his true legacy.

The park was recently renamed in honor of Gregory J. Carter.

 Photo source -  Riverfront Times

Photo source - Riverfront Times

Carter grew up in the 27th Ward and comes from a family of politicians and government workers. Again, he died tragically in an accident at age 54 driving a UPS truck in St. Charles County, MO.

Per a 2012 St. Louis American article following his death:

“A native St. Louisan, Greg Carter was the son of Willie Carter Sr. and the late state Senator Paula J. Carter. He grew up on the city’s North Side in the 27th Ward, where he was first elected alderman in April 1993.

He graduated from Northwest High School and studied at Southeast Missouri State and Columbia College, earning a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing. He had been an employee of the United Parcel Service since 1984.

At the time of his death, he was chair of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee and vice chair of the African American Aldermanic Caucus. He also served as executive director of the Paula J. Carter Foundation, lifetime member of the NAACP and member of the National League of Cities, 100 Black Men of Metropolitan St. Louis and H. McGhee Lodge #3, Prince Hall Free and Accepted Masons of Missouri.

He received the Trailblazer Award from 100 Black Men, Chairman Award from the Human Development Corporation, Lifetime Achievement Award from the St. Louis Teachers and School Related Personnel Union Local 420, the Walbridge Community Education Lifetime Achievement Award, the Achievement Award of the Missouri Waste Coalition and Community Services Award from the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri.”

Accolades from the same St. Louis American article:

“Alderman Carter was a vigilant advocate for his ward and all of St. Louis,” his colleagues in the African American Aldermanic Caucus said in a statement. “He was greatly concerned with the plight of the poor and disenfranchised.”

No doubt, he was very connected to the legacy of the black political machine in St. Louis and by most accounts, he was a good public servant and advocate for what he and his constituents stood for at the time. But the Census data during his tenure prove that the people were not picking up what was being laid down as the 27th Ward has seen staggering losses of residents, all African-American. The Black Flight of our times was right in his backyard and an on-going sad part of our history.

Obviously, not all blame rests on the shoulders of a single person/politician, but an Aldermen can arguably have the most impact on a neighborhood. Walnut Park East continues to struggle to this day. Check it out and let me know if you disagree.

Let me make this clear, I’m not trying to tear this guy down or disparage his name. I’m simply trying to make the point that Davis may have had a much more impressive tenure and long lasting impression on our park system as a whole. It’s at a minimum open for debate.

When people lose an important contemporary local figure in the community, they look for ways to commemorate them immediately, while the sting is still fresh in their minds. This is what caring human beings do. But is it right to wipe Dwight Davis’ contributions from the park system?

Maybe a statue to Mr. Carter in the park would have been equally fitting. I’m not sure his credits matched those of Davis’.

There will always be some level of controversy when naming anything after a person. You can find dirt on nearly anyone. But, lasting accomplishments and contributions to our city should hold weight.

So I’ll miss the commemorative reminder of Dwight Davis’ contributions to St. Louis yet I’ll equally try to come to terms with another middling politician replacing him.

Race should be considered as well.

I recently heard an local African-American political type say “race is everything in St. Louis”. I’m not sure I agree with that in modern day, but it crosses your mind that race may have been at play here in the decision. And it’s clear that those who live in the neighborhood should have a loud voice, a heavily weighted one for sure.

When it’s all said and done, I’m not going to lose sleep over this one. There should be credence given to hyper-local decisions.

However, these 108 St. Louis parks are everyone’s not just the neighborhood(s) in which they reside.

Frankly, I think naming a park is important enough to come to a vote. Let the entire city decide.

Balance. Diversity. Equity. A voice for all, not just some. Those that choose to live in St. Louis now are the ones we need to build a city for, not those in the past. But, history is important and should never be forgotten.

What’s the city’s process for park name changes?

By my ten minutes of research, name changes to public places, including parks, are brought to the Board of Alderman and they vote on it.

Thanks to a brief Twitter exchange, I asked how name changes come to be and Twitter user “7th Ward Woman” @stl17thward sent me a link to a recent ordinance proposal from 2017.

“BOARD BILL NO. 115 INTRODUCED BY ALDERMAN FRANK WILLIAMSON, ALDERWOMAN SHARON TYUS, ALDERMAN JOSEPH VACCARO, ALDERWOMAN CHRISTINE INGRASSIA, ALDERMAN DAN GUENTHER, ALDERWOMAN HEATHER NAVARO An Ordinance renaming the City park in the 26th Ward known as Parkland Park, the new name of said park to be Frank Williamson Sr. Park, and containing an emergency clause.”

Such proposals are heard by the Parks and Environment committee.

I’m not sure where this one referenced above ended up, but the renaming of Parkland Park to a person is fine by me. The underwhelming current name of this park is simply a nod to Parkland Place, a street with gorgeous homes overlooking the late 1960’s park. This is the park with the dilapidated cannons and a strange brutalist walkway that is crumbling under the lack of care of the park. Couple that with the shuttered mid-Century school across the street and you can tell the 1960’s renaissance never took. It didn’t last.

I won’t break down Mr. Williamson’s contributions for brevity sake in this post. However, you see that these re-namings can be a family affair in our small city of ~300K. With the nepotism-laden political structure we have here, this is not entirely surprising. It’s just that easy to name something after a family member. Maybe too easy. This is not a new thing Aboussie Park, Slay Park, Jet Banks Park, the list goes on.

Maybe the public should weigh in to reign in the nepotism and underwhelming political pattings on back. Or, journalists covering the city should bring this to light and break down the history and political will to make the change.

As of publishing, Parkland Park still exists on the official city website. Dwight Davis is wiped from the record.

So it goes. I’ll miss Dwight Davis Park but will always remember his lasting legacy of athletics for the people and in our public spaces. I’m sure Carter’s contributions as a local politician are worthy of study.

Mr. Davis, you are gone from the St. Louis park system, but not forgotten.