Monday, March 13, 2006


Uneasy Passage

In our salad days, Red State Rabble lived, for a time, just across from Prospect Park, in the section of Brooklyn known as Windsor Terrace.

Every morning and afternoon, we walked Clancy, a golden retriever who combined a sweet personality with a single-minded passion for the flight characteristics of his Frisbee, around the park’s 60-acre lake.

Constructed just after the Civil War, Prospect Park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux to transport urban New Yorkers from the city streets to a replica of the vanishing American wilderness.

When we lived there, the city was gripped by financial crisis. The lake was polluted and the park neglected. Homeless people had taken up residence in some of the park buildings. It could be a dangerous place at night. Once envisioned as an escape from the city, the park was now unable to keep the problems of the urban landscape beyond its borders.

Despite hard times, enough remained of the park’s original vision to draw denizens of the streets, such as Red State Rabble, from the asphalt and concrete on the other side of Prospect Ave. to the lake, the forest, and lush green meadow inside the park.

Amid the crumbling infrastructure, polluted water, and uncollected litter, it was still possible to feel a connection to nature and for some, perhaps, a connection to god.

On our morning walks, it was not at all unusual for Clancy and I to come across the odd bloodied and beheaded chicken, feet bound, dangling upside down like some satanic ornament from one of the trees that lined the lake – an offering from one of the Voodoo practitioners among the large Haitian community living along Flatbush Ave. on the other side of the park.

One fine spring afternoon we watched saffron-robed monks release huge, multi-colored carp from a tanker truck into the lake. The fish, stunned by the sudden plunge from the relative warmth of the holding tank to the still-cold water of the lake, floated helplessly on their backs turning aimless circles on the surface.

As we leaned against a rock wall to watch, a cheerfully fierce multicultural army of skinny young boys, perhaps nine or ten years old, splashed into the shallows to club the newly free fish with sticks and smash them with stones pried from the bank while Clancy, barking madly, darted among them to claim his own prize, and the monks watched stone-faced from the shore.

That was more than 20 years ago. The watercourse in Prospect Park, now in the midst of a $43 million 25-year restoration project, is once again clean, free-flowing, and home to more than 20 species of fish. The clash of cultures that is New York continues to negotiate the uneasy passage from what once was to what will be.

Here in the heartland the competing religious and cultural visions that were acted out inside the wilds of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park are only now beginning to be felt.

Last year, at a talent show in our youngest daughter’s elementary school, the acts that brought down the house were a mixed group – white and black -- of Hip Hop dancers, a white father daughter team who performed a rousing cover of Ray Charles’ “Hit the Road Jack,” and a fifth-grader in an elaborate costume from her homeland on the Indian Sub-continent who performed a Hindi folk dance to a recording of sitar music.

While the population of Kansas increased by just 9 percent between 1990 and 2000, the number of immigrants living in the state more than doubled during that time. Changes in the meatpacking industry continue to draw large numbers of Spanish speaking immigrants to Southwest Kansas, fueling a battle over school funding.

There may not yet be headless chickens hanging from the trees in Kansas, but the signs of impending change are more and more evident. In response religious conservatives have moved to write their own religious and cultural values into the laws of the state and the curriculum in the schools.

But, writing their religion into the laws and curriculum will do nothing to stop the globalization of Kansas. And religious conservatives may one day wake up to find that those laws, written as a bulwark against change, now lock them out instead.


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