The richest soil, if uncultivated, produces the rankest weeds.
On the morning of New Year’s Day, my children and I walked over to Railroad Park. The weather was mostly cloudy and on the cool side as we left our building, but the exertion of the hike and the warming rays of the sun that burned determinedly around and through the spreading cloud cover had us all shed of our jackets not long after we arrived.
We have been regular users of Railroad Park since it opened back in the fall of 2010, and our visit of 90 or so minutes to start this year was pretty typical. We roamed along the little stream that winds near the southern edge of the park for most of its length, stopping to look at fish, snails, plants and rocks and disposing of a few stray bits of trash that had made their way into or near the water. We ran footraces on the big lawn. We stopped to admire at least a half-dozen dogs walking with their owners. I read a book while my kids joined three others running up and rolling down the terraced hillside tucked into the park’s northwest corner. They wandered back over to the stream for a while, managed to get themselves thoroughly muddy, and then indicated their readiness to head home by coming and sprawling next to me as I read.
Walking out along the asphalt trail that rings the park’s perimeter, I got to looking around at all of the trees that were planted three-plus years ago. It seemed to me that they’re getting notably taller, which put me in mind of saying to someone around the time the park opened that, as nice as it is, it’s really going to be something lush when all of those trees reach maturity.
Based on the next to nothing I know about trees, I’m guessing that time is at least a decade in the future, and possibly a good deal longer. A lot can happen in that time — to the trees, to the park, to the city, and to the current sense among the civically oriented that Birmingham’s reach is ceasing to exceed its grasp, that greatness is our prize for the taking. I believe that, too, with a couple of caveats: Greatness is ours — if we find ways to work together to build on the strong foundation established over the past few years. Or, put another way, if we don’t screw it up.
Or, put still another way: What will Birmingham be like when — and if — we reach civic maturity?
After the kids and I arrived back home from our New Year’s Day jaunt, I spent some time digging up an essay I wrote after visiting the Railroad Park for the first time, a couple of days after the gala opening attended by thousands. I went on a Friday evening, and wrote later that night of coming up the broad, tapering steps at the park’s entrance off 18th Street and being transported by the “jewel of a public space” displayed before me into what, rereading the piece three years later, appears to have been a state of civic ecstasy.
Moms and dads pushed strollers, I wrote. Couples, old and young, walked the paths or lounged on blankets in the grass. Knots of people sat on the park’s benches and low walls or at the tables under the lovely metal-roofed pavilion. … Kids climbed on equipment in the play areas and cavorted in the open green space. In short, we seem to have ourselves a park that aspires to do what an urban park is supposed to: Give the citizens of the city a place to be together, thence to form and strengthen the bonds of collective civic identity that help propel a community to greatness.
And so it seems to be doing. And so I continue to feel, visiting the park alone, with my kids, or for a public event. There is a special energy about the place, a palpable sense that people — young and old, rich and poor, black and white — are there not just for themselves, but for their community. That they are there out of both the desire to partake of the fruits of progress and the determination to be a part of seeing that progress continue.
I’m far from the first to observe that Railroad Park is an apt metaphor for the Birmingham in which we live at this moment. It is a metaphor for Birmingham’s accomplishments and its aspirations, for the distance we have come as a community and the distance that remains between what we are now and what we hope we are becoming. It is a metaphor for the work that needs to be done, the growth only beginning to take place, the creation of something that will last for generations to come, if only we do not squander the opportunity inherent in it.
In that sense, we should think of Railroad Park — and Birmingham — not as something that is complete, but as something that is still growing, evolving, becoming. That park and our community are beautiful works in progress, part of a never-ending process of creation, an ever-changing tableau of challenge and opportunity.
We owe it to ourselves, and to those who will populate Birmingham long after those Railroad Park trees have reached their towering prime, to make the most of the many treasures now at our disposal. To do less is be less than good citizens.