Spring 2010

Decolonize Your Park

Fútbol Angeleño, on the run

Jennifer Doyle

Hansen Dam Park, Los Angeles. Photos Michael Wells, 2006.

Walking to meet a friend in London, I cut through a new housing complex. The apartment buildings wrap around a garbage-processing plant. Stinking trucks lumber in and out of the place all day long, suggesting a Victorian interior to a space that otherwise exhibits the sanitary gloss of twenty-first-century urban planning.

On a superfluous island of grass I spot a worn patch between two small trees. If this were a photograph, that spot would be its punctum. I’m sure it goes unnoticed by most who pass through here. The trees make a nice goal. They sit in front of a brick wall that bounces the ball right back to you. At least two people must play here, taking turns standing “between the sticks.” The space was designed to minimize this sort of thing. Cement sidewalks and raised curbs frame its minimal green space and direct pedestrian flow out of the complex. The grass is purposefully long, not the sort of thing you’d picnic or play on. But two kids found this one spot and stole it, leaving behind a muddy bit of denuded lawn. This sort of thievery happens all the time. It’s a small-time crime, really. Like shoplifting candy, it’s something kids are more likely to do just to see if they can get away with it—a gateway crime interesting only to novices.

London is a football-friendly city. In all honesty, taking this few feet of grass hardly merits the criminal metaphor I’m trying to stage here. The fight to claim space for this game was fought and won almost a century ago. If a park prohibits soccer in one spot, it makes room for it in another. Signs might prohibit “ball games,” but they rarely come right out and say “no football”—such a declaration of prejudice would invite vandalism. There is less at stake, too, in staging turf wars over the city’s greenery. London’s grounds are made of perpetually soft clay. The grass is thick and defiant. Hackney Marshes, a fabled park of dozens of pitches in North London in near constant use, is stubbornly verdant even if the fields are bumpy and wind-wept. I never saw a goal married to a basketball hoop until I spent a year working in London. First time I passed by one of these mixed-use courts I stopped in my tracks. Staring at a basketball hoop growing out of a cross bar, I marveled at a city where such miscegenation was no big thing. My astonishment was that of a foreigner, born and raised in a space where sports are explicitly set against each other, in a form of civil warfare.

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