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How did it get this far?: Denny Blaine Park safe, but questions remain

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Andy Sheffer, project manager with Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation holds the mic as community members line up to speak against the proposed children's play area — Photo by Teddy MacQuarrie
Andy Sheffer, project manager with Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation holds the mic as community members line up to speak against the proposed children's play area — Photo by Teddy MacQuarrie

Hundreds of people packed the MLK FAME Community Center on Wednesday, December 6 to protest a proposal of building a playground at Denny Blaine Park.

The $550,000 proposal by a single anonymous donor would have placed a children's play area at the historically Queer nude park, setting up near-certain conflicts between nudists, parents, and law enforcement. Denny Blaine Park's passionate and protective regulars turned up to defend their space from what they overwhelmingly saw as an attempt by an affluent donor to displace a vibrant Queer community.

Andy Sheffer, the Seattle Parks and Recreation official leading the meeting, said that the City would make its decision within two weeks. Less than 48 hours later, the Seattle Times reported that the City had scrapped the proposal, a welcome development to the park's aficionados.

Despite this decision, a major question of trust remains: How can a single unknown person instigate a process with the potential to displace a Queer community?

Organizer Milo Kusold holds a sign after Wednesday's meeting — Photo by Teddy MacQuarrie  

A higher-than-expected turnout
Hundreds of people packed into the crowded room, leaving many to stand in and outside the community center's sweltering auditorium. So many people lined up to speak that the meeting ran half an hour past its planned adjournment.

"I am so, so, so overwhelmed and happy," said organizer Milo Kusold to the SGN. "Everyone says they're going to come, and I have this inner child who's like, no one's gonna show up to the party, but everyone... showed up!"

Kusold added, "Hearing people share their stories, I think I teared up like four times."

As dozens of people lined up to share their stories, it became clear that the park holds a special place in the lives of many who don't always feel safe in other parts of the city. Speakers shared their stories of harassment and discrimination, and of their struggles to live in Queer bodies.

Transgender speakers, in particular, highlighted how the park is the only place in Seattle they feel safe to swim.

Other speakers brought up concerns related to the lack of necessity for the play area, referring to the affluent status of the surrounding neighborhood and Seattle Parks and Recreation's own data that indicates that space as an "area of least concern" for its children's play area plans. One speaker sardonically quipped, "I've always heard that Seattle was becoming a playground for the rich. I didn't realize they meant that literally."

Community members crowd the MLK FAME Community Center to "Save Denny Blaine." — Photo by Teddy MacQuarrie  

"We will never forgive you"
A Bisexual man shared his story of moving to Seattle from Texas to seek belonging, and how the park has helped in his struggle with body dysmorphia. At the end of his time allotment, he looked directly at Sheffer and said, "If you follow through on this project for the reasons you say, nobody will believe you, and we will never forgive you."

The crowd rapturously demonstrated its agreement.

"This is something that happens," said Salt, a community member, after the meeting. "People do try to attack these spaces — it's happened before, [and] it's going to keep happening, until the designation of an actual clothing-optional space in Seattle and having actual clothing-optional laws, not just lack of laws... [That] would be an important thing."

Seattle's laws allow for anyone to be nude anywhere in the city, except in cases in which nudity would be "disruptive" or "indecent." An example of "disruptive" public nudity includes proximity to a children's play area. An official clothing-optional designation on the part of the City would protect the park from challenges such as this, even if the intentions of donors are not explicitly discriminatory.

Feelings of suspicion and mistrust
At stake in this controversy was the community's trust in its leadership.

In the end, both Queer people and city officials are left to grapple with a hard truth: that after this debacle, the lack of transparency and the apparently antidemocratic process that brought the issue to this point has wounded the City's ability to assure the Queer community of its good faith.

The first step in healing this rift is to answer the question "How did it get this far?" Several people, as well as the SGN, have filed public record requests for documents concerning the process that led to this controversy. To date, these requests have gone unfulfilled, with all indications from the City that these records won't be made available until late February.

To heal these wounds, the City must provide transparency, and take concrete action to insure that unnamed, monied private interests do not threaten the safety of the Queer community. Without these actions and this assurance, controversies like this are likely to occur again.