Inside the Brown Bag

By Peg Brown

The Park—reflections of an urbanized North County girl

It certainly did not have the spaciousness or the amenities of a Deerfield Park. And it certainly did not reflect the grandeur of the great landscape architect of the late nineteenth century—Frederick Law Olmstead—-who, with his partner, is credited with transforming some of America’s largest cities, including New York, with its visionary oasis like Central Park.

As the parks and recreation areas of New England are slowly being transformed by the color and crackle of the discarded finery of the ever-present sentinel trees, I have once again slipped into a nostalgic mood, remembering a simpler time and a sacred place of my youth.

The park of my earliest years was a full square city block, a model that was repeated in every ward. One would imagine that the early city planners had conscientiously chosen to preserve some open space in the growing city and, by adapting the plans of architects of the time, replicated the square, well-laid out plan that we often associate with cities more indigenous to the mid-west. There were very few streets in Ogdensburg that did not run at 90 degree angles, until, of course, “urban renewal in the 1960’s”—but that’s another story.

Largely populated by significant oak trees, the park was, to a kid, a source of mystery and wonder. Located slightly off-center was a large structure, possibly about 20 feet in diameter, four feet high, made of concrete and painted white with a flat green ridge that highlighted the circumference. I was always told it was supposed to be a pool, but I have to admit that in all my years as resident and ex-patriot, I never saw it filled with anything but small puddles after a good rain. (I later found out that it had been drained during the polio epidemic of the early 1950s and was never refilled.) It was, however, a place to practice marching at what seemed at the time, very high in the air—or a place to hide—or practice tumbling in the leaves that inevitably gathered each fall in the basin. While the perimeter of the park was also bordered with concrete side-walks, the diagonal paths that crossed each way through the center of the square were but worn batches of dirt and black asphalt, that eventually connected you with your destination.

Anchored by the large Congregational Church, always with red doors, the Nichols Funeral Home, Madill School and a private residence, the park had very clear boundaries. The best part of living near the park was that my Grandmother Cordwell’s house was just a half-block away. One of my first memories of the park was being allowed to cross the diagonal path on my own; my Mother would bring me to the church corner and watch as I shuffled my feet through sticks, acorns and leaves to the opposite corner where my grandmother waited with watchful eye. I don’t remember ever hurrying, for the park provided a quiet interlude even then.

The park was not without opportunities for adventure. There was an above ground pipe (once the base of long decayed and missing teetertotters), and is still in evidence today. It encouraged us to practice our balance beam and monkey bar routines. And then there was “Swampy.” I never knew Swampy’s real name, but he was the overall clad, slightly built caretaker of the park, and, at that time, seemed very old to me. He had a small structure on the east side of the park that contained his maintenance tools and assorted other treasures.

Swampy never seemed to mind us tagging along after him on his rounds. And it seems like he could always spare a nickel for us to go to the nearby mom and pop store to buy a Popsicle—the kind you could split in half. I always picked orange, but was often forced to settle for a blue one chosen by a less savvy partner who occasionally controlled the nickel. We would split the popsicles, suck the flavor from them and leave a clear ice spear pointing off the stick. While my grandmother never liked the fact that Swampy treated us, I don’t remember any concern or paranoia that would undoubtedly accompany a similar gesture by a park caretaker today.

At Christmas time, the funeral home would place a small-scale replica of a church, complete with steeple, near Swampy’s shack. At night, it would be lit and would play Christmas carols with intermittent sounds of pealing bells. I would often lie in bed in my grandmother’s spare room at the front of her house and, through windows etched with frost (there was no heat in the upstairs), I would listen to the bells as they played in what seemed like a true Silent Night to me.

There were great discoveries, and a history lesson, to be found around the park as well. When I was a bit older and was allowed to roller skate (not through the park, but around it) to grandmother’s, I found that all sidewalks were indeed not created equal for skating. Across from the park was a patch of beige sidewalk blocks, with a symmetrical dotted pattern, that were so smooth, the skates glided. On this patch I never had to stop and tighten my skates with the key dangling from a white string around my neck because there were no bumps to shake the fittings loose. In later years, I noticed a small bronze plaque in the squares, with the initials WPA. I had been a long way, at the time, from being able to identify those initials with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s infrastructure initiatives. For years I thought these labels were purely to indicate where the best skating must be.

The park remains, the school is gone—replaced by ever-expanding medical buildings. The pool is also gone, replaced by a basketball court and upscale playground. The benches remain the same green and white color scheme, and Swampy’s shack has been rebuilt several times, but still stands in the same location. The church—with those same red doors—and the funeral home, albeit under a different name, still stand as sentinels over this honored piece of my childhood quilt. I don’t know what happened to the magical Christmas church and the super skating surface, while still there, is creased by cracks that host growing clumps of grass.

Forgive my slip into nostalgia this month, but the coming of the winter always leads my mind to wander “back home”.