Skirting around the rules at Center City Park

by Brian Clarey

Kids. And dogs. And waterfalls.

As the golden sun dips behind the burgeoning skyline, Center City Park is kinetic, frenetic, with all of these kids running around and the lively water features and these dogs at the end of taut leashes seeking out all of these fascinating smells – fried food and dark beer and light sweat and excitement. And there’s more than a few of Greensboro’s indigent population slipping among the throng.

They’re shoulder-tapping and whispering, sitting nonchalantly on the pressed wood benches and initiating conversation before putting the touch on one hoople or another.

They’ve got to make their hay while the sun is setting here in the privately-built green space at our urban center. Panhandling is most assuredly frowned upon, and the posted rules make it a difficult venture indeed.

“Camping is prohibited and is defined as resting or sleeping anywhere in the Park while in possession of several days of clothing and/or other camping materials.”

Also prohibited on park grounds: “Storing or leaving personal belongings unattended” and something about the molestation of animals.

And there is no consumption of alcohol without a proper permit. They’re cleared for wine and beer tonight as part of the park’s weeklong spring celebration, and I’ve snuck in a couple airplane bottles of brandy because I’m one of those guys who likes to break the rules.

I open one and drain half of it with a shiver. Nobody seems to notice. I have a cigarette while I’m at it – another thumbing of my nose.

You can’t smoke out here. And there is a specific rule about the consumption, possession and distribution of marijuana.

I’m not gonna touch that one, though I do wonder about the date of these opening proceedings: It’s Friday, April 20. Also known as 4-20. Also known as National Weed Day.

Is it possible that, of the entire group involved in the planning of Center City Park’s first big to-do, none of them knew about 4-20? Or is there someone on the committee even now snickering about the illustrious date?

Either way, it would be extremely ill-advised to spark one out here. There are cops everywhere, strolling about the periphery on this balmy evening with sweet-detail smiles and easy “how-do-you-do”s. It’s a pretty good beat to walk, as far as beats go.

There are these nice benches out here – not for resting, mind you – and intricate brickwork, lush lawns, solemn granite, beaucoup sculpture and a cozy cedar performance space.

And the fountainry: They’re gushing and rushing everywhere. Seriously, there’s a Vegas-like amount of water features out here, from a long, graduated terrace of waterfalls to the overarching bursts along one of the brick walkways.

It’s hard to believe I once worked in this space, on the second floor of the brick Network Building when it stood at the corner of Elm and Friendly, back when they rolled up the sidewalks at 6 p.m. and the only folks who walked these streets after midnight were looking for a different kind of action.

The price tag for this space was $12 million and the upkeep should run $400,000 annually, split between Downtown Greensboro Inc. and Action Greensboro, who will jointly pick up half of the tab, and the city taxpayers. It’s an odd arrangement – public money for private property – and it raises questions about nuances of ownership. It also makes me wonder about all of these damn rules, whether they are legally enforceable or not and if they’ll ever be put to the test.

But the space itself makes a strong argument for its existence.

It’s pretty damn nice out here, especially right now as dusk settles into a cool midnight blue and you can feel the spray from the fountains on your face. The children scamper and the dogs pull at their tethers and the beggars ease through the crowd like grease.

Down by Davie Street the grown folks gather to hear the headlining act, the Urban Sophisticates, fronted by the James brothers, Aaron and Benton, and staffed with horns, lively guitar and a tight rhythm section. It’s fairly crowded, but not overly so, with ages ranging from pre-teen spastic to grizzled former hipster and plenty of hotties, baseball-cap drunks, after-work scenesters and night-on-the-town parents to fill out the ranks. They’re laughing and drinking and dancing as Benton James keeps time on the stage with stomps of his giant shoe.

And just to the right of the stage a three-man crew of B-boys has secured a square of cardboard to the street with thick masking tape. They jiggle and pop and spin like gyroscopes as a gaggle forms.

One of the watchers, a thin boy who looks to be about 10 years old, cannot get enough of the street performers and his spindly legs churn as he sits curbside. At a lull in the action the boy bounces up and takes to the cardboard mat in an adolescent shuck and jive, capped off with a modified handspring and scissor kick that is in many ways indescribable.

The B-boys laugh and clap as the Sophisticates spread their sound over the park. No rule against that. Yet.

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