Park People

story by JESSICA SPOOR

As many Americans secluded themselves to their homes amid this historic worldwide pandemic, many have continued to set their alarms and head off to work. Celebrated essential workers have been the frontline faces as hospital workers, grocery clerks and daycare teachers; however, the invisible essential worker has risen to the surface. You’ve most likely never seen them in their element, quickly and quietly removing graffiti from the side of a building, cleaning trash from each of our parks and clearing limbs from a storm that furiously swept through.

Just as they had done before, these invisible essential workers continue to take care of our parks and public spaces.

I met with a few of our own as they continue to create a sense of beauty in our shared spaces. Physically distant, of course.

Meet Kat Ryan, Grounds Team Leader at Howard Park

Since its big grand opening celebration back in November 2019, Howard Park has seen a resurgence of eager park-goers experiencing the brand-new playground, water feature and walkable trails. But outside of the common attractions lays a beautiful array of natural bioswales, beds of flowers and well manicured planters.

The past week prior to sitting down together, the weather hit close to record highs in the upper 90s. For most, it was almost unbearable to be too far away from any source of cool air. KAT RYAN, Grounds Team leader at Howard Park, doesn’t seem phased by the intense heat and humidity, bopping along pruning flowers and admiring the bees buzzing around her. “Don’t worry, this one doesn’t have a stinger,” she said, smiling, as I slowly back away. She turns back to pruning the lavender and it’s obvious Ryan really is in her element. She exhales. “This really is the dream.”

Ryan began working for Venues Parks & Arts over a year ago as a gardener with the horticulturist, but her eyes were on the new Howard Park, with a vision to create beauty—and sustainability—throughout.

“I try new things all the time. Right now, I’m taking the seeds of this plant,” She said, pointing to a beautiful pink flower—what I later learn is Echinacea, “…and replanting them in the bioswale area. They’re pollinators for the bees, and they’re really important, ya know?” It’s only one of the many aspects of the job that Ryan takes to heart, where many people wouldn’t think to notice.

Ryan is always visible somewhere in the park, tending to a flower bed or stopping to chat with a park “regular”, both equally important to the Venues Parks & Arts mission. “I have one lady who comes out every morning to read,” she said. “She sits and reads a bit, and then gets up and moves to a new spot…I love talking with our visitors.”

Regardless of what the job title may suggest, this passionate gardener and self-proclaimed Monarch mom has a constant smile on her face and dirt under her nails. “It’s my passion,” she said. “These plants are my babies and I work really hard to take care of them.”

Meet Tim Badders & Anthony Grundy, Tree Crew with the Forestry Department

The Forestry team within Venues Parks & Arts is a highly visible department among our city, once you see them pull up. The team of six operates some heavy equipment including bucket trucks reaching high above the treetops. As I near their worksite, I can hear the wood chipper truck from around the corner chewing the logs into mulch with ease. Despite the size of their trucks, the team moves in and out of parks and neighborhoods seamlessly throughout any given day, watering, trimming, planting and removing trees. Just as Ryan had the ability to not be defined by the weather extremes, this crew doesn’t either.

TIM BADDERS—one of two Group Leader Arborists within the Forestry team—isn’t fazed by a worldwide pandemic or even today’s blazing afternoon sun. It’s baking my shoulders as I stand watching him work, jumping into the bucket and heading into the sky. He’s just happy to do the job. “I love working, regardless,” he said. “Pandemic or not, I’d rather be out here doing this.”

The more people who seem to be home during this time has led to a bigger audience watching the chip truck eat away large tree trunks and the bucket hanging 75 feet in the air. “There’s always an audience, people waving from their porches,” he said. “People enjoy seeing what we do.”

It’s true. I’ve worked for VPA for almost 5 years, and it never gets old watching this team effortlessly take down limbs or remove a tree. Today, Badders is removing dead limbs from the large Cottonwood tree hanging across the St. Joseph River without a second thought. It’s one of the most dangerous jobs in any industry, but the passion for the job outweighs the dangers. “I always give it my all and do the best job I can do for the city.”

I back up noticing the tree limb from 75 feet up cracking, ready to fall succinctly to the ground below. The others are already aware, moving in unison, ready.

“We have a veteran group of guys, so there’s no job we can’t do,” said Arborist, ANTHONY GRUNDY. “It’s dangerous work from time to time and knowing the person next to you like I do, we’re like a well-oiled machine.”

Nearly a week later, they’d be seen around the city clearing storm debris that had swept through the West side. Their work is never-ending and it’s clear to me how incredibly important they are to our city. “Essential worker is just a new title, but this job and what we do has always been essential to me,” Grundy said.

Meet Rolando “Flaco” DeLeon, Graffiti Removal & Central Mowing

On any given day, Rolando—or FLACO, as most people know him—can be seen all around the city, inspecting streets and alleyways for graffiti. The Superintendent has the daunting task which can take days, but Flaco doesn’t mind. “I enjoy working outside and having the challenge of removing graffiti and cutting down the tall grass at vacant lots around the city,” he said.

I’ve only formally met Flaco once but have known about him since I started working with VPA. Everyone knows Flaco as a quiet guy, someone who takes the job on with the fullest amount of pride for his city and its residents. He’s not one to look for recognition or applause, yet the work he does is worthy of such.

Although he also oversees a large mowing crew who maintains vacant lots throughout the city, he only has a team of one part-timer who works directly with graffiti removal, which can make it challenging at times. The initiative began in 2011, a joint effort with the city’s Department of Community Investment and Code Enforcement along with Venues Parks & Arts. Since then, he’s seen his fair share of tagging.

“Beautifying the city has a nice feeling to it, like painting a wall and taking pride on that work after it’s finished,” he said. “Same with mowing a vacant lot or covering up profanity.”

With school still not physically in session, boredom can be seen from the empty spray paint cans, scattered. “Most likely this will be done again in the next two days,” he said. He’s covering a garage with white paint in an alleyway that was recently tagged by kids. He shares that these kids are only 10 or 11 years old. “It’s sad. I’ve seen them before, tagging this exact spot.”

Most of the graffiti removals cover up foul language like the one I’m at today, but there are moments when he sees a graffiti that’s done as works of art. Is it hard to cover up something that’s beautiful? “Those I may leave up for a few days before we come out and cover it up,” he said, smiling.

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Read more in the Fall/Winter 2020 Spark Magazine here.