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City Hall Park and hot dogs

02/18/03 12:00AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(Host) Even though it's cold outside, commentator Cheryl Hanna is starting to think about hanging out in City Hall Park this summer.

(Hanna) One of my favorite things to do when the weather gets warm is to go to the park with a blanket and a good book. That's why I was thrilled when I moved into a home just across the street from City Hall Park in Burlington last year. Public use of the park goes all the way back to 1798. It's the heart of the city for both those of us who live in Burlington and the thousands of tourists who visit in the summer. I assumed that it would be my second summer home.

But I was wrong. In the warmer months, the park is a magnet for drug dealers, the homeless, and troubled kids. The once flowing fountain is usually filled with shampoo and other debris, and, frankly, it just isn't safe to walk through the park alone, especially after dark. Businesses that border the park complain that the park hurts business, and tourists are often unnerved when they wander through and are harassed by the teens who've claimed the benches as their own.

So the city has decided to employ a new weapon in the war to reclaim the park. Hot dogs. Yes, hot dogs. The Burlington Parks Department recently announced that it wants a food cart in the park this summer. It's hoping a vendor will act as another set of eyes and ears in the park. Silly as it may seem at first, it's a strategy many urban planners use to improve crime-infested neighborhoods.

But many don't think this approach is strong enough and have called for the Burlington Police to be more aggressive with the homeless and drug dealers. They think we need to crack down on minor crimes like loitering and panhandling, just as Rudi Giuliani did when he was mayor of New York. But even though Giuliani was successful in cleaning up the parks, it wasn't a strategy without costs. Many think that the police violated civil rights and showed little compassion for the homeless.

We Vermonters might not like such a heavy handed police presence in the park, even though something more is certainly needed to get drugs out of the park. One of the best new initiatives comes from the Burlington Rotary Club. In partnership with the city, it's undertaken a project to revive the park to be a welcoming public square. With the help of local businesses, it's raised over $30,000 for improvements, including new benches and flowerbeds. And the Rotarians are urging local citizens to help take responsibility for the protection of the park. The city, they say, can't do it alone.

And they're right. It's up to all of us to keep our parks clean and safe and user-friendly. So this summer, as I head to the park with a blanket and a book, I'll consider it my civic duty to treat myself to a hot dog.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.
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