Photo by Jeremy Hogan – The Bloomingtonian
By Jason Hillenberg
People’s Park, born out of the tumult of the late 1960s, is no more.
The park still exists. However, the days when a human grab bag of disoriented drug users, teenagers, transients, drunks, drug dealers, disaffected locals, and wayward hippies roamed the lot are long past. Walk past the park nowadays and you are lucky to see one or two people eating on one of the benches or milling about.
Nostalgia for those days is a curious thing. Frequent Facebook groups and pages where veterans discuss their tenure as a “Parkie” and you’ll be forgiven for coming away from the experience convinced the Park’s halcyon years were a quasi-Utopia in a sea of Midwestern mediocrity.
Look deeper, however, and survey the lay of the land for modern Bloomington. A different story emerges. It isn’t difficult to see the rise and fall of this patch of land and its geographical descendants as a microcosm for late 20th-century America. The promise and chaos of the late 1960s took root there born from racial violence. The firebombing of the Black Market prodded the local counterculture to co-opt the land as a gathering place and it’s no coincidence that they gravitated towards land less than a city block away from Indiana University. The rest of conservative Bloomington wouldn’t have tolerated it anywhere else.
Even in those early days, however, the drama of American dissipation played out. The assorted arrests for drug possession, public drunkenness, petty theft, and disorderly conduct are part of the Park’s story from the beginning. America’s disenfranchised are scarcely Rotary Club aspirants. They are the addicted, the scarred, the traumatized, and the hopeless. Anesthetizing despair with 80 proof or stronger, narcotics, hallucinogens, and so forth, is as old as humanity itself. As the world spun faster and faster, as the center increasingly could not hold, the fix needed to neuter psychic pain grows larger.
You see it in the larger story of America as well. Many of the pot smokers and LSD adherents of the late 1960s graduated to speed of various stripes, heroin, and cocaine. Huxley’s doors of perception became trapdoors on generational gallows where a significant portion of the 60’s flower children and their progeny hung themselves. “Straight” America looked on horrified and predictably self-righteous while they sipped wine, guzzled beer, and kicked back Cutty Sark by the gallon.
Enter our B-movie actor President Ronnie Raygun and the 1980s. The Park’s hippies were still there, but a generation of punk rock devotees and headbanging rockers joined the party. The fix got stronger, fatalism setting in, but they were raging against the dying of the light. The businesses in the area railed, as always, against this ill-behaved rabble that discouraged Bloomington’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith from venturing further east than the county library. The Me Generation manifested itself in its own way within the Park’s borders. It was an incestuous crew, as always, rife with friendships, but plagued as well with predators preying on weakness and need. Welcome to America, circa 198-.
I found my way there near the end of the first half of the 1990s. I look back now and remember the walking wounded, the homeless spare-changing their way to the next bottle, the 25-35-year-old men, invariably with a felony or two on their record, pouncing on any willing pretty teenage girl. The summers would often bring hippies drifting through town, often on their way to a regional Rainbow gathering or potluck, but it would also bring drifters running from one thing or another. It wasn’t great when I first landed and became worse as the years dragged on.
Bloomington’s finest led me out of the Park in handcuffs, blotto drunk, more times than I legitimately remember. I saw scores of others stagger toward squad cars as well. The Age of Clinton and a booming economy left no mark on the Park beyond underlining how the mentally ill, addicted, dually diagnosed, and hurting were crazier, more desperate, more addicted, and hurting more than ever before. Solidarity was a mirage. It was every man and woman for themselves and those who say otherwise are either lying to themselves or they were not there.
The mass pat-down that occurred under the auspices of our late and not lamented city police chief Steve Sharp produced howls of indignation. I remember the rally that happened in its aftermath and the march from Kirkwood to the Justice Building. What pissed Parkies off more than anything else, really, was that the city wouldn’t leave them alone to sell drugs, smoke dope, and drink cheap liquor. The undercurrent of every angry voice was you’ve turned this country into a cesspool of greed and inhumanity, you’ve cut us out of this bogus American Dream you peddle like bunk acid, leave us alone, and let us do our thing. I didn’t march on the Justice Building. I left with a couple of others, bought a bottle of tequila, and guzzled the afternoon away.
Eventually, technology and the surrounding city planning did what successive Mayors and council members couldn’t. Cell phones killed the Park. Closing Space Port killed the Park. The poor optics of snorting meth, smoking crack, or shooting up on a bench pushed the addicted out into far-flung public parks, government housing, and other cheap apartments. Most of the old crew of drunks died off. Some of those drug users and alcoholics managed sobriety, finding new playmates and playgrounds. Some rotated from one prison sentence to another, never on the streets for long.
Today you see the legacy of what People’s Park became at the corner of 2nd and Walnut. Seminary Park, once the home of Bloomington High School, is the politically contentious hub for the desperate and walking wounded. It symbolizes what America has devolved into. An open-air market of drug abuse, despair, and a smattering of human beings trying to hold on in a nation that views them as parasitic eyesores instead of human beings in distress. The hoary and dishonest platitudes about classic American self-reliance ring hollow. A nation of puffed-up hatemongering rugged individualists rage with anger over people sleeping in tents while the rest of Rome burns. They pay no attention to the lit matches in their hands.
The remaining Park veterans? They wax pseudo-poetic about a paradise that never was, rage in their own way, convinced there is such a thing as good hatred, and often sound like inversions of the parents they disdained. People’s Park was a community, they looked out for one another, it was us against the world, and let’s remember, once more with feeling, those idyllic days gone by. I will say I formed bonds there still intact years later. We are akin to war survivors. I will say the staggering body count from my generation is unconscionable and still racking up corpses years after the fact. I remember when Molly Shimer died. A lost and almost alwaysintoxicated traumatized young woman, who many mocked and laughed at when she was in her cups, who some urinated on when she passed out, earned a memorial ceremony where many of the same people bemoaned her tragic fate. Memory is a curious thing. People who wouldn’t be caught dead there as young men and women claim they were regulars. Others who I don’tremember at all rhapsodize about Trig, Zo, and scores of others enshrined in the Park’s tawdry pantheon. And so it goes. To paraphrase a famous movie quote, when myth becomes fact, print the myth.