At a crucial point during the Watergate investigations, White House Special Counsel John Dean warned Richard Nixon that a cancer was spreading through the Nixon presidency. Dean’s phrase lives on in infamy because of the potency of his word choice. Cancer is the insidious, implacable death force of the 20th century. Despite its current contest with AIDS for the status of most-feared disease, cancer, the very mention of the word “cancer,” still has the power to move people in mysterious ways. For proof of that fact, witness the current struggle to establish a monument to cancer survivors in Elmington Park on West End.
The conflict has the potential to erupt into a bitter, albeit civil war. The combatants are the residents of West End neighborhoods surrounding Elmington Park. Aligned with the supporters of the Cancer Survivors Park are Nashville investment broker and cancer survivor Frank Emerson, who is spearheading the project, as well as David Kleinfelter, who represents the district in Metro Council. Their opponents include a group of neighbors, many of whom live in the Whitland Avenue area, and a number of alumni of West End High School. The grounds that surround the former West End High School (now a middle school) spill over into the Elmington Park property. Caught between the two opposing factions are Metro Parks Director Jim Fyke and the members of the Metro Parks and Recreation Board. Outside pressure is being applied by Richard A. Bloch, of H & R Block tax-return fame, and his Richard and Annette Bloch Foundation.
The Bloch Foundation has pledged $1 million for the design and construction of a Cancer Survivors Park in Nashville. A quarter of a million dollars is to be spent for sculpture, while $750,000 is designated for improvements to the site. An additional $100,000 from Bloch is to be set aside in a special Metro Parks Department account to endow the park’s maintenance.
The park proposed for Nashville is not a unique venture for Richard Bloch. In 1990, in hopes of dispelling the notion that cancer is inevitably fatal, he built his first Cancer Survivors Park in Kansas City. Bloch’s proselytizing is a highly personal crusade. In 1978 he was diagnosed with lung cancer and was informed that he had three months to live. Since the Kansas City project, the Bloch Foundation has established Cancer Survivors Parks in five other cities, and numerous others are in the works. If Nashville’s park becomes a reality, it will be the 14th of Bloch’s projects to be completed.
Richard Bloch’s generic prospectus for his parks demands a site that is visible to a large number of people, both persons who have already been diagnosed with cancer and the one-in-four people who may be affected by the disease in the future. The prospectus also requires that the park include a sculptural focal point, a computer containing the names of local five-year cancer survivors, and a “Positive Mental Attitude Walk” consisting of 14 plaques, engraved with inspirational quotations and suggestions for fighting cancer.
According to Parks Director Fyke, Emerson brought the Survivors Park proposal to him about two years ago. “I suggested Centennial Park, but that didn’t work out. I then suggested Elmington Park, which I guess makes me the villain. I thought the neighbors would welcome an added feature to the park. Shows you how much I know.”
According to Fyke, Emerson also asked about building the Suvivors Park in the Warner Parks. Fyke quickly informed him, however, that “a monument of any sort does not fit the master plan for the Warner Parks, which calls for increased naturalism.” Fyke is careful to outline the chronology of events, since, he says, “there are rumors circulating that Elmington was selected as a fallback after Warner Parks turned it down. That just isn’t true.”
Possible park sites on Blakemore and Church Street were also explored. The Blakemore location proved to be too small; the land on Church Street was too expensive to acquire and clear.
Thus, in 1995, the project returned to Elmington Park. The positives seemed high: The city already owned the land. The Bloch Foundation liked the fact that tens of thousands of cars pass by the site every day. Metro Parks liked the $750,000 that could be used for general improvements such as drainage, sidewalks, the restoration of a 1930s WPA-built stone wall near West End, and the reworking of traffic patterns through the park.
At its Sept. 5 meeting, the Metro Parks Board granted conceptual approval to a Memo of Understanding between Emerson and the city. This approval in concept was granted with the understanding that a design competition would be held to select an architect for the park, that the winning design would be approved by the Parks Board, and that, under the terms of the memo, Emerson would be able to demonstrate the support of “the area’s Council members and all affected neighborhood groups.”
It was at about that time, remembers Fyke, that “all hell broke loose.” Many area residents claimed that they had not received notification of meetings held on Aug. 29 and Sept. 2 to assess neighborhood support for the project. Council member Kleinfelter scheduled another public meeting for Sept. 16. Thirty-six persons attended, but, again, a number of area residents claimed they had not been informed of the meeting. “Kleinfelter didn’t expect opposition,” says one opponent of the project. “He presented the whole thing as a fait accompli.”
In October a letter of opposition was circulated in the neighborhood. Attached to the letter was a postcard addressed to West End area residents Ann and Jon Shayne. The text on the card consisted of a message to Mayor Phil Bredesen, stating objections to the Cancer Survivors Park in Elmington; there was also room for additional comments. The Shaynes sent copies of the cards to, among others, Bredesen, Kleinfelter, Fyke and the members of the Parks Board.
When writers added their own remarks, they most often expressed concern for preserving the park’s existing open space. Devoting one or two of the park’s 13.3 acres to the Bloch proposal, many feared, might interfere with the playing fields that are the heart of the park’s major attraction. More than one writer suggested, as an alternative, that the Survivors Park be built in Centennial Park “near all the hospitals”; another proposed Warner Parks as being “closest to all the doctors.” A number of the writers identified themselves as cancer survivors; many suggested that Bloch’s money would be better spent on cancer research.
A sizable number suggested that a “less family-oriented” or “inner city” location might be more appropriate. Some dubbed the project “commercial” or said that it “smacks of advertising.” Others expressed fears of increased traffic, graffiti-wielding vandals, and a “hang-out location for all the wrong people.” One resident protested, “I moved here thinking it was an ‘up-scale’ community, and I expected it to remain that way.”
Many responses centered on children. One parent of three questioned why kids “should have to deal with the reminder of this dreadful disease every day. The children have enough fears.” Others said, more euphemistically, that “schools are not the ideal audience” and that a Cancer Survivors Park is a “place no child should have to see.”
Recent conversations with opponents of the project reveal that months of discussion have not assuaged their concerns. “It’s easy to be in favor of a feel-good thing,” says one resident. “But the point of the Cancer Survivors Park is to send a message, and the park has to be designed to be noticed by what they call the casual passer-by. That works against the nature of Elmington Park, which is a green open space where people go and linger for a couple of hours.” The resident says he is not just concerned about a message about cancer. Instead, he says, he is bothered by any message-in-a-park. “Do we want a park to be used for campaigning for causes?” he asks.
Another neighbor points out that the message of the Survivors Park “cuts both ways. It’s a good messagebut hard for families and friends of non-survivors. They don’t want daily exposure to it where they live.”
Cancer Survivors Park supporters such as Jane Hardy say that the proposed location, in an L-shape along West End and Elmington Avenues, will have no impact on the playing fields. She suggests that the project be used as the occasion for the development of a master plan for the entire park. To that end, she and a group calling themselves the Elmington Park Advocacy Group have drafted design guidelines that must be approved by the Bloch Foundation to retain their support.
Survivors Park advocate Axson West acknowledges that maintenance could eventually be a problem, but he insists that it is not an insurmountable obstacle. “If 75 percent of the $1 million will be used to improve Elmington Park, to build sidewalks and keep the open spaces, then I think it could enhance property values,” West says. “I am afraid that there has been some disinformation floating around. There are peoplegood peoplewho have trouble with the word ‘cancer.’ But death is a part of life, and cancer can sometimes be licked. That’s the message, and it’s a good one.”
Proponents and opponents of the park project both claim that their causes are based upon simple rationality, while their opponents are being driven by blind emotion or softheartedness.
The opponents have valid reasons to be concerned about just what the park-within-a-park will look like and how it will fit into its site. Previous Cancer Survivors Parks have been built or designed for urban locations and feature manmade elements that reflect their surrounding, highly urban environments. If their monument is to be at home in Elmington Park, Bloch and company must be willing to naturalize the prototype by using more landscape and less hardscape. They would also be well advised to get rid of the computer’s synthesized voice.
The proponents of the project recognize that, without some design adaptations, all will be lost. They are bringing to town Milosav Cekic, the architect of the first Cancer Survivors Park and a number of others, to meet with the public on Friday, Jan. 19. Cekic will discuss ways the prospectus can be adapted to the Elmington site and then will develop more design ideas for consideration by the neighbors. To provide time for such discussions, the Metro Parks Board’s vote on whether to begin actual construction of the park has been postponed from February until March.
In the meantime, unfortunately, both sides have stopped really listening to each other. The proponents claim that the naysayers are merely denying reality and that the Cancer Survivors Park would provide a much-needed wake-up call. In their worst nightmares, the opponents envision a scenario worthy of an Oliver Stone moviea conspiracy in which Metro Parks and Council Member Kleinfelter, backed by the carpetbagger millions of Richard Bloch, plot to destroy life as they know it.
They are, however, correct in sensing that life as they know it is under siege. The neighborhood surrounding Elmington Park, in spite of its leafy greenness, is under development duress. Condos and apartments now cluster behind the red brick of West End Middle School, I-440 hurtles traffic along the neighborhood’s eastern edge. Bowling and Woodlawn Avenues have become corridors for commuters dodging the traffic jams on I-440 and West End Avenue. The postcards, with their cry of “We’re already overdeveloped,” turn the Cancer Survivors Park into a focus for a generalized fear of urban encroachment.
Another sort of anxiety may be at work as well. While opponents vehemently deny it, it is difficult to imagine that the associative value of the word “cancer” has not had a negative impact on building enthusiasm for the project. Written statements maintain that transforming “Elmington Park to Cancer Park is a grim prospect,” or they mention that the park is now “host to many benign and happy activities,” the sort of activities that might be stifled by a monument to cancer survivors.
In her book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag compares our society’s cancer-equals-death perception to a similar reading of tuberculosis in the 19th century. Sontag says that the words we use to describe cancer reveal the most deep-seated fears and frustrations of our age. She points out that the disease is one of “unregulated, abnormal, incoherent growth” at a time when our dreams of suburban living are becoming nightmares of traffic and strip malls. She notes that the military terms we use to imagine cancer and its treatmentcells “invade” and “colonize” beyond the original tumor; patients are “bombarded” with radiation or poisoned by chemical warfareallude to the horrors of modern wars and the atom gone haywire.
Richard Bloch wants cancer to be treated as an illness, not as a metaphor. “When you hear of a park connected with cancer, your first thought is of a memorial to the dead,”he says. “That’s because so many public spaces have war memorials and because cancer is a pernicious, spreading evil synonymous with death in so many minds. Many people have and will die of cancer, but the point of the park is to publicly recognize that not everyone has to.”
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