Celebrating Regner and public parks
‘Thriller’ event shows how we re-create recreation
Parks were originally private enclosures of land set aside as hunting preserves for the aristocracy. The word “park” itself referred to the fencing that kept the peasants out. Today, park land is set aside for the recreation of the public, for us, the other 98 percent.
I’ve always thought that the word “recreation” contains the whole happy enchilada of what parks mean. Every wide-eyed 5-year-old has noticed that the word has two pronunciations and two definitions, and that these definitions overlap in a meaningful way. Parks are both recreational and re-creational. They divert our heads with fun and restore our souls with, well, something more.
Humans stand in a strange evolving relationship to parks.
Boundaries were originally set up to protect humans from nature – to keep out the lions and tigers and bears. As civilization grew and human populations swept out into every nook and cranny on the planet, we chased the Wild Things all the way to the horizon – and eventually caught them. By 1890, the year the U.S. census declared that our frontier was closed, our relationship to nature had spun 180 degrees.
It wasn’t too long afterward that Teddy Roosevelt got involved in the movement to establish national parks – in a reversal of human history, humans now set up boundaries, parks, in order to protect nature from humans.
City parks are an echo of this changed relationship. They are a cultivated wilderness where it’s safe for us to step back into a direct, if highly filtered, relationship with nature. Parks, whether deep and dangerous wilderness or the gardens and paths of a city park, continue to perform the function of putting us back into proper relation to nature and, somewhat more mysteriously, to ourselves – something every camper and hunter and weekend picnicker knows.
Wisconsin, and our little corner in particular, has a famous tradition of creating public parks. Milwaukee’s Sewer Socialists, who made Milwaukee work brilliantly through most of the 20th century, were born out of the labor movement’s crusade for that dangerous bit of anti-business socialism we now call the “eight-hour work day.” Scary, I know. And once they’d managed to infiltrate with this zany threat to the economic system, they turned their attention to other, so-called, “public necessities.” This included libraries, sewer and sanitation systems, public housing but also, and famously, public parks.
Regner Park, West Bend’s own public necessity, our local source for recreation and re-creation, turns 75 this summer.
Plans for the park were originally developed during World War I by Dr. W. J. Wehle, but it wasn’t until 1930 that Mayor Henry Regner and the city council spent $3,000 to buy the Goebel Woods to start the process. By 1934 the city was able to apply for funding assistance under the Federal and State Emergency Relief Administrations. After adding another 45 acres West Bend had spent about $22,000 along with $43,000 in federal assistance. Real money in those days.
Seventy-five years later we’re left with a beautiful legacy of public expense. Was it necessary?
This weekend’s events will celebrate all the ways people use the park to recreate themselves. You’ll be able to find a rock climbing wall, a display of military vehicles, McGruff the Crime Dog will be there with the West Bend Police Department, there will be yoga on the beach (hey, no tai chi?) and some of our local restaurants (like Poplar Place, Janulis, and Jaliscos) will be feeding people.
The organizers have also planned music everywhere and of every kind, from mariachis to polkas. The very first band concert, incidentally, was held on Aug. 8, 1935. Al Hron directed the Moose Band. I have not been able to find the program for that evening’s concert but the big hits in 1935 included “Cheek To Cheek,” “La Cucaracha,” “Anything Goes,” “I Get A Kick Out Of You” (still on my iPod) and “Easter Parade.”
Or you could try to break the world record for the number of people, and zombies, participating in a re-creation of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The Thriller world record attempt, should you wish to see it or avoid it, will take place at 12:15 on Saturday afternoon. In an attempt to make this world record attempt even more thrillingly strange, it will include professional dance teams from Milwaukee and, I’m not making this up, the Klements Racing Sausages [for those of you from Not-Wisconsin, here's some video]. Frankly, they had me at “Racing Sausages.”
So, are parks really a “public necessity”? The best way to answer this is over a slice of pizza and frozen custard while listening to polkas and watching hundreds of your neighbors, and the Klements Racing Sausages, attempt to Moon Walk. Then ask your inner 5-year-old to answer the question and remember to say a quiet thank you to Dr. Wehle and Mayor Regner.