Sowing the Seeds of Love: Taking Care of Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Peace Memorial—creative nonfiction from Brian Garrido
Every morning, I walk around Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Peace Memorial with my dogs. Only a block away from my home, it's my neighborhood greenspace. The three of us take in the breathtaking cityscape, or at least I do, with the Salesforce Tower framed by spruces, maples, and oaks. The brown George and the black JJ for the most part sniff and run heartily.
|image credit: DowntownIndy.org|
The area, referred to in real estate parlance as Kennedy-King, was formerly considered “an African-American ghetto,” a description pulled from Wikipedia. But that reference doesn't necessarily point out the exact location. It could have been any Indianapolis area during the Sixties. I assume, though, Kennedy-King is a perfect square, using the streets east of Central Avenue and west of Monon Trail, while Sixteenth Street borders to the south, then Fall Creek fences in the north. Now, even with gentrification, many empty lots grow weeds instead of Indiana corn, situated next door to a perfect urban renewal setting consisting of four-bedroom homes reaching half a million dollars or more.
Nick and I didn't realize the locale held such significance when we moved from Los Angeles. We liked the house, the closeness to downtown, and the social integration. The last thing we needed upon moving to the Midwest was to be lynched and strung up on a fence like Matthew Shepard. That was my greatest fear. However, as we learned about our new home, we understood it was a safe harbor partially due to a singular moment in time. Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who traveled to Indianapolis on a presidential campaign stop, made a heartfelt speech after learning about Martin Luther King's assassination.
On April 4, 1968, en route to Circle City, the candidate needed to change his agenda to stop any possible rioting due to the civil rights leader's death. Instead of stumping for our land's highest office, he delivered a stirring sermon. It was one that quelled impending, and possibly deadly, uprisings as angry people were already doing across America. Indy marched with peaceful protests, but the rest of the country burned.
Part of that address Kennedy gave rests on a plaque on the south end of the park. It reads: "What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black."
With my two four-legged kids in tow, the brown George and the black J.J., we romp and fetch, whether snow or 100 percent humidity. We pass that memorial daily, and I reread it. And, again. I'm passing the time in between ball tosses but also trying to commit those essential words to memory. That is our ritual, and this park is our church.
In L.A. County, the municipalities cultivate green areas with perfectly manicured grass, then stud it with public art and add a bench to contemplate it. It feels superficial, but they are as pretty as new plastic surgery. Then there is Hollywood Cemetery, where once-famous folks lie six feet deep. It's a cinematic hot spot with old movies screened against a massive mausoleum during the summer months. Picnickers trundle in with cold fried chicken and chilled whites wines for a large viewing party of revered cinema, like "Chinatown" or "Some Like it Hot." They throw their blankets on film director John Huston, actress Jayne Mansfield, or the first Black woman to win an Academy Award, Hattie McDaniel. Of course Griffith Park, with its famed observatory, holds Technicolor memories of James Dean and Natalie Wood.
But here in Indianapolis, Martin Luther King Park and Peace Memorial provide a sense of historical importance and equality. It's not only for us to throw balls, have gatherings, or leave without thought. Especially after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tina Marie Davis, Jonas Joseph, Shaun Lee Fuhr, and the other seventy-nine Black men and women killed from January 2020 to August 2020. They continue to be lost. According to a CBS news report, an African-American man or woman was killed every week during that period by law enforcement. As my neighbors and I call it, MLK Park symbolizes the struggles Blacks have faced in our country.
On top of these slayings, the world faced an international health crisis disproportionately affecting people of color.
While the world shut down, folks turned outside to use this location and many cultivated forests throughout Indianapolis. They donned their masks and drank their beer but left behind their trash. They tried to clean up. George, JJ, and I witnessed mom and dad packing Hefty bags and bouncy houses. The parents would become distracted as their kids ran toward traffic. The park is only a block wide and rests in a residential neighborhood full of other distracted mothers and fathers driving cars, just like them. Frustrated, the families jammed up their mini-vans, Escalades, or some other gas guzzler, leaving behind their remnants, burning coals on the grills and streamers tied to the trees.
On windy days, birthday balloons get caught by extended tree limbs and stay there until the branch breaks. Used condoms, sports bras, butcher knives, and an Amazon Kindle—take that Jeff Bezos!—litter the late reverend's namesake. With a nose that can smell a chicken bone hidden inside a discarded gift box, George would sniff out said refuse and chomp away. JJ, the Frenchie, always a follower, would join in. My fingers would pry open their jaws before the jagged pieces reached their gullets causing ruptures. Enough, I said to myself.
Swearing with every step, I trudged home, pulling my children with me. Infuriated by the garbage, I came back with a carton of lavender-scented Glad three-ply, leather gardening gloves, and a resolve to keep the grass free of debris in these trying times. I recognized the city didn't have the resources as funding dried up. I knew that my neighbors would join if I let them know it was going to be organized. We’d need to be consistent, even during the Midwest winters. Debris doesn't end.
As a group of volunteers forming a diverse tribe of old and young, gay and straight, black, brown, or white, we meet bi-weekly to clean the park so that exasperated mothers and fathers don't have to worry about leaving behind deadly snacks for other kids, canines, or bipeds. The undergarments are disposed of, as are the Trojans, single-serving vodka bottles, and glass pipes. As a community, we do it to keep MLK's memory spotless, a way to show solidarity to our brothers and sisters killed, to maintain a safe space for loved ones and children of all persuasions to roam without feeling the need to eat everything in sight.
Brian Garrido moved to Indianapolis in September 2018. After residing in Manhattan and Los Angeles, where he maintained a public relations and marketing career, he and his partner, Nick, have come to love living in the Midwest. Over the last decade, he has created a freelance writing career for himself with a focus on food. He was a food writer for ArizonaLatinos.com and the Los Angeles correspondent for Savoteur.com, an online lifestyle publication. He has written for TheDailyMeal.com, Scottsdale Magazine, The Clever Root, California Meetings & Events, and LA Weekly. He writes a blog about living in Indianapolis. You can follow him on social media @briangarrido or @wonderindy where he posts about his new discoveries, edible or otherwise.