Asheville – The Asheville City Council unanimously approved entering into an interlocal agreement with the Asheville City Board of Education and Buncombe County for the rebuilding of Jones Park with money donated by private citizens. The old playground equipment had been demolished over safety concerns, and, in the words of City Attorney Brad Branham, “citizens rallied and fundraised.”
Branham explained how the equipment would be rebuilt. The park is owned by Asheville City Schools (ACS), which will continue to be responsible for mulching and mowing. ACS would receive the donations and thus be the owner of the equipment. Buncombe County governments would manage the construction, which would be completed by a firm selected in a competitive bidding process. Then, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department would be responsible for maintaining the equipment, not the grounds, and removing it at the end of its useful life.
Branham next spoke about legal procedures and liabilities. As to costs for the city, he said upkeep would be built into Parks and Recreation’s maintenance schedule. Based on industry standards, the equipment would need to be replaced in 20 years. There are too many variables to guess the cost of removal, but it cost $10,000 to remove the old equipment.
Councilwoman Antanette Mosley said she hadn’t planned on saying anything until she saw a friend in the audience. Mosley reminded the council about when she spoke to them about domestic violence last year. She said when she shared that black women constitute 5% of the population and 20% of the victims of domestic violence, she was thinking about Candace Pickens. She also brought her name up at the first council meeting when the restoration of Jones Park was being discussed.
Pickens had been shot in Jones Park, along with her three-year-old son, Zachaeus. Their bodies were discovered by a jogger seven hours later. According to the local daily, the assailant, and suspected father, had been angry with her for not getting an abortion. She was three months pregnant. Pickens and her son were both shot in the face. She died, and her son, who was in critical condition when found, is still alive, but he lost an eye.
Mosley described Pickens as “a big part of our community,” and she thought it would be fitting for part of the park design to include “some type of memorial, or, better, a renaming in her honor. The grief over losing a friend was bad enough, but what was even more surreal was the pushback Mosley received. “I’ll say the quiet part out loud,” she said. People came to me and said, ‘What was she doing there?’ ‘It wasn’t her park,’ and ‘You don’t want to name it after her because it will lower our property value.’ I’m offended. ”
Mosley acknowledged that, as only one party to a three-way agreement, the city could not unilaterally decide to rename the park. She therefore read into the record a motion recommending the renaming of the park and said it was her “fervent prayer” that somebody would second it. It was seconded by Vice Mayor Sheneika Smith.
During public comment, Mike Lewis explained how he helped build the old playground equipment. His grandkids played there, and he used to see kids, of all colors, lined up to go there from the Children’s Center at Gracelyn. He, among many others, didn’t see why there had to be so many meetings and so many delays. “Right the wrong. Accept the gift. “Restore the park,” he said.
Lewis continued, “Goverment should be able to do something as straightforward as accepting a quarter of a million dollars from its constituents. If it can’t do that, how can it solve the much more difficult problems of affordable housing, homelessness, growing crime, climate change, and reparations? Please accept the gift. Rebuild Jones Park. Thank you. ”
Jonathan Wainscott said he used to enjoy taking his kids there, but this issue didn’t belong on the council’s agenda in this political season. It was a “very North Asheville” and a “very special, very privileged situation.” It was a “very special arrangement” by which city money funded a playground on property not owned by the city but by ACS, especially now. Until recently, the only official relationship the city had with ACS was that the council appointed the school board. Now, it doesn’t even have that because the board is elected by voters. The neighborhood is one of the city’s wealthiest, the abode or former abode of at least two councilors, and “the pavement is immaculate.” He asked how much nicer that neighborhood needed to get.
Wainscott thanked Mosley for her comments and said, “I’m really embarrassed by my community.” The city was accepting funds to restore a playground on land “poached from the school system in the first place,” instead of using it to make the Pickens family whole. It got worse when, for all council’s talk about working with marginalized communities, they, “then put certain members of council behind the eight ball as they’re running for reelection.” “It’s messy, it’s sloppy, it’s political, it’s selfish,” he said.
Mosley had left her mic hot, and when the next speaker was announced, she cried out and buried her face in her hands. She could be heard sobbing uncontrollably all the way through and even after the speaker’s three minutes. The speaker was Keesha Martinez, Pickens’ mother, and she came carrying a larger-than-life photo of Pickens with her son.
Martinez eulogized Pickens as the ideal daughter, friend, and citizen. Her death, she said, caught the attention of Snoop Dogg, the Washington Post, and even the press in the United Kingdom. She said Zachaeus now gets on with life in Orlando, Florida, with his father. Her remarks were followed by an outburst of applause, in solidarity with her perserverance through grief and admiration for her courage.
Back on the dais, eyes were wiped, and tissues were exchanged. But, before a vote could be taken, a strange whistling noise began from somewhere above the council chambers. Manheimer called a quick vote and requested a break so somebody could figure out what was going on before something exploded.