David 'Mas' Masumoto

A walk in the park reveals the heart of a neighborhood

Kids play on oversized food playground equipment at James McClatchy Park in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood in October 2014 during a reopening celebration after a $2.8 million renovation.
Kids play on oversized food playground equipment at James McClatchy Park in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood in October 2014 during a reopening celebration after a $2.8 million renovation. Sacramento Bee file

I’m a farmer who has rarely visited parks or city community centers. Our organic farm is my open space, playground and gathering spot, but I can be isolated and alone.

City folks, who live closer to their neighbors, have less of a chance to connect with nature. But grass and trees offer a sanctuary from asphalt and buildings. Playground equipment and pools provide safe places for children to be children. Even the air and natural life in a park can provide health benefits; new research argues that dirt and living organisms add microbes that strengthen our immune systems.

Today, technology penetrates our daily life, especially for children. The simple face-to-face and physical encounters that occur in a park may be our antidote to the “screen culture” that lures many kids.

I recently spent an afternoon in McClatchy Park in Sacramento, and I found communal spaces for several generations: children swinging and climbing, old men talking, a young couple walking hand in hand. The park was filled with everyday folks enjoying the day. Those I talked with were friendly; I was a stranger in their neighborhood, yet felt welcomed.

A youth baseball game was unfolding, with old-timers behind the backstop trading stories of the days they played. A snack shack sold hot dogs and other refreshments, with proceeds helping to fund the local team. The organizer spoke of his history with this park, a special place for his family. A story culture was alive – people creating shared memories.

forum masumoto mug
David Mas Masumoto

It reminded me of my family’s history. Though we were a farm community, annually we journeyed to a park for a special outing, to escape from work and home.

Parks help define a city, can serve as natural gathering spots and create identity for a neighborhood. They often have community centers that can become the heart of a neighborhood. Besides providing indoor recreation in a gym or game room, such centers host programs in health care, education, counseling and other vital services.

For example, at Fresno’s Maxie Parks Community Center, the West Fresno Family Resource Center serves an area that is too often ignored and invisible. As a farmer, I love its healthy focus that includes diet, nutrition and gardening. A special “Sweet Potato Project” empowers youth to grow produce, learn entrepreneurial skills and feed families. My mouth waters in anticipation of the sweet potato muffins they sell.

Parks and community centers can help attract and grow local businesses. They contribute to creativity at all levels of economic development. Moreover, parks make a city a happier place.

I’ve heard stories of Japanese-American farmers who labored in the fields in the early 1900s. They, like many immigrant groups today, used parks as an escape from the toil of the working poor in America. I’ve seen amazing group photos of the yearly community celebration – people gathering in a space they could call their own for a moment. Their foreign-looking faces found a place where they belonged.

Parks and community centers nurture a place called home, a shared space that defines a community and city. These spaces deserve our support. They continue to grow family stories and enhance our lives.

David Mas Masumoto is an organic farmer near Fresno and author of several books, including “Epitaph for a Peach.” He can be contacted at masmasumoto@gmail.com.