A Place to Play: Mattocks Park
By Zoé Tkaczyk
With “a little bit of everything for everyone,” Mattocks Park spans a neighborhood block, nestled snugly between rows of family homes in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. Housing a large green space with shaded seating, two gated tennis courts, a half-court basketball court, baseball diamond, and playground with a separate “tot-lot,” the park provides a space that will meet the needs of just about anyone interested in some time outside, be it running around swing sets or resting on a bench in the sunshine. In creating a space for play, where there is an opportunity for the public to redefine the specific use of each of the various spaces as they come and go, I classify the space as an open public space. Divided into Eastern and Western halves, the park itself seems split in two. On one side, children rule over their sandlot domain, and on the other adults and teenagers retain their typical sovereignty.
This division is what lends Mattocks its familial and fun atmosphere; however, it also creates a unique tension between different users. The social interaction of such diverse demographics is maintained and even enhanced by creating such visually disparate territories
for everyone within the larger park. By planting trees, running a pathway and beginning the grassy section right along the playground’s boundary, the park is apparently designed to demarcate each demographic’s territory. But the creation of these territories evinces a certain code of conduct: one which is not always readily apparent. Despite this unspoken tension between who does and does not belong in certain areas of the park, Mattocks ultimately offers the community a vital space for individual connections and social discourse within a space for play.
Throughout my hours at Mattocks, I found that the park served a very important role for the community in that it afforded visitors the opportunity to play. In defining play, I turned to Johan Huizinga’s theory of play described in his book Homo Ludens. Here, he describes play most relevantly as free, not “real” life, and distinct from the ordinary (in both place and duration). Additionally, in trying to understand how Mattocks Park as a space specifically lent to this activity of play, I engaged with Henri Lefebvre’s ideas of Rhythmanalysis. In this book, he analyzes how the rhythms of urban space affect the inhabitants of that space and how the inhabitants affect that rhythm. Part of this work engages with the social production of space through repetition. With these ideas in mind, I considered how visitors to Mattocks across a variety of age groups, engaged with their surroundings in a more relaxed and excited way. The way that the community engages with the space leads me to understand Mattocks as a place for play, a space where the daily routine and rhythm can be interrupted.
For example, Mattocks gives children the opportunity to be active members of “the public.” Public space such as this gives children—atypical members of the public—room to engage with the struggle and development of democractic processes that their older counterparts may find more accessible. Thus Mattocks becomes an integral space for social negotiation. Among young children navigating the playground. They find ways to engage with work around their peers as they play. In the “non-kid” portions of the park, they also begin to understand the function of delineated domains and adopt the rules necessary to function respectively in each place. This is just one example of the ways that the park is important to the surrounding community members and broader public who use the space.
In participating and observing the space, I have come to appreciate it as a space for play for both myself and a wide range of demographics. When employing the OMAI Model to Mattocks, I encountered a strange conundrum. Because of the division between areas described above, capturing the park as a whole with this model proved challenging, but based upon the fieldwork and observations I gathered over several weeks, this is how I score each dimension of publicness (Ownership, Management, Accessibility, & Inclusiveness) at Mattocks when considering the park as a whole.
Mattocks is owned by the city of St Paul. The entrance sign to the park (Pictured left/right/above/wtv) announces this loud and clear. Additionally, the park is given a webpage on the St Paul Parks website. This public ownership is abundantly clear even in the users of the space, whose demographics range widely; although other dimensions of this model will help us to understand why certain demographics dominate the park. Beyond its legal status, the Parks and Recreation department faces public accountability from the surrounding community when it comes to maintaining Mattocks. As the park is fully public, I have given it a 4 on the Ownership metric.
The park is officially managed by the city’s Parks and Recreation department. Day-to-day upkeep and grooming rests in their hands; although, I often saw bored parents halfheartedly sweeping sand back into the pit as their children clambered. I would also see people picking up after pets that were not theirs or discarding trash they found that did not seem to belong to them so some small scale maintenance comes from the public itself. Additionally, the sand pit is littered with toys that seem to have been left there by past park goers. While I was not able to determine who provided these, families tended to let their children play and then leave them there for the next visitor. I did not see anything being stolen so the apparent “honor system” of toy use seems built into the code of conduct visitors to Mattocks follow. As far as I saw, policing is done by the city of St Paul. The surrounding neighborhood homes do make park-goers feel watched, but I did not get the impression that these individuals would go out of their way to enforce the closing hours. Because of this, I believe Mattocks ranks at 4 in Management.
Mattocks has no legal or physical barriers to access, making it highly accessible; however, there exists some visual obstacles to access. Additionally, the nature of the park’s location makes it difficult to find and access if you don’t know the neighborhood well. With no place to park bikes, I often saw cyclists haphazardly lock them to the tennis court fence or set them on the grass next to the bench they sat at. The park itself is close to public transit stops so visitors are not limited to walking or driving there. Because of this, I could not rank the park as 4. However, the design of the space itself is fairly accessible for a wide variety of individuals. The swing set features a swing for disabled individuals and the pathways are well-paved with frequent benches and picnic tables to stop at. Additionally, the picnic tables were accessible. Completing this project with an ankle injury myself, I found collecting observations to not be difficult as there were plenty of places to sit and smooth pavements. For these reasons, I have ranked Mattocks at a 3 for Accessibility.
Mattocks has a wide age range of users and is inclusive to just about anyone in that regard; however, its feeling was not immediately welcoming to me, especially when I sat on the “kids’ side” of the park for observations. When I stayed on the grassy side, I felt perfectly at home as a young college student. As soon as I departed from my prescribed area, I could feel a shift in how welcome I was. Remaining in one’s area of the park seemed to be heavily coded into the social norms of Mattocks. At no point did I see non-children on the playground unless it was a caregiver accompanying a child or when my friend and I used the swings during a late night visit. We were only able to comfortably use the entire space when the intended users of the space were not present. While this is certainly nothing bad, in fact, I think it lends to Mattocks’ function as a space for social play well, it does mean that I rank it at a 3 for Inclusiveness. The space has not been formally privatized. Yet, an informal but pervasive set of rules has been injected into the atmosphere of Mattocks. It almost feels as if the neighborhood, a certain section of the public, has slowly privatized the space into their own park and jungle-gym: one that non-neighborhooders may not find as welcoming as a more accessible space. Because of the varied feeling of belonging that I felt within certain portions of the space, I rank Mattocks at a 3 for Inclusiveness.
Children versus Adults at Play
In arriving at these scores, I considered a few case studies that I feel like highlight the dynamics at the park. Specifically, I focus on understanding how both children and adults use the space to play. Mattocks provides a safe public space for children to broaden their worldview by giving them a new place to explore, create, and imagine. The playground specifically was the children’s space. During a weeknight observation, when the park was quite quiet, I saw a young couple and their barely-walking toddler start to explore the big-kid playground (represented with the light blue arrow below). While they gingerly and cautiously showed their baby the joys of slides and steps, a pack of young boys descended upon the playground (Shown in green on the graphic). Despite being the adults, and in a place of higher authority, they almost immediately gathered their now fussy baby and returned to the tinier tot-lot, where only one of them could be on the playground with their baby at a time (shown with the purple arrow below).
This movement showed me that the playground is a space where children reign supreme and they use this authority—whether they realize they have it or not—to play. Even on the sidewalks, I found myself stepping around children with toy cars, something that I expected on a stretch of playground pavement, but on any other stretch of sidewalk. Children’s presence plays a huge role in the atmosphere at Mattocks on their side. In my own case, I limited how much I swore when close to the playground. For a couple I saw walking around the block, I noticed that they did not vape on the stretch of sidewalk nearest to the playground and instead, limited that action to the “adult side” of Mattocks. It is clear that this portion of public space is set aside for a very specific sector of the public, and these children are able to engage with space and each other in an important way; however, this is made possible through the unspoken code of conduct slithering through the block. The sign below is posted just outside the tennis courts; it is the only thing resembling codified rules, yet profanity throughout the park seemed limited.
For adults as well, Mattocks serves as an important space for play. From the more obvious presence of tennis and basketball courts, to the open green space and relaxed feel that being in a park affords them. One weekday morning when I visited, I noticed that parents, waiting for their children to finish up at tennis camp, all stopped and watched the tree-felling company removing a large trunk in a front garden opposite to the courts. I’d see many stop to admire the plants around the lawn or follow a butterfly’s path. At one point, I saw a coordinated playdate for a group of siblings turn into a social hour for their two grandmothers, who sat chatting away on a bench.
Child-like wonder filled the air, even on the “adult side”. This was especially true of what looked like grandparents with children. Even for what seemed to be parents, as soon as they were playing with their children, they were laughing almost as much as their toddlers. In one case in particular, I saw a group of men pick up a basketball and begin playing on the court. The group seemed to arrive in singles and pairs over the course of 10 minute between about 16:55 and 17:05 before dribbling up and down the court. By the end of their 30 minute game, they were sweating, laughing, and playing just as gleefully as the children I saw scaling the jungle gyms. After a short break, they were back at it, until 18:00 rolled around and they began pulling their shirts back on and deciding on where to grab dinner and drinks. Two admitted to having to go home and work and they left as the rest continued to debate curry or burgers. Seeing how these adults used the park for an hour of play before returning to their “normal” lives illustrates to me Mattocks’ role as a space for play across age groups.
While the park does “force” visitors to follow its child-friendly rules, it also encourages a sense of play among visitors, encouraging them to explore more. I saw a group of teenage girls meet up and do a workout on the grass, adults stopping to look at tree leaves, and young men trying every trickshot under the sun on the basketball court. From impromptu basketball games to the hammocks I saw swaying the trees, Mattocks seems to serve as a space for play across age groups.
By using the entire space for play, Mattocks has been established as a space to break away from the rhythm and routine of life. During my own evening visit with a friend, we sat on a few benches as he read and scribbled away from sketch maps, but once the hours were up, we spent some time on the playground as no children were around and played ourselves, competing for fastest time down the slide and seeing who could swing the highest (me for the record).
Mattocks is a neighborhood space, an example of the kind of public space essential for fostering community, and providing individuals, especially children, a space to navigate and negotiate public space safely as they engage with the worlds around them. It also serves as a space for reprieve from the monotonous and draining rhythms of life by giving visitors a space to play, relax, and, yes, even race down the slides.