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Columnist Rutherford H. Platt: Gladden Social Justice Park an oasis of democracy

  • The Washington Gladden Social Justice Park is under construction in Columbus, Ohio. It is scheduled to open in August.



Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Ground was broken during March for the nation’s first “social justice park” near downtown Columbus, Ohio.

The park is a project of the First Congregational Church, U.C.C., of Columbus under the leadership of its pastor, Rev. Dr. Timothy Ahrens. It will be named the Washington Gladden Social Justice Park in honor of the founder of the Social Gospel Movement and progressive theologian who was pastor of that church from 1882 to 1914.

The new park will adjoin the church on the site of my father’s boyhood home. The ancestral Platt home was built by my great-grandfather in 1852 and the land remained in family hands through four generations (in later years leased for a used-car lot). The church purchased the property from our family 10 years ago and since then has spearheaded the park project in association with the city and nearby cultural institutions. The park design may be viewed at www.socialjusticepark.org.

The idea of a public park where they once played baseball and croquet would surely have pleased my dad and his family. Their home was a short carriage ride from the 88-acre Franklin Park and Conservatory that opened to the public in 1884, a Columbus landmark inspired by Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park in Manhattan, Boston’s Emerald Necklace and their counterparts across the nation.

Gladden Park will echo that tradition as a compact, new-age counterpart to the great democratic playgrounds of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The park project would also be applauded by a frequent visitor to the Platt home — my great-great-uncle Rutherford B. Hayes, a staunch advocate for racial justice and close friend of Rev. Gladden.

While my dad and his Ohio Republican kin were not flaming liberals, they reflected the traditional Protestant values of honesty, generosity and devotion to family, nation, and God. They would surely be appalled by today’s resurging nationalism, white supremacy, economic inequality, amorality, corruption, and anti-environmentalism.

My naturalist father lived to see President Richard M. Nixon sign the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and other environmental laws with bipartisan support in Congress. He must be turning in his grave at the Republican betrayal of its environmental legacies today.

Equally bewildering to his generation (and mine) has been the impact of accelerating technological innovation in transforming life on planet Earth. On May 1, 1893, a year before my father’s birth, President Grover Cleveland pressed a telegraph key to illuminate the Columbian Exposition in Chicago and activate its machinery, exhibits, fountains, railways and excursion boats. Thus the wonder of electricity was showcased for the modern world.

Soon would follow the invention of the automobile, the airplane, radio and wireless telegraphy. World War I introduced the horrors of tanks, poison gas and submarine warfare, although my father’s artillery battery — like Napoleon and General Grant —still relied on horses to maneuver their cannon on the battlefield.

Fast forward and television was introduced at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, soon followed by the invention of the first computers at IBM’s laboratory in Poughkeepsie, New York.

When I was 5, the United States dropped two atom bombs on Japan. Seven years later, this country first tested a hydrogen bomb, soon followed by the Soviet Union. I was part of the “duck and cover” generation when — like today’s gun massacre drills — kids were told they could be safe from Armageddon by hiding under their desks.

In 1969, the year my daughter Anne was born, the Apollo 11 astronauts landed on the moon in one of the greatest triumphs of technology in human history — watched live by millions on tiny black-and-white TVs. Computer applications in research were just beginning in the late 1960s during my graduate school years at the University of Chicago (a short walk from the birthplace of the nuclear age under the university’s football stands).

Within a few years, the internet would begin to dominate every aspect of human society. We threw away our typewriters, our calculators and film cameras, and people like me who still read print media would soon be regarded as quaint. College library stacks were abandoned as reading rooms became a sea of laptops.

Now our city streets and other public spaces are filled with people talking to themselves or hunched over ubiquitous iPhones with computing power said to exceed that of the Apollo spacecraft.

Are we better or worse off due to this frantic pace of technological change? In the same week as the Gladden Park groundbreaking, the news media were awash with reports on Russian hacking of the 2016 U.S. election, the Parkland, Florida, school shootings, the “deep state” conspiracy theories of Fox News and Stormy Daniels.

The new realm of social media enables the organization of democratic protests like March for Our Lives, as well as the viral spreading of hate and misinformation.

Ultimately, it is the institutions of democracy and human rights that matter. Technology is a two-edged sword that can sustain or destroy the institutions of politics, culture, and civil society.

The Washington Gladden Social Justice Park in Columbus will be a tiny but significant link to the best ideals of American democracy — to the “Better Angels” of Abraham Lincoln, to “Democracy and Social Ethics” of Jane Addams, to Washington Gladden’s “Social Gospel,” Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Arc of the Moral Universe.”

As the Weavers once sang to another troubled time, “We are traveling in the footsteps of those who’ve come before.” The footsteps of these and other prophets of democracy must lead us on the long march ahead.

The Washington Gladden Social Justice Park and its counterparts will refresh the weary and inspire the next generation of marchers.

Rutherford H. Platt, of Florence, is an emeritus professor of geography at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He organized the Jane Addams Forum in Northampton on Nov. 11, 2017.