Every year I’ve lived in New York City, a day unexpectedly arrives — usually in May or June — when I step outside, take a deep and appreciative breath, and realize that for the past several months, I’ve been suffering from mild seasonal affective disorder. Basking in warm sunlight again, I watch the rest of the city come back to life. I get a particular buzz walking by or through the city’s parks, our collective sites of celebration for the return of warmth, where music blasts from boom boxes and portable speakers, and the whiff of the masses grilling and chilling is heavy in the air.
It’s easy to take the city’s parks for granted. But when more and more social interaction takes place from behind computer and phone screens; when fewer and fewer people meet their romantic partners through real-world social networks; when fewer Americans report having close friends than ever and more say they’re spending less time with those they do have and feeling increasingly lonely — the very existence of public spaces for leisure, open for all to enjoy free of charge, is something to cherish.
Those spaces haven’t always existed. In the United States and elsewhere, public parks, recreation centers, and swimming pools were the product of social turmoil and political struggle, with socialists often playing key roles in creating and defending such spaces. Nobody’s thinking about class struggle as they flip hotdogs on the public grill. But because they serve the collective good rather than private profits, public parks are a challenge to the logic of capitalism.
Public Parks, Socialists, and the New Deal
Public parks have been championed by nonsocialists, of course. Progressive reformers and landscape architects like Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who were responsible for designing New York’s Central Park and Prospect Park, believed in common green spaces accessible to all. But because of their commitment to defending and expanding public goods in the face of the capitalist desire for endless accumulation, socialists have a particularly distinguished record of building public parks and other spaces for public recreation.
That socialist legacy can be seen in New York City‘s parks, many of which were built or renovated during the Great Depression era under the mayoralty of Fiorello La Guardia. Mayor La Guardia was not really a socialist, though he sometimes called himself one and often worked with socialists. He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1916 as a Republican, but in his 1924 campaign for Congress, La Guardia left the Republican Party and ran on the Socialist Party line. He soon returned to the GOP, where he remained until joining the socialist-led American Labor Party in 1936. La Guardia was a staunch New Dealer and an ally of Socialist congressmen Victor Berger and Vito Marcantonio, a supporter of La Guardia who took his seat in Congress when the latter became mayor.
According to historian Gerald Meyer, as mayor, La Guardia “created a social democratic metropolis, bit by bit.” La Guardia made use of funds provided by the federal Works Progress Administration (WPA) and other New Deal agencies to embark on a massive program of constructing and upgrading public infrastructure. That included parks and swimming pools: Red Hook Park, Randall’s Island Park, Williamsbridge Oval Park, Orchard Beach, Astoria Park Pool, and Jacob Riis Park are all products of this New Deal bonanza, as is the McCarren Park Pool, the Prospect Park Zoo, many additions to Central Park, and public playgrounds throughout the city.
Socialists also played important roles in inspiring, and then helping to implement, the federal New Deal programs that made La Guardia’s achievements possible in the first place. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reforms — especially those passed in 1935, the “Second New Deal” — built a modest welfare state, made massive investments in public infrastructure, created millions of public sector jobs, and institutionalized collective bargaining rights for workers.
Attacking the capitalist system was the last thing on the mind of Roosevelt or his supporters, but the New Deal enormously expanded the state’s role in the economy, materially benefiting and empowering working people at the expense of big business. What made those reforms possible was, in large part, explosive growth in left-wing organization and disruptive protests and strikes across the country, often led by communists and socialists. Liberal politicians supported New Deal legislation as a way of restoring order and staving off the threat of a socialist revolution.
But many young socialists and communists saw the New Deal as a first step toward a fuller democratization of the economy, the beginning stages in shifting economic power away from capitalists to public control. They joined the Roosevelt administration in large numbers and often came to occupy high-ranking roles in the federal bureaucracy, including at the WPA, which put millions of people to work building public parks across the country.
On this score, the national achievements of the WPA and other agencies like the earlier Civilian Conservation Corps and Public Works Administration are staggering. The WPA alone, according to scholar Richard D. Leighninger Jr, “built 2,302 stadiums, grandstands, and bleachers; 52 fairgrounds and rodeo grounds; 1,686 parks covering 75,152 acres; 3,085 playgrounds; 3,026 athletic fields; 805 swimming pools and 848 wading pools; 1,817 handball courts; 10,070 tennis courts; 2,261 horseshoe pits; 1,101 ice-skating areas; 228 band shells and 138 outdoor theaters; 254 golf courses; and 65 ski jumps.” It was also responsible for 9,300 new auditoriums, gyms, and recreational buildings.
The US government’s massive buildout of public parks and recreational venues made the United States a more beautiful, enjoyable place to live. That buildout would have never happened without socialists first helping foment an insurgency of workers and the poor that shook the country to the core, then playing key roles in running the bureaucracy that brought these projects to fruition.
Parks and Rec and Propaganda
In a handful of cities, American socialists were building public parks and recreation centers long before the New Deal.
The “sewer socialists” were influential in the politics of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for the first half of the twentieth century, sending the first socialist to Congress (Victor Berger) and holding the mayor’s office almost uninterrupted from 1910 to 1960. Milwaukee’s Socialist Party leaders focused on rooting out municipal corruption and improving the quality of life for all residents. The city’s first socialist mayor, Emily Seidel, started the city’s public parks system, which remains a visible and widely enjoyed legacy of the sewer socialists to this day. (The creation of public parks was also a signal achievement of municipal socialists in Reading, Pennsylvania, another of a handful of cities where socialists had significant electoral success.)
Along with the parks, Milwaukee socialists spearheaded the creation of a citywide system of “social centers” — public recreation centers, open to children and adults, that featured pool tables, basketball games, swimming pools, and classes in various subjects. They were motivated in part, says historian Elizabeth Jozwiak, by the belief “that in addition to participation in civic activity, all residents deserved access to wholesome cultural and recreational facilities” — especially the city’s working-class youth, many of whom had stopped going to school at a young age in order to work.
But socialists also saw the social centers as places where unfettered discussion and political education could take place — places where, in other words, they could educate the public on the need for socialism. “The primary goal,” Jozwiak writes, “was to establish the social centers as a strong, familiar presence throughout the city, where people would learn about Socialist beliefs and activities at a basic level, in their own neighborhood.” For Milwaukee socialists, the goal of providing spaces for free play and discussion for all was inseparable from the goal of getting people to understand how socialism served their common interests.
Milwaukee was not the only place where socialists championed public parks and recreation as part of a broader political strategy. In Sweden in the late 1800s and early 1900s, well before they won control of government, socialists first began creating unofficial public parks out of necessity — they couldn’t find regular places to hold party meetings. So they started purchasing land and building “People’s Parks” (Folkets parker) and “People’s Houses” (Folkets hus), open to everyone, where party members could gather.
From their inception, like the social centers in Milwaukee, these places played a dual role: they were locales for the party to organize, strategize, and carry out political education, but they were also centers of working-class leisure and cultural life. This was intentional: the Swedish Social Democratic Party (Sveriges socialdemokratiska arbetarparti, SAP) thought workers deserved to enjoy open, beautiful green spaces as well as art, music, and dance. The People’s Parks “charged the democratic goal of economic emancipation with the more immediate desire for a life beyond toil,” write geographers Johan Pries, Erik Jönsson, and Don Mitchell. They continue:
In the parks, working people could do more than organize and patiently await a better future. They could have a taste of the good life on the weekend, in the sort of green and spacious landscapes once reserved for the leisure class, all the while serving the cause.
For a time, the parks grew in significance, eventually coming to host world-famous performers like Frank Sinatra and Quincy Jones. Once the SAP became the party of government, the parks gradually lost their political importance. But many of them were preserved as official, state-owned public parks.
Parks Against Capitalism
Public parks are not in themselves socialist, despite what both defenders and opponents of socialism sometimes say. A socialist society is one in which society’s productive resources are collectively owned and democratically run; the existence of publicly owned outdoor recreational spaces is obviously compatible with a society in which the vast majority of society’s resources are privately owned, as has always been the case in the United States.
Yet it’s not wrong to see a connection between public parks and socialism. Because public parks and recreational venues are publicly owned, operated for the common good rather than private profit, and generally open to all without regard for ability to pay, they do not obey the logic of for-profit capitalist enterprises or commodities. And as socialists from Milwaukee to Malmö have recognized, they provide rare spaces for collective enjoyment, discussion, and education of the kind we’ll need to build a better world. Green spaces where we can toss frisbees or soak up the sun, it turns out, have political value too.
My first spring park excursion this year was an evening a couple months ago, when the air was still brisk but didn’t require a coat. I picked up a tall boy from a corner store and made my way past the food trucks in front of the Brooklyn Museum and the pedestrians and bikers crunching together near Grand Army Plaza, eventually getting onto the walking path that leads into Prospect Park from the north side.
After wending onto a small trail that led me to the main lawn, I found my friends drinking beers in a small circle, listening to music on a small speaker; similar groups were scattered around the grass, along with dogs and people playing catch and flying kites. It was a totally ordinary scene, but being there — enjoying the park’s respite from the atomized concrete chaos of the city — filled me with a sense of relief and gratitude. You only need a few moments like that on a warm spring evening to know that socialists have been right to care so much about public parks.