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Niggas And Nature

(Wordcount: 1,606; Pages: 4) The most recent issue of National Geographic presents an always-appreciated call-to-arms for our U.S. national parks. They're under attack by realpolitiks, capitalism, and of course, park patrons who "love them to death".

But despite all the efforts of very powerful tree-hugging park advocates over the last hundred years, the magazine's most interesting conclusion is that it appears they've got to start all over again as the demography of the country, and thus, the priorities of voters and potential park supporters, have changed.

Yes folks, blacks and Hispanics don't go to parks to appreciate them; they go to parks to swing and slide, play 'ball and soccer, and they certainly love a good barbeque. But they don't hike, camp, or watch birds for amusement. And herein lies a conundrum as these groups, particularly Hispanic, continue to grow: why should they care about getting to a park when they can't even get out of the ghetto?

According to National Geographic, three hundred million people use the parks. Unfortunately, demographics aren't exactly broken down in the article. The demographic shift is no secret though, as even the National Parks Service, using labels to refer to its stock of property as "cultural heritage" and its future as "stewardship", recognize the bind they're in, as they "consult" ethnic groups to determine what's important to them, as if parks has anything to do with their own "cultural heritage" (1). As you'll note in the corresponding albums of the group day hiking I've personally done (see the most current Consumer Strategy Report at www.alberrios.com/c/), interest in hiking has remained relatively confined to Caucasians (of all backgrounds); and parks a distinctly Anglo cultural heritage.

Of course, these day hiking trips aren't cheap: I started paying $45 per year to go in 2000 through 2005. Today, I'm dropping $100, $150, $650, or even as much as $1,000. The average person of color in this country would rather by "rims fo' his twenty-fo's", Similac for her babies, or some other more relevant priority than $100 to go get attacked by gnats, bit by ticks, or annoyed by what in any other context would be bad weather.

Where Did Their Appreciation Go?

To be sure, group trips aren't the only way to get out to the outdoors: one can go out on their own, with their own groups, or even to their local parks. Well, I'm a New Yorker and so I'm going to give you a dose of reality like only a New Yorker can: "President Bush don't like black people" may be the rallying call for Hurricane Katrina-related disregard of African Americans by our Federal Government, but local governments are just as conflicted about their minorities. And when it comes to parks, even as late as the 1960s, it was still overt through policies, particularly in New York City, that negroes and "the scum coming over from Puerto Rico" weren't welcome in the parks.

In fact, of over 177 new parks built between around 1920 and 1960, less than 5 were built in the Harlem, where the concentration of people who needed them the most - blacks and Puerto Ricans - lived (2). Why couldn't they get to any of the other 170 parks in the city? Simple: the NYC subway was not only dilapidated, but becoming increasingly cost-prohibitive for poor-wage earners. The costs of using public transportation were going up, incredibly, to finance new highways and bridges, utilities only the affluent could use since only the affluent could afford cars back then.

In a series of exposes in the 1960s and 1970s, these policies and their effects were scrutinized and their consequences revealed. Since NYC had been perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy throughout this time and indeed was "saved" by Mr. Felix Rohatyn in the 70s; and building anything is never cheap, it took 20+ years to begin the process of reversing some of these policies. So, today, New Yorkers have better urban planning, more parks in the ghettos, and better public transportation, but an entire generation of children of blacks and Hispanics were left without the opportunity to appreciate nature (and culture, since "the arts" had to be cut from board of ed budgets during these trying times, only recently being re-introduced by our current Mayor Bloomberg).

So, despite the fact that some projects have been built near parks or vice versa, they're so overcrowded and overused its nearest residents see them as nothing more than an extension of the project, "not a real park". And despite public transportation that can now take many families without cars to the very entrances of some parks; and despite pick-up/drop-off service offered by hiking groups, if blacks and Hispanics are living in the projects - and many grew up in these proverbial "concrete jungles" - like your cellphone plan, many probably work nights and weekends, barely making ends meat; exactly when does one suppose they'd find the time to visit the outdoors, let alone give their Hard-earned money to support? Can you blame National Geographic for blandly stating that one of the greatest challenges for national parks moving forward is getting these people to preserve them?

Why Can't They Get Over It And Start Enjoying Parks Like Everyone Else?

"The average person of color in this country would rather by "rims fo' his twenty-fo's", Similac for her babies, or some other more relevant priority than $100 to go get attacked by gnats, bit by ticks, or annoyed by what in any other context would be bad weather."

In a nod of disapproval to our good buddy Bill "Mr. Condescending" Cosby, it's not like black and Hispanic (I'm avoiding referring to them as minorities) don't have it within them to become empowered, to learn more about their rights as citizens and the advantages that come with those rights, such as the enjoyment of these parks. Regrettably, what Mr. Cosby hasn't seemed to grasp (me neither until recently) is that it doesn't just take knowledge of something in order to change a lifestyle, but willingness. And that willingness isn't stemmed in seeing an alien Anglo world and wanting to be part of that world. It's stemmed in having grown up in the ghetto, in the projects, or any number of environments these people were herded and steered into by prejudiced municipal policies, racist neighbors, and greedy landlords and of course, their own ineptitude and lack of resourcefulness within that system.

It was stemmed in fear of this alien world and similar to how this alien world perceives danger in these environments, they're still a more familiar environment for these people than anything offered outside of it. With that familiarity comes security in the know-how one has acquired over a lifetime of how to function in that environment, the loopholes, the means of surviving (by means such as prostitution or theft). The observing society may label these activities deviant and criminal, but that's because it isn't taken in the context that a women (or man) who submits her services for a large captain of industry is the same as any hoe-and-pimp relationship or some large corporation who sloshes money around, only to go bankrupt because they lied about where all that money came from. Like forcing Christianity on a Jew or Muslim, you're persecuting these people for not living the lifestyle you've singularly judged to be superior, (yet a reflection of theirs) and that, Mr. Cosby, isn't right.

So, thanks to the way this society has operated over the course of the 20th century, they now risk losing one of their most precious resources. After all, brothas ain't scuffin' up their shiny, new Escalades in the woods, and they certainly need more gasoline than they need the trees it's under.

Where I Stand

I grew up thinking this way, too, in the canyons of Washington Heights, New York City. I hadn't seen a sunrise or sunset until I turned 22 when I made the move to Jersey on my own recognizance, so I didn't see the point of nature. Although I remember hiking Bear Mountain as a 7-year old with summer camp kids (which wasn't really camp, since our parents picked us up and dropped us off daily from the only New York City public school running the program at the time and most of the outdoors stuff occurred in the school's playground); and I also spent a week at a church retreat which I remember being torture; my first real encounter with the outdoors was in the summer of 2000 when I paid to hike with a group. That experience, although exhausting (I hiked the entire 9-mile moderate trail with my rollerblades in my bookbag - not backpack - strapped to my bag and no lunch), it was one of the most liberating experiences I'd ever gotten myself into.

Since then, I have come to respect and value going out and getting dirty in dirt that doesn't conceal used intravenous needles and broken glass, smelling something other than carbon monoxide and spoiled milk being swept across a street by one of those monstrous mechanical street "cleaners", and listening to streams and birds instead of exasperated traffic and Nextel chirps about some baby mama drama. And I hope that my experiences, as you'll note in my albums, will help shape your own perspective about what we risk losing if we don't stay our compulsion for concrete.

(Editors Note: With all due respect to the many organizations that introduce all urban kids, not just blacks and Hispanics, to the outdoors, all your good works may be useless when we don't address one of the most ironic aspects of enjoying this free resource, the cost of enjoyment: from planning your own activities, to paying for group trips, to purchasing all the gear you need to enjoy it, every aspect costs money. To my own amusement, like any loving relationship with any women, it just ain't cheap to have one with Mother Nature.)


(1) Cultural Heritage Needs Assessment, April 2004 (PDF file)

(2) Caro, Robert, "The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York", Vintage, July 1975

Al Berrios is Managing Director of al berrios & co., an innovative strategy consulting firm advising leaders on the impact of human behavior on their strategies and on how to change their organizations to address the behavior. Write to Consumer Strategies Report at editor @ alberrios.com.


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