Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Globalisation of Merrymount Park

So already,* on Monday morning, August 3, I took my usual walk at my not usual time--and came across dancing in Merrymount Park. The big public park close to the center of Quincy, Massachusetts, Merrymount Park has a large, easily accessible parking lot that's perfectly placed for summer recreation. In the early morning, nearby trees shade its paved, level surface, making it ideal for summer activities that are energetic, meditative, or both. Because the park's water fountain is close to the parking lot, but not too close to it, the fountain's constantly circulating waters provide a hushed, soothing soundtrack that complements the dappled stillness the parking lot often exudes before day fully awakens.

Over the last few years, I have often seen disciplined walkers and Tai Chi practitioners availing themselves of this choice Quincy spot on summer mornings. But last Monday was the first time I witnessed dancers taking advantage of it. 


It was around eight-thirty in the morning, and I had just rounded the corner from Hancock Street onto Merrymount Parkway (you can see that corner on the right-hand side of the photo on the right).** As I neared the the entrance to the parking lot just beyond the park's World War II memorial (pictured above on the left, and just distinguishable beneath the American flag in the photo on the right),*** I heard American swing music coming from the parking lot's far end. If I'd heard hip hop or old rock 'n roll, I would have walked on, assuming that some group of young friends was congregating near the fenced-in field before heading off to summer jobs or regular work. But that swing music, out of the ordinary for the city's streets, called for a little more investigation.

That's when I saw that there was dancing happening at the far end of the parking lot, and that the dancers were Chinese-Americans--probably some of my fellow residents of Quincy, I surmised. Some were paired off and dancing together, others were encouraging others to form couples and begin dancing, and others were providing instruction to those who agreed to it, enthusiastically or reluctantly.

For a few minutes, I mused to myself about the globalization of Merrymount Park--its ability to embrace and be embraced by its newest wave of city residents at the same time that it honors two American presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, and memorializes Quincy residents who lost their lives in multiple wars.  Then it suddenly struck me: my Chinese-American neighbors' "innovative" use of Merrymount Park wasn't innovative at all. Dancing was one of the first things that ever happened at Merrymount--once it became known as Merrymount. And maybe even before.

In fact, the place became known as Merrymount as a result of an early chapter in globalization's history: the one in which the Pilgrims, Puritans, and other Europeans made their way to New England and encountered those who already lived here--and also encountered one another, not always agreeably.

In fact, the whole area, or settlement, was named Merrymount in the mid-1620's by Thomas Morton who wished to make a point--and also to make some money. I first learned this history from my friend Margo Lukens who teaches, among other subjects, American literature at the University of Maine in Orono. When I first moved to Quincy, Margo's curiosity and advice led me to various online sources and also to Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Maypole of Merrymount." Later, Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower deepened my understanding of whom and what Morton had rejected and embraced, and his reasons for doing so. As Philbrick explains, 
 "As the name of the settlement might suggest, Morton represented everything the Pilgrims had come to America to escape. . . . For Morton, a Sunday was best spent not in praying but in hunting with his falcon or, better yet, sharing a drink with the local Indians.  Instead of building a wall around Merrymount, Morton erected an eighty-foot-high maypole--a gleeful and decidedly pagan proclamation that God was not to be taken overly seriously, at least not in Morton's neck of New England.
"Lubricated by plenty of alcohol, he and his men danced around the maypole with their Native neighbors, making a mockery of the solemn exclusivity of the Plymouth settlement.  What was worse, Morton's intimacy with the Indians quickly made him the favored trading partner in the region. He even dared to equip them with guns, since this enabled the Indians to procure more furs.
"The Pilgrims had come face-to-face with a figure from a future America: the frontiersman who happily thumbed his nose at authority while embracing the wilderness" (163).****
Merrymount's hardly the wilderness these days, and the only visual evidence of this suspiciously "heathen" chapter of early American history is the name of a street that runs off of Furnace Brook Parkway very close to Wollaston Beach. But there was definitely dancing in Merrymount Park, and a lot of it was done by those who came to be known as early Americans, as well as those who, given this widely accepted system of labeling, should be known as the earlier or earliest Americans.

So who should be dancing in the park, and why? I love that August 2014 Merrymount dancers were--and are (I saw them again this morning!)--dancing without the threat, censure, and interference of the 21st-century equivalent of the Pilgrim and Puritan judges of "what we do, who we are, and how we behave in public spaces, including unused parking lots."
I especially love it because I realize that Quincy's Chinese-American dancers are doing what they might be doing were they living in China. In fact, the sites and sounds of them dancing in a Quincy public park brings me right back to that morning in June 2012 when, thanks to the generosity of the NEA (National Education Association Foundation and the Pearson Foundation, a group of American educators of which I was part was able to spend a good portion of our morning at a Beijing public park that brimmed with citizens exercising, walking, performing, and--yes--dancing. I took all the photos of dancers and exercisers contained in this blog post except the one below; it's only the difference between the Quincy pavement and the Beijing bricks that distinguishes the scene in China from the one in America.

It intrigued us all as Americans to see the park both so public and so private. Wall-to-wall people, the utter visibility of all to all, and yet a simultaneous right to be self-contained, self-directing, and self-satisfying. It's interesting to think that our Chinese-American fellow citizens might teach us a thing or two about how to enjoy public space--and how to enjoy ourselves in public space. Alice Farquhar writes about the public park activity in an article called "The Park Pass: Peopling and Civilizing a New Old Beijing"*****:
"It is not even presented as a spectacle. The unself-consciousness Mishra found in the dancers he described invites a certain reflection for the foreign observer. If this is a performance, where is the audience, and who is passing the hat? Where is that sense of physical embarrassment we have come to see as proper to the elderly? What happens to the tendency of the aged to stand on dignity, given that so many of them don’t know the dance step and are always just practicing? Above all, tourists strolling through Beijing’s parks have a feeling that some rather personal, markedly bodily activities have here been made public and collectively pursued in a very deliberate way, without embarrassment. The personal is made public: the most natural and simple pleasures claim, en masse, the city’s space and time and give it cultural form."******
Meanwhile, though it may be true that Merrymount Park is both rediscovering its identity as a place of community through dance and expanding its role in the lives of Quincy's current citizens, thanks to renewed global encounter, there's evidence from China that all this public dancing is not always appreciated. This week's edition of The Week reports the following*******:
"A panda at a Chinese zoo has been found to have stress brought on by a group of grandmothers holding daily square dancing sessions outside of his enclosure. 'As soon as the music starts,' said a zookeeper, 'Chaoyang begins pacing back and forth and is clearly nervous and distressed.  The women sing very loudly and very badly.' Zoo officials have pleaded with the elderly women to practice their routines elsewhere, but to no avail."
Globalization's capacity to broaden our experiences and even our senses of our own possibilities is one thing, but when it comes to dancing in one's own country, maybe it's sometimes a good idea to pander to the panda********!

* And by the way, the globalized spelling of globalization is globalisation! <http://forums.digitalspy.co.uk/showthread.php?t=949368>
** Screen shot of 10575152_819510494740022_382110501250219317_o.jpg, downloaded from Friends of Merrymount Park Facebook page. 
*** Screen shot of <http://2.bp.blogspot.com/__pY5ogjMP3s/TAQPm4XElmI/AAAAAAAAEtU/m-gKDLgtX8s/s1600/100_2009-c.jpg> 
**** Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
*****Farquwar, Judith. "Excerpt from 'The Park Pass: Peopling and Civilizing a New Old Beijing'" Public Culture Fall 21.3 (2009): 551-76. Public Culture. Web. 12 Aug. 2014. <http://publicculture.org/articles/view/21/3/the-park-pass-peopling-and-civilizing-a-new-old-beijing>.
****** Screen shot of <http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/dam/assets/121018064731-beijing-park-dance-story-top.jpg>
******* "It Must Be True... I Read It in the Tabloids." The Week 14.681 (2014): 10. Print. 
******** Screen shot of <http://p1.img.cctvpic.com/program/cultureexpress/20121030/images/1351563487081_1351563487081_r.jpg>.


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