West Side Story

To the untrained eye, the tiny park below appears ordinary and dry, dirty even. The usual clutter of iron seats and benches sit around the place. Trees trained around metal arches frame a walkway through for the weary walker, providing a brief reprieve from the otherwise graffiti and cigarette butt filled sidewalks and paving stones. The occasional grassy space breaks up the dull mix of blacks, greys and tans, attempting to brighten the bleak sun faded colours of the surrounding concrete jungle. Apartment blocks wrap their way around the periphery of the park, towering above, adding to the bleakness of the scene I see below me. Yet, as the sun sinks below the silhouetted landscapes of the city, surrendering to the cool of the evening, an unlikely scene unfolds. Life begins to emerge.

From the right, a shawl clad woman hobbles towards a nearby park bench, leaning heavily on her walker. Sinking slowly onto the seat, she pulls out a fag, lights it and takes in her surroundings. She takes a deep breath and sighs, coughing loudly. With one hand she wipes the sweat off her dirty forehead with an equally dirty palm. What has her day looked like, I wonder. Has anyone taken the time to talk to this woman with sad eyes.

Behind her, a man and son kick a ball back and forth, diving in and out of the shadows playfully, hiding from each other. Round and round the benches they run. Joy abounds.

A slight movement catches my eye and I observe a photo shoot in full swing. Nothing noteworthy to the casual onlooker, just a couple of older teenage sisters taking photo’s of their younger siblings. Ten year olds, entirely confident in themselves, moving this way and that, lavishing the praise heaped on them during the process.

Towards the back left hand corner of the park, the graceful swing of hands move in time to a chanted count. Six individuals learning a hip hop routine to the beat of “1, 2, 3, 4”. They bend and dip, pop and jive, improving all the more each time the sequence is repeated, undeterred by the amused expressions of passerby’s. It is creative expression, found in the most unlikely of places, with much encouragement abounding and patting on the back within the group.

From my apartment above, I take in my surroundings again. The hobbling woman, the man and his boy, the photo shoot, the dancers, the businessmen on their laptops and the fish and chip dinner which has just begun on a nearby patch of grass. It certainly doesn’t look or sound like a glamorous movie scene, with the profanities I can currently hear being shouted in the background, the cars and sirens screeching their way round the block periodically and the boom boxes beating their way loudly out of nearby car windows, but there is real beauty in what I am seeing just the same.

This park scene isn’t dignified, clean or pretty, but there is something very precious, which exists here. People from every race, on the same patch of land, freely expressing who they are, whether that be in dance, dress sense, hair style, skin colour, employment status or state of mind. It represents community, in all its glory, meshing together daily, normally, uncontrived, in a one big beautiful mess.

It me, it also represents an invitation. An invitation to express freely who I am without masking over those ugly bits I am afraid others might see. If those whom I have observed, having so little, can express who they are freely without fear of intimidation, ridicule or peer pressure, why can’t I as one to whom much has been given. Makes you think eh?

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