On a recent afternoon Mark Roland, 60, took small pieces of white bread, rubbed it between his fingers into a ball and tossed it toward the pond in Naftzger Park downtown, as he does on most days, sometimes multiple times, and watches the pieces get snatched up by sparrows, starlings, blackbirds and once in awhile, a robin, turtledove or duck.
“It’s a peaceful way to get away from events, relax,” he said.
Roland didn’t know about the city’s latest $1.5 million plan to renovate the park in the leadup to the NCAA tournament in 2018 or the city’s nearly 50-year history of unsuccessfully trying to discourage men like him from spending so much time in the area.
Roland moved to Wichita seven or eight years ago, to get away from family problems in Nebraska. He sleeps in the back of a Chevy Blazer five blocks away on Second, which the owner has given him permission to stay in for the time being, where he locks up his clothes and toiletries. He used to stay at the mission but didn’t like all the rules.
He came to the park for the first time soon after arriving in Wichita on a weekend when a church group cooked hamburgers, hotdogs and barbecue, a frequent occurrence when it’s warm out, he said. These lunches are probably the park’s busiest time, he said. He gets food stamps too and will occasionally eat at the Lord’s Diner, but he said the park lunches are really good.
As he threw crumbs, a few city workers in yellow vests sprayed weeds, pinched litter off the ground and emptied garbage cans. The grass had just been mowed, so that some of the clippings had further clouded up the park pond into an even darker green and brown, but the birds chirped loud and happy.
Nobody from the city ever asked him what he’d like to see in a renovated park, he said even though he’s one of its most frequent users. The only thing he’d like to change would be to ban all the beer, vodka, mixers and drugs. “Just about any given day you can get whatever you want,” he said. “I notice quite a few exchanges just about every day.”
He doesn’t have any family or real friends in Wichita, he said. He’ll talk to other people in the park sometimes but doesn’t ask their names. “Sometimes it’s better off not to know, especially if you have to live with them,” he said.
He stopped drinking and smoking marijuana about 20 years before, he said, and mostly just smokes tobacco now, so he’s never had much contact with police and has never felt discouraged from spending his time there, he said.
The park doesn’t get that busy now but Roland said he wouldn’t mind if the renovations brought more people, as long as it didn’t bring fights or more drugs. He understands why the city would want to turn the park’s grass into artificial turf, even if it meant a lot fewer birds because, he said, it would be easier to maintain.
A group of five nearby restaurant workers in aprons came over to smoke cigarettes on a bench in the shade during their break. A couple of women brought their tiny dogs through the park on leashes, stopping only long enough for them to pee. A little blonde girl with one of the women did a somersault underneath the park’s gazebo, just past a man whose sat motionless staring beyond her, his bicycle leaned up against the bench. Most of the people who stayed in the park for more than a few minutes either had a bicycle or several bags.
Roland just had an empty white grocery sack. After he ran out of bread he just sat there, with his arms folded in front of him, and stared.