Redeeming Douglass Park
A local park has gained a reputation as an incubator for crime. Not everyone agrees on how to fix it. Meet Albert and Sam, two park regulars whose goals for the central-city hangout stand in opposition.
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Douglass Park is a second home to Albert.
He’s alone in the middle of one of the three ashy pink basketball courts. A wiry black man with the energy and enthusiasm of a 20-year-old, he walks out into the afternoon sun with a plate of spaghetti in his right hand and a lit cigarette in his left.
With his arms held above his head and spread past his shoulders, he sways back and forth to the music’s rhythm with a subtle-but-confident two-step. Slowly, he dances over to the disc jockey’s table and announces that it’s his birthday.
I ask his last name. Without a word, he reaches into his pocket and tosses a creased, Missouri nondriver ID onto a picnic table. Albert Lee Butler. He looks into me with dark brown eyes, bloodshot with thin red veins that cloud the surrounding white. They’re tired eyes that fill his narrow face with pain or passion, or perhaps he’s just high. If he’s not, he will be soon.
Earlier that afternoon, Butler celebrated alongside the Columbia Police Department’s foot patrol officers James Meyer and Jamie Dowler, who spent nearly every day of the summer at the park.
Crime is what drives Sam Brady’s involvement at Douglass Park.
The baseball coordinator for Columbia Parks & Recreation, Brady grew up in the St. Louis housing project his mother managed. He has worked and volunteered in Columbia for the past 13 years. He coached for the Columbia Youth Basketball Association and is currently coaching seventh-grade basketball in the North Callaway R-1 School District.
“Crime turns my stomach,” Brady explains. “I hate crime. I’m not afraid to walk up to a person and say ‘This is not the right way to live.’ ”
Butler and Brady are both black, and both regulars at Douglass Park, where nearby crime, poverty and drug use have dragged down its reputation for decades.
Both men have different ideas for Douglass, and the Columbia Police Department is doing its best to intermediate. The question remains: What’s the best way to redeem Douglass?
Rebuilding A Reputation
At 8.4 acres, Douglass Park is nowhere near Columbia’s biggest. But it’s one of only two city parks or facilities with an outdoor pool and water slide, as well as a splash zone with 31 water jets. South of the pool are the basketball courts, all with electronic scoreboards. North of the pool, there’s a playground bordered by pines and Gingko trees.
Douglass High School is at the park’s south end. The school opened in 1885 as “Cummings Academy,” an all-black high school. It’s now Columbia Public School’s alternative high school.
For years, Douglass Park has suffered from a poor public image. Situated across Providence Road from the city’s housing projects, it’s in the middle of Columbia Police Department’s beat 20, which has historically been one of the city’s highest crime areas.
Even when problems occur outside the park, Douglass Park stills gets a bum rap in the press.
When DeAudre Orlando Johnson was shot and killed last March one block west of the park, “Douglass Park” appeared in a Columbia Missourian article about the crime. KOMU-TV8 referred to it as a “Douglass Park shooting,” and the Columbia Daily Tribune referenced the incident as “near Douglass Park.”
The same thing happened last June. When a random shooting wounded four teens near the Providence Road footbridge, KOMU’s headline included the phrase “near Douglass Park.”
Countering these events, articles in the Tribune and the University of Missouri student newspaper The Maneater delved into the park’s public image and Brady’s efforts to rebuild softball and baseball leagues.
But Douglass’ poor reputation runs deeper than words, and fixing the problems plaguing the park isn’t something Brady, or the police, have been able to do alone.
King Of The Park
Last fall, on Sept. 22, Albert Butler celebrated his 31st birthday.
It’s a beautiful day: temperatures in the 60s, sunny and breezy. The pavilion is packed, typical for a Douglass Park Saturday.
Retired DJ and park regular Curtis “Boogieman” Soul decided to celebrate the September birthdays of patrol officers Meyer and Dowler in combination with “Blues in the Park,” a free alternative to downtown’s annual Roots N Blues N BBQ Festival.
Butler sits facing me at a picnic table in the pavilion. He’s eating a barbecue sandwich and Tiger Stripe ice cream and talking about cutting hair to provide for his five children. Sixteen-year-old Keiondre, the oldest, lives with Butler’s sister, Donisha, in Columbia.
The youngest, Malaki, 3, lives with his mother, also in Columbia. The other three live in St. Louis with their mother.
Something metallic in Butler’s right ear catches my eye: a nickel.
Some younger friends call him over. Albert records a video on his cellphone as they rant jubilantly about him.
The group’s dreadlocked leader, who introduces himself as “Kinfolk,” withdraws a two-pack of “Jazz” Black and Mild’s. It’s a new flavor, subject to an old trick. He hands one to Butler.
“This yo birthday blunt n*gga,” he says. “Don’t let nobody hit this but you.”
Butler pulls a lighter from his jeans pocket, lights the blunt and takes a few hits. The smell of marijuana fills the air as he exhales. He holds the blunt up in front of his face and looks at me.
“We aren’t trying to hurt nobody,” he says.
Vigilante Of The Park
Sam Brady loves Columbia but he hates crime. He has good reason. He remembers as if it were yesterday.
In 1996, Brady was 30 years old, living in St. Louis with his newborn son, Jonah. He worked as a certified nurse’s assistant at a nursing home and was struggling to keep up with rent.
One day, his friend Willie Neal stopped by to lend him money. Neal, Brady’s best friend since the sixth grade, joined the St. Louis Police Department as an undercover officer after getting out of the Army.
Before he left, Neal asked Brady to come out to his car; he wanted to show him something. In the driveway, Neal popped the trunk and stood back to let Brady admire his police equipment. One item in particular caught Brady’s eye.
“What’s that?” he asked.
Brady was concerned. “You need to wear that vest, because what you do is dangerous.”
The next day, Willie Neal died from a gunshot to the chest. He wasn’t wearing his vest.
Brady gave the eulogy at Neal’s funeral,. He doesn’t remember a word of what he said, but he still has a copy of the obituary. Now in Columbia, Brady’s committed to righting the evils that took his best friend.
He lives on Columbia’s south side with his wife, Heather, and their three teenagers — Jonah, Mariah and Tyler. A 6½ -mile drive to Douglass Park takes him right past the small white house on Worley Street belonging to Albert’s mother, Margaret.
Brady began his work at Douglass Park with hundreds of decks of cards he got from his uncle, who owns a gambling boat. He handed them out to the people in the pavilion to get to know them on a personal level. He wanted, and needed, their trust.
Last summer, Brady’s main priority was revamping the park’s youth baseball league. By mid-April, only 26 kids had signed up. He knocked on doors to recruit more players and parent volunteers. His efforts paid off, and he recruited 159 players (triple the previous year’s number) to form 10 teams.
Brady also formed an adult softball league and helped fund a special game between a Douglass Park team and a combined squad from the Columbia police and fire departments.
His efforts have been praised in the Columbia Tribune, but Brady knows he still has plenty of work to do.