Frost Park: a community built in chalk dust

Whenever I mention Frost Park, most people outside of the Tacoma blogosphere just stare blankly at me like I’m speaking Tralfamadorian.
Most people in the Tacoma area have seen it. Many have stood inside it or walked through it without ever knowing. I don’t blame them. When I first moved here, I didn’t even realize it was considered an actual park, let alone one worthy of being named.
Frost Park is a tiny thing, tucked away between Commerce St. and Pacific Ave. on South 9th. Most people recognize it once I mention the fountain and the slightly curving stairs that run through it.
The park is named for Officer Larry Frost, killed in the line of duty on September 9, 1977. The park was dedicated to “all city employees who have sacrificed their lives while serving the citizens of Tacoma” on July 14, 1978, according to the park’s plaque.
I first came to know Frost Park as something other than a random fountain I passed by on the bus when I was urged by my sister to join her and other Tacoma bloggers in gathering there for lunch.
The park had apparently acquired a bad reputation – in the eyes of many passersby, it was a place for hoodlums and drug dealers. Truth be told, I was wary of the place myself, for no other reason than it sits right next to a major bus transfer area. As a license-less young twenty-something, the bus is my main source of transportation. So believe me when I say that major transfer areas can be very skeezy, sometimes even scary places (as an example, I need only think back to the time I was cornered by an aggressive drunk man in a restroom at the Tacoma Transit Station; he was convinced one of the bags I was carrying was his).
This group of proud Tacomans (Tacomites? Tacomadorians?) gathered there every Friday at Noon to eat, mingle, network and – most importantly – to build and strengthen a community.
That wasn’t enough for some, however, as I discovered when I arrived at the park one sunny April 11, 2008. I set my bag down, got ready for the usual mingling, and was immediately approached by someone who wanted to know if that was where the chalk competition was happening.
“Chalk competition?” I stared blankly. Clearly, this man was speaking Tralfamadorian.
At this point, I neither frequently checked the major Tacoma blogs nor subscribed to receive e-mails from Tacoma’s Arts Listserv. So I had no idea that local artist R.R. Anderson, creator of the infamous Tacomic, had challenged all comers for the illustrious title of “Best Illustrator in the Universe of Tacoma”.
The sidewalk served as their battlefield, each artist staking their claim on a single slab of cement canvas. Anderson brought with him a small amount of white chalk to distribute amongst the competitors. A theme was chosen (an occurrence that would not repeat in subsequent weeks) and, before a crowd of enthralled onlookers, the drawing began.
The chalk supply was slim. The method of judging hadn’t been figured out. The idea of acquiring their own colored chalk as an alternative to the small sticks of classroom blandness. But it was the start of something incredible.
In the twenty-nine weeks that followed, Frost Park became more than just a park, more than just an hour of chatter during the lunch hour. It became a home. It became a way of life.
It became a community.
Frost Park became the the highlight of my week. There were regulars – artists and non-artists alike – who showed up almost every time without fail. There were newcomers nearly every week, and always at least a few passersby who would muster up the courage to ask what was going on. Even I, a self-conscious artist whose drawings usually end up in the trash can, began throwing my hat into the chalk-dusted ring.
Through sun and rain, sleet and snow, Frost Park’s weekly slice of a better world persevered. And it grew.
From cell phone pictures to short films, it grew.
From the promise of an invented title to sponsored prizes, it grew.
From a box of white chalk to a plethora of colors, to free food and musical performances, it grew and grew and grew.
From a tiny, little-noticed park with a bad reputation to a community, a haven from the harsh realities of the real world…it grew.
It became the non-alcoholic real-life equivalent of a warm, friendly sitcom bar. It really was the place where everybody knew your name. It held more magic in it for people of all ages than any world imagined in the most beloved works of fiction.
All good things, however, must eventually come to an end. Tragically, the chalk competitions came to a close for the winter after thirty weeks. The final week was gloomy and wet, as if the very weather were mourning the loss of our weekly rebellion against the accepted norms of adult life.
In the absence of my weekly escape. Without a wardrobe to escape into or a rainbow to fly over, the extraordinarily long, cold winter felt even colder and a lot longer.
The winter, at long last, is over.
Tomorrow, Frost Park is back in action.
Once more we will descend as one upon Officer Frost’s namesake.
Once more we will build a community out of chalk dust and concrete.
Some people won’t understand. Some will stare at us blankly.
Let them. I’m proud to speak Tralfamadorian.
I’m proud to be a Frost Park Chalkie.

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