Inglewood's New Darby Park: Playing Ball/Striking Out

Photo: Erin Aubry Kaplan
I took my dogs out yesterday to Darby Park and discovered that the new baseball field is finished. The regulation Little League diamond (officially Sportsman Little League) is bigger and more impressive than what was there before, a somewhat ragged grassy field with a smallish infield of red clay dirt and a haphazard pitcher's mound. I wrote in a previous blog how I regretted watching the transformation of the field over the winter, despite the fact that having a Little League field in town was nothing but a good development.

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But I had used the old field for years as a play space and training area for my growing family of dogs; it was the rare place that was bigger than a backyard, out in the open but contained, public but private at the same time. The new field is nice, even commanding; Darby suddenly has a centerpiece where it used to have merely an attempt at a baseball field, a pretty good attempt by Inglewood standards. The new park replaces that familiar but slippery sense of expectation and ambition with something solid and unmoving. No improvising necessary: we have a real baseball field. It would be up to snuff anywhere. Leaning against the new chain-link fence and looking in, I was almost embarrassed to feel something like awe that this project had come off, and that it didn't disappoint or fall short. Not yet.

The youngest of my dogs, the half-Lab, picked up her ears and looked behind us. A car that was moving at a snail's pace along the walking path next to the field slowed up as it approached me, then stopped. The driver was my neighbor across 108th Street, Willie, who's also on the city parks and recreation commission. He was cruising through Darby on a kind of regular round, admiring its latest attraction for which he was partly responsible. He was clearly proud. He reminded me that the commission was also responsible for the skateboard park built at the other end of Darby.

I nodded. I liked that park and the sight of kids, mostly boys, zipping up and around the metal ramps and slides with a concentration and focus on perfecting -- no slippery standards there -- that never flagged, that indeed seemed to intensify with each mistake or near-tumble. I also liked the fact that the whole skateboarding culture conferred a kind of suburban normalcy that Inglewood always seems to need to pull it back to the center of civic gravity after an eruption like the fatal shooting of Fred Martin that happened recently, a couple miles from the park. I visit the skateboard park and the Little League field not to forget these eruptions, but to remember--what else we are, who we could be.

Willie lives in a house with a white picket fence behind which grow cacti and big red roses. He's 82 and says he's seen it all. He says things are as bad for black people now as he's ever seen them and that we're at a very critical juncture. I'm a bit surprised -- I take Willie for a conservative, or at least a law-and-order type. I like him but deliberately don't engage him in too much political talk. I ask him what he means.

He sighs. "No jobs," he says. "People just don't have them. And they have no direction, no sense of where to go next. They're confused."

I understand. All the Little Leagues and skateboard ramps in the world can't stabilize a scenario in which people aren't working. Baseball, skateboarding and even owning dogs are amenities to a good life, not a good life itself. Our season on Darby is finally under way, but we've still got a ways to go.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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