One of the highlights of Fort Wayne’s busy 2019 was the opening of Promenade Park, the first phase of the city’s riverfront development. It was a big event for many in the city who had worked for years to bring the park into being, and Riverfront program director Megan Butler had been on the frontlines of that plan for several years.
With the park opening late in the summer, a full slate of fall and winter programs proved that the park was not to sit idle for part of the year, but of course there were big plans for summer 2020. The realization that all of those plans would be scrapped came over the course of a couple weeks.
Taking a step back
“In March we took a definite pause in what we were doing,” Butler said. “As the pause went into week two, it became apparent that we were going to have to make significant alterations. We had things planned for late April that we had to cancel, but it took a couple of weeks to see that we were looking at the programs through May and the summer.”
How to best approach those significant alterations came upon Butler and her team gradually, with the first thought being to make the programs they had planned smaller.
Then it became evident that it had to be something more drastic.
“We wanted to stay true to the mission, the vision, and the values of the Riverfront project,” Butler said. “It would have been easy to get distracted and jump at the first thing that occurred to us, but we had to run everything through our standards. As we looked at the programs planned, we saw that we could make the changes that complied with social distancing guidelines, but the programs would lose their value. What they were about wouldn’t be what they were about anymore. So in May we scrapped everything and started over, looking at four months of programming to take us through summer. I really challenged my staff and asked them to come up with four months of programming in two days.”
The answer came in a somewhat surprising form: chalk.
“I told them I had come up with an idea, gave them some guidance, and let them run with it,” Butler said. “I follow interactive public art installations around the world, and the use of chalk and chalkboards are used to pose simple questions that allow for people to answer them. It’s used to break down barriers and let people in a bit more. Chalk is colorful and easy to use, and it has the ability to change and adapt since you can write and erase which seemed symbolic of what we’re doing right now.”
With different themes each week — beginning this week and running through October 3 — and different topics each day, people will be invited to visit Promenade Park and participate in this interactive and potentially revealing activity which is both engaging and allows for social distancing.
“We have a lot of concrete at the park,” Butler said. “There’s a lot of space to use. We’ve placed these areas in a strategic place that can easily allow for foot traffic and flow that will make it possible for people to interact without having to get too close. And hopefully it won’t come to that, but we can and will tap someone on the shoulder and remind them to be mindful of distance if we need to.”
The seven topics include Wellness on Sundays, Literature on Mondays, Games on Tuesdays, Dance on Thursdays, Science on Fridays, and Art on Saturdays.
Perhaps most intriguing is Wednesday when the focus is on The Great Conversation. It’s a more philosophical endeavor which will pose questions which require some thought, allowing for discussion between those who are there at the same time and interaction with those who may arrive later to see the responses. With different topics daily and different themes weekly, no two days will be the same.
Butler and her staff have already done some dry runs to see how those who visit the park enjoy the exercises. She became emotional remembering one particular example.
“Having people discuss these philosophical questions can bring some really interesting responses. One question posed was, ‘What do you want to accomplish before you die?’ A six-year-old girl said, ‘I’d like to write a book.’ When her father responded, he said, ‘I’d like to read that book.’ And we will also be interacting over these activities with perfect strangers.”
Adapting to the restrictions
One of the Riverfront activities over the winter was Dance Promenade. This will be revamped in a way to allow for current restrictions.
“We’ll have boxes on the ground, and you’ll be told to do a silly dance or do a cool dance,” Butler said. “Your feet stay on the sidewalk, and it will allow for social distancing but with people close enough to still interact safely.”
As summer is finally beginning, Butler is happy with what they’ve been able to accomplish in such a short time. While even 2021 is still up in the air, there is hope that the summer planned for this year might still take place. But in the meantime, there’s plenty to look forward to now.
“I’m excited and proud about what we have planned and that we didn’t just take what we already had planned and make it smaller. That just doesn’t feel right, and I’m happy that we’ve been able to adapt.
“The Riverfront is helping us get back to connecting with human endeavors and activities while bridging gaps using topics that may seem inaccessible but have been made accessible.”
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