Merriment & What-Not
Will Eeyore Be Banished From the Hundred Acre Wood?
So, as it usually does in Austin, real life now imitates literary fantasy. For the annual Eeyore's Birthday Celebration, in its 34th year as the signal event in the River City counterculture's social calendar, has once again run afoul of the grumpy old donkeys who live near and/or manage the Hundred Acre Wood -- Pease Park, on the west side of the Enchanted Place called Austin, Texas, U.S.A. And once again, all good hippies and Pooh partisans are being called to arms -- a public hearing during the City Council meeting on Thursday, April 10 -- to rally support for the Silly Old Bears with Very Little Brains who've made Eeyore's an enduring, yet to some an embarrassing, Austin tradition.
Absent the Milnean metaphor, the facts so far: The Eeyore's Birthday Celebration, scheduled this year for April 26, is by far the largest public event held in Pease Park. Pease, one of the oldest parks in Austin, flanks the banks of Shoal Creek beside and below some of Austin's most expensive residential real estate, the epicenter of Old Money in this town. Like much of this part of town, Pease Park descends from the massive landholdings of Gov. Elisha Pease, Texas' first post-Reconstruction chief executive, whose Woodlawn manse formed the stylistic and aristocratic template for what now calls itself the Old Enfield neighborhood.
And neither the neighborhood nor the Austin Parks and Recreation Department has ever much appreciated the crowds of 5,000-plus who, in their view, overwhelm the park, create a safety and security hazard, destroy the neighbors' quality of life, and do lasting damage to the Hundred Acre Wood that persists long after they depart. So, ever since Eeyore's moved to Pease Park in 1982, either the Old Enfield Homeowners' Association, PARD, or both have been trying to get it to leave.
Since PARD, after all, owns the park, this would seem to be a simple task, but Eeyore's -- titularly sponsored by the University YMCA, with funds raised from concessions and merchandise (admission to the party itself is free) going to a herd of local charities and community groups -- has quite the large contingent of fans, and to date any attempts to dislocate the Silly Old Bears from the Hundred Acre Wood have blown up in their backers' faces. The last time the issue went before the City Council itself for an up-or-down vote, in 1984, Eeyore's won 7-0.
More recently, in 1995, after much agitation by Old Enfield leader Jim Christianson, PARD sought to implement a policy that, while theoretically designed to control events at all parks citywide, would effectively banish Eeyore's, along with the Clarksville Jazz Festival held in June, from Pease Park. When this went to the Parks Board for approval, that body, swayed by pressure in support of both Eeyore's and the Jazz Fest, exempted both events from the new policy. Most citizens, along with Eeyore's backers, thought that this resolved the issue forevermore. But no.
So far, Suits has rejected these conditions, he says, because Olivares' dicta are too vague to allow him to make decisions to address them. (For example, Suits claims to still not know what kind of fence he needs to erect, and when it should be erected, or whether he has to pay PARD for renting Pease Park before and after the party itself.) He also suspects, as do many Eeyore's supporters, that his party is being held to a different and more onerous standard than most events in city parks. In any case, as a result of Suits' non-cooperation, Olivares turned down Suits' request to reserve the park for April 26 of this year, whereupon Suits filed an open-records request for the information that would ostensibly answer his questions (not all of which he has yet received, he says, though the 10 calendar days in which PARD is legally obligated to provide it have now elapsed). Suits also wrote to City Councilmember Jackie Goodman asking for council intervention in the matter, and Goodman has obliged by posting the April 10 hearing.
For this year, at least, it appears fairly certain that Eeyore's will happen at Pease Park, either under Olivares' conditions or not, depending on what action the City Council takes this week. But obviously this is not the whole story, since whatever the Council does will leave plenty of folks unsatisfied, and it appears likely that Eeyore's will continue to spawn tension and tantrums until it's either banished from Pease Park (preferably, judging from Olivares' correspondence, to a site far, far away, like Emma Long Park or the Exposition and Heritage Center) or enshrined at Pease Park as an event with some form of city sponsorship. Such is the case, in pragmatic terms, with the Clarksville Jazz Fest, which despite its also being targeted by Christianson and Old Enfield, has links, at least in theory, to PARD programming through a cultural contract, to neighborhood programming via its relationship with the Clarksville Neighborhood Advisory Board, and to Austin's famously lame official attempts to promote its music industry, in the Jazz Fest's case via the "June is Jazz in Austin" campaign. Perhaps for those reasons, Jazz Fest director Harold MacMillan has thus far received no complaints from PARD.
Eeyore's, on the other hand -- despite being far, far more successful than the Jazz Fest (or, for that matter, Aqua Fest) and despite having a track record on safety and security that's a lot better than many other park-based events, and despite having been around for several generations -- still can't seem to shake its outlaw reputation as a bacchanalia where hippies and slackers and bored students come to get drunk and high and flirt with making mayhem. The fact that Eeyore's was personally audited by the PARD director, which is not routine, may speak to this.
It's also a potential subtext to the views of Christianson and Old Enfield, who -- despite disclaiming any involvement in, or responsibility for, the current fight between Eeyore's and PARD -- show little sympathy for the notion that Eeyore's is a community asset whose benefit to charity makes it worth supporting. "They've been saying for years, and the press has been reporting for years, that they're tax-exempt and non-profit and giving money to charity, but I've yet to see anything that indicates they are," Christianson says.
"There is no such thing as the University YMCA," Christianson continues, claiming that his inquiries with the YMCA state-level organization in Houston turned up no contact for a University chapter, "and there's no record of such an organization with the IRS, which there needs to be if they're really a non-profit. Ultimately, it doesn't really matter as far as our neighborhood's concerns go, but if they're claiming to be something they're not, then that's not right."
For his part, Suits says that -- after a complaint from an anonymous citizen, presumably Christianson or one of his Old Enfield neighbors -- the Attorney General's Charitable Trusts Division audited Eeyore's and gave the party its blessing, and that all the proper solicitation filings have been made with the city clerk. "There's some organizations that are running charity events where the bulk of the proceeds go to the promoter, and that's not the case with Eeyore's," says Suits. "We don't have paid promoters and never have, and every dime goes to non-profits." (It is true, however, as Christianson points out, that the 1996 PARD contract/lease was signed by Suits not as chair of the University YMCA, as he identifies himself on his correspondence, but as chair of Eeyore's Birthday Celebration.)
Ultimately, Christianson is right -- though sometimes he himself forgets -- that Eeyore's legitimacy as a conventional fundraising activity is not the issue, and if it were, many other events that operate in parks with the city's blessing -- including the notorious financial sinkhole of Aqua Fest -- might not bear the same scrutiny as well as Eeyore's has so far. But the larger question remains: Is Eeyore's being held to a different standard than more "mainstream" events and conversely is Pease Park, with its proximity to a wealthy neighborhood full of Austin's powerful and prominent, being treated differently from other Austin parks?
The staff at PARD have maintained strenuously, and in their view genuinely, that the only real issue is Eeyore's size -- that an event as large as the party needs to be in a place where it can be controlled better than at Pease, which has little available parking, the built-in physical hazard of the creek, and long stretches of frontage on Lamar Boulevard without sidewalks or crosswalks. The complaints of the neighbors, in PARD's view, are not the paramount issue.
However, Suits says, the department's suggestions for alternate sites point out the fallacies in the PARD position. After suggesting, as noted above, sites far away from Eeyore's traditional Central Austin base, or locations that aren't PARD property, "they've now suggested Waterloo Park, which is next to Brackenridge Hospital and the Ronald McDonald House. That's ludicrous," Suits notes. "If noise and traffic congestion are such big problems at Pease, how are they going to be better next to a hospital? (Similar concerns pertain to Emma Long, aka City Park, with its one long and winding road in and out.) They just want us to move to Waterloo because there's no neighborhood association to protest. If it weren't for tradition, we'd have moved to Auditorium Shores a long time ago, but the neighbors down there don't want us either.
"We're committed to making Eeyore's work at Pease Park," Suits continues, "by doing everything we can to reduce the traffic congestion." Suits points out that Eeyore's privately hired shuttle buses already make it the largest event in Austin not served by Capital Metro, and that this cost could be avoided if Eeyore's did move. "What we need is for PARD to work with us, and to help educate the public to ride the bus, rather than fight our being there or take the easy decision of kicking us out," Suits says. "All that does is move problems around elsewhere in the city."
Suits also says that in the past, PARD's own police worked Eeyore's to help with traffic and crowd control, but those resources are now directed to other events, like Safari in Zilker Park, that PARD co-sponsors; details to this effect were part of his open-records request. This spirit of cooperation is a marked contrast with the current attitude at PARD. "The day after the Parks Board voted to grandfather us in 1995, PARD staff were on the radio telling listeners that Eeyore's would be booted out of Pease Park. There's nothing we could do that would ultimately satisfy them," says Suits.
Suits claims to not know or understand the politics behind PARD's somewhat incoherent stance, but the short answer would likely involve Christianson and Old Enfield -- of the six letters received by PARD in the last three years (forwarded to Suits in his open-records response) complaining about Eeyore's, five are from Christianson. The symbolism here is both rich and obvious: It's okay for an event like Aqua Fest, run by West Austin aristocrats, to torment and oppress neighborhoods east and south for years, in ways more apparent and destructive than one can easily see at Eeyore's, but when an event spawned of the counterculture disturbs the sensibilities of those same Westsiders in their natural habitat, the PARD director himself goes to bat on the neighbors' behalf. Even if this reading weren't true, it's inevitable that many will believe it, and attendees at the April 10 hearing will surely hear it advanced time and again.
Yet it is true that other park-based events have, at great expense, had to mitigate their impacts on the parks and on surrounding neighborhoods, albeit perhaps in different ways and under different circumstances from those currently surrounding Eeyore's. In Christianson's view, it's not Eeyore's or Pease Park, but rather Old Enfield that's the victim of a double standard. "Look at the reaction to Mr. [Philip] Bobbitt," he says, referring to the Old Enfield homeowner whose attempt to claim a small swatch of Pease Park to build a driveway to his home was a cause célèbre at council some weeks back. "The reaction was that he was stealing part of the parkland, and everyone thought it would do such environmental damage, but they don't raise the same concerns about Eeyore's.
"They clean up after themselves, but they've never done anything to repair the damage to the vegetation that's caused when 6,000 people trample it," Christianson continues, adding that if Eeyore's is such a big moneymaker for community causes, then party organizers should be willing to contribute to the restoration of the park. (However, while PARD could ask or perhaps even require Eeyore's to do so, they haven't as of yet.) "Some people believe that there's just Old Enfield bashing going on here, and now I'm starting to believe it," Christianson adds. "Clearly, Eeyore's damages the park as much as anything any neighbor has wanted to do."
All this and more should be amply aired in the April 10 hearing, which Christianson plans to attend, but which he's telling his neighbors to avoid. "I expect it will be a circus," he says. Or, as the original Eeyore contemptuously described his original birthday party, "all merriment and what-not." And then we shall see if the Silly Old Bears with Very Little Brains will ever be driven out of the Hundred Acre Wood by the Houses at Pease Corner. What fun we shall have!
Eeyore's will take place Saturday, April 26, 11am-dark, with a kids' area 11am-3pm, and live music noon-6pm. In case of rain (rain date May 3) or for info, call 448-5160, or visit the website, http://www.sexton.com/eeyores