The Mean Grass of Holmes

Another turf battle in another city park

For an open field on the edge of southeast Minneapolis, the Meadow doesn't look much like the verdant expanse its name suggests. But after a few days of rain, the grass and weeds in the Meadow--Holmes Park, officially--are bright as emeralds. Most summer nights find dozens of patrons packing the place, picnicking, shooting hoops, milling around the kids' playground and wading pool, which were installed in 1995 when Marcy Elementary School was built on one end of the block. And then there's the volleyball: long, lively matches on the two courts, whose patches of packed dirt have in recent months become more hotly contested than the games themselves.

On a balmy evening early this month, a caravan of cars pulls up and parks at the Meadow's curbs. Out climb families and friends, all Ecuadorian and other Hispanic immigrants bearing volleyball equipment and coolers. The children run off to climb the jungle gym, not far from a full basketball court where a handful of toned players are running a grueling round of pickup. On the half-court nearby, a film crew is busy staging a Best Buy commercial starring two guys who look like they couldn't make a jump shot if the hoop were strapped to their torsos. By 7:00 p.m. the volleyball games are going full swing--men sweating and spotting and shouting in their Spanish accents on the courts, as a ring of spectators cheer them on and a few women cook at the grills on the perimeter.

In the past few years these gatherings have become regular events in Holmes Park, located between Southeast Fourth and Fifth streets a block east of Central Avenue. While a good share of residents welcomes such spirited recreation, several homeowners in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood have lately made it their cause to put the kibosh on the volleyball games. They accuse the players and their fans of overcrowding the Meadow, ruining the grass, and intimidating, by their very presence, folks who'd prefer a bit more serenity in the public park.

This spring a couple of those neighbors drafted a petition that proposes to thin the ranks on the courts, if not ban the games outright. Lynn Bauter, who spearheaded the drive, ticks off a list of complaints: "Trash is left all over, there are no places to park cars anymore, and most people don't feel welcome to walk through the park. We ask if a designated area for volleyball could possibly be built. Most of all the park needs to be monitored--it has really gotten out of hand." Bauter says she and other like-minded neighbors are "aiming to get the attention of the Park Board--I think we already have 75 to 80 signatures." They presented the petition to the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association in May, but the 12-member volunteer board voted to take no action on it.

"There is a big, divided opinion on this matter," says Ted Tucker, who presides over the association. Then again, he says, "We always knew this was going to be an active park with a lot of use." Tucker, who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, reasons that slapping strict rules on how the Meadow is to be used would be a misguided move; after all, a good volleyball game on a hot summer night "is why we put [the courts] there in the first place."

And a good game it is. Before the opening serve, the men huddle at center court to hand their dollar antes to the designated referee/bookie, who controls the rules and the kitty. As the sun nears the horizon, stifling humidity still hangs in the air; a few points into the game, most of the players have stripped off their shirts, even those on the sidelines waiting to rotate in. Instead of the bump-set-spike games you might find, say, on the beach at Lake Calhoun, this game--imported over the southern U.S. border--might more accurately be described as catch-pass-throw, with a few fancy dives for the save thrown in.

Between matches the players break to cool off and fill up on the rice-and-pork dish kept warm on the grill. Lying beside the court, a man by the name of Segundo takes in the scene: Like most of the players and spectators who've turned out tonight, he hasn't heard a word about any petition. When others gather around to hear the news, one player shouts, "That is ridiculous! This is a public park. We are all allowed here to play if we want to." Segundo, stroking his mustache, seconds the sentiment: "I don't see what the problem is. It's not like we are here being loud past 9:30 p.m., and many nights we don't even have games."

Unlike Segundo, most of the players here speak little English. And nearly all immigrated only recently, from Cuenca, Ecuador, a city of about 200,000. "Almost 200 of us from Cuenca came to Minneapolis about five years ago. We were searching for better job opportunities," Segundo explains. "We were all friends back in Ecuador and played volleyball there in courts similar to this one." He says a good share of those who've come from Ecuador do manual labor (he himself works as a cook) and live in the city, many in the neighborhood. It's a pleasure, he says, to team up with old friends and other Hispanic residents who turn out on nights like this--similar to the nights they spent in their native countries, playing ball, sharing a meal, catching up. If some residents around the Meadow have a problem with that, he wonders, "Why didn't they come and tell us?"

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