Fence Divides a Neighborhood

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(West Memphis, AR) A man who has personally provided playground equipment for a public property next to his house has found himself taking down almost all of the play area after a complaint over a fence he installed.

For almost 20 years, Ray Clark has maintained the bit of public land adjacent to his property on 14th Street. He took it upon himself to mow the lawn, provide trash cans, and put up playground equipment for the neighborhood children.

Clark said, “It's always been like a dream for me to do something for the kids, that I never got the chance for someone to do for me.”

He had a swing set, picnic table and basketball hoop, to give children a safe place to play. Many who grew up under Clark’s supervision are now grown.

But just last week, Clark decided to put up a chain-link fence. He saw people using the area as a shortcut, sometimes for the wrong reasons.

Clark has seen people come through at night with stolen goods. He’s also seen someone riding through on a dirt bike during the day while children are playing there.

“It’s a shortcut for them, and I figure by putting that fence up there, it would kind of slow them down some.”

But that’s when the trouble started.

Neighbor Nicole McCoy, who lives on Wilson Road behind 14th Street, told the city council the fence was blocking students’ walking route to nearby schools. She was also concerned the fence was part of a way to exclude certain kids from playing in the public space.

Since the last council meeting where she spoke, she has learned that was a misunderstanding. In fact, she now knows Ray Clark was only sending home one child who had been using foul language.

“The only thing that we didn’t do that we should have done is just communicate, basically. We talked about it, and everything was ok, after the city council. There weren’t any harsh feelings or anything,” McCoy said.

McCoy is in full support of a neighborhood playground, but wants it done the right way.

After a meeting with Clark, McCoy, city engineer, city attorney and planning director, Clark was asked to take down the fence. He was told a private citizen could not block access to a public space.

But Clark has removed most of his other equipment too, after a discussion of possible liability.

McCoy said, “We could have it where we can get equipment donated to us like all the other parks here. And that way it can be maintained and everything, having it the legal way. Because my only concern was if a child does get hurt over there, who would be responsible?”

For now, the fence is down; the swing set and picnic table are put in Clark’s backyard.

But Clark said he had to put the basketball hoop back up, just to give neighborhood kids something to do.

Friends say they’ll show up to next week’s city council meeting to show their support of Clark’s good intentions. They want to ask the city to support a legitimate park and maybe ask for a fence with a sliding gate for better protection and access.

McCoy said she would support such a project.

“I would love for that to be a park, across the street from my house, and I have kids. That’s a blessing.”

For now, there’s no more fence, and no more divisions.