Civil disobedience

Over on Post Globe, Philip Dawdy writes about Cal Anderson Park, “the park you can’t play in,” whose attractive water features, extensively used during the recent heat wave by overheated dogs and humans alike, are officially off-limits to bathers and waders.

“You’re not supposed to be in it at all anywhere,” said Joelle Ligon, a Parks spokeswoman. “It wasn’t designed as a water feature to play in. It was designed for visual enjoyment.”

Yes, the City of Seattle has literally created a park you can’t play in.

Yeah, kinda. But as Dawdy noted, the signs and occasional patrols haven’t stopped park goers from enjoying the cooling stream and pond, even during less severe weather. Nor should it. “Keep people and pets out of the water and don’t climb on the fountain. Thank you!” the tiny plaques say, and while this oh-so-politely phrased prohibition doesn’t include a parenthetical “wink-wink,” it’s pretty much understood.

These are the way things work in real cities, where we humans often find ourselves packed uncomfortably on top of each other, and rules are imperfectly created in an effort to strike the proper balance between private liberty and the public good. I suppose the police could ticket violators for wading in a public fountain on a 103 degree day, but really, unless there was some imminent threat to public safety or the public peace, why bother?

The rule is there in case it needs to be enforced (and I’m guessing, to protect the city from liability), but it doesn’t need to be enforced just because it can. And most grownups—including the police and park officials—understand that.

In fact, I’d argue that you can’t really avoid being a scofflaw from time to time in civilized society, and there’s nothing ethically questionable or social destructive about it. Almost all of us drive at least a few miles over the limit from time to time, and indeed, at times (such as passing a slower moving vehicle on a two-lane road), safety can demand it. Even in uptight Seattle, most of us have jaywalked (a way of life in other cities).

As for me, I routinely violate the city’s off-leash laws at a small park where dozens of local dog owners routinely take their four-legged companions for an illicit swim in the lake. We all know that we risk a hefty fine, and occasionally, Animal Control shows up to hand them out. But you know what? It’s worth the risk, with only one legal dog beach in the city, and that one being a half-hour drive away, and the park being virtually abandoned but for us for nine months of the year. As long as we do no harm (and in keeping the beaches clear of goose poop and the park clear of drug dealers, I’d argue we do some good), there is no public harm in tolerating us.

Yeah, I know, it sounds like I’m arguing for selective enforcement of the law, which is generally a bad thing in concept, but what I’m really talking about is context, which is the prism through which many rules and laws are viewed in places where folks tend to crowd together. The rule against swimming in the water feature at Cal Anderson Park is there to be enforced when and if it needs to be enforced, but if folks continue to violate it wisely and discretely and without conflict, well then… wink-wink.

And that’s just how big cities work.

Judging from some comments and email, perhaps I was being obtuse, so, shorter Goldy: people play in the park you can’t play in. So what’s the problem?


  1. 1

    rhp6033 spews:

    Federal legislation which went into effect this month, requiring all swimming & wading pools to have safety drains installed to prevent people from becoming trapped underwater by a pool drain. This was in response to several incidents, one in which a girl was drowned when her hair became entangled in a pool drain, and another when another child became stuck on the bottom of a pool when the drain suction was so strong that several adults were unable to free her in in time.

    But the Seattle Parks Dept. has been unable to replace all the drains in the swimming and wading pools in time for this summer. I’ve heard numbers of between 1/3 to 1/2 of the pools being empty and closed during the recent heat wave due to this requirement. The legislation has created a huge demand for the safety drains, and until the back-orders are shipped, the pools will remain closed.

    So perhaps the Parks Dept. figured that by posting “no wading” signs, they could keep this feature in operation?????

  2. 2

    rhp6033 spews:

    Well, I used to be a big fan of authorities using discretion to decide which rules to enforce and which ones to ignore. But then I realized that was only because I, as a white man, was a beneficiary of such selective enforcement. Looking at it from the other perspective, it wasn’t such an attractive idea.

    Rules aren’t perfect, but if there are circumstances which make it unreasonable to enforce them much of the time, then the rules need to be changed.

  3. 3

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Since when does safety demand passing on 2-lane highways? Why not just slow down a little and enjoy the fucking scenery? You know — cows grazing in fields, rabbits hopping across the road …

  4. 4

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    If they kick everyone out of the fountains, no problem! Just knock over a fire hydrant and there’ll be plenty of spraying water for everyone.*

    * Just kidding! This is a Glenn Beck/Chuck Norris violent overthrow joke!

  5. 5

    Erich von Lustbader spews:

    Just explain that you are in the pool for national security reasons and you can’t discuss them.

  6. 6


    The Cal Anderson fountain begs to be played in, especially the lower part. It would never occur to me that it was off limits. Structures adapt to usage. Note how the Seattle Center has (very smartly) adapted their fountains and sculptures in response to how people use them; working with human nature instead of fighting it.

    I grew up in Bellevue, land of the free range dogs. It was great. But this is Seattle, a city proper. Owning a dog bigger than 20 lbs is cruel and unusual (to the dog) and just plain selfish.

    Further, the dog owners have made such a fuss about park services for dogs, I get pretty grumpy when they then let their dogs run wild. We paid for those dog trots, dog owners better use them, or risk losing them.

    Selective enforcement of laws? Sorry, but you’re starting to sound like a Republican. That slippery slope. Where laws apply to other people.

  7. 7

    voter spews:

    the city rule against swimming at night in lakes is total bullshit. the rules against swimming outside designated areas, ditto. let people swim. you shouldn’t have to own a boat to enjoy the water.

  8. 8

    Now you see it spews:

    This is perfect and how it’s SUPPOSED to work! I praise whoever came up with this idea at Cal Anderson.

    What they did is create a new play area, but obviously fearful of lawsuits when the first idiot slips on the water covered concrete and sues the city for providing a ‘dangerous’ area, the city can just point out that there is a little sign that tells you that you can’t play in the water area.

    So they LET everyone play in it (I’ve never seen anyone told to leave it) and yet it gives them legal cover in CASE someone gets hurt and decides to sue to city for their own stupidity.

    It’s perfect…let us use it and have fun, and protect the city for silly lawsuits. Thanks! Good job for once!

    (p.s. #1 – These ‘no wading’ signs have been on the Cal Anderson park feature since it was installed. Nothing to do with recent legislation, but good thought.)

  9. 9

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @7 I agree! Republicans should be allowed to swim at night and swim outside designated areas!*

    * Just kidding! Wingnut eliminationist joke.

  10. 11

    voter spews:

    Good idea, but the laws are aimed at preventing people from having fun at night(wink wink).

    Republicans would never be up for that in the first place.

  11. 12

    Blue John spews:

    You are NOT supposed to play in the water? Our kids played in all the time last summer when we were up on the hill.

  12. 13

    voter spews:

    This is Seattle!

    Playing, joking, singing, making nnoise, having a cocktail, and other activities are only permitted via DPD review and you have to submit a form in advance, and pay $200 an hour for a city official to review your application.

    We’re not exactly known as the laissez les bons temps roulez city you know!

  13. 14

    demo kid spews:

    Why exactly was this park built with a useless water feature anyway? It just reinforces the fact that landscape architects can be real retards when they put their minds to it.

  14. 15

    don we now our gay apparel spews:

    Silly Goldy. Everybody knows that Seattle parks aren’t for playing. Unless you’re an adult male doing buggery in the bushes.

    In rare symmetry and honesty, the Blethen Times and the P-I wrote about hostile takeovers of Cal Anderson and Woodland Park by activists looking for all-day all-nite playgounds to be active in. Old trolls (referring to nobody here at HA, of course) in the parks liked to lure young boys from the burbs for barebackin’.

    Even in progressive non-judgemental Seattle somebody must be to blame for the exploitation of teens. Blethen and the P-I blamed homophobia.

  15. 16

    Daddy Love spews:

    I am shocked, shocked to discover that insurance companies ration health care:

    An insurance company that initially refused to pay for a liver transplant for a 17-year-old Northridge girl who died in a hospital should face criminal charges and pay civil damages, an attorney for the girl’s family said Friday.

  16. 17

    Daddy Love spews:

    15 don

    Assertions abou older people unlawfully having sex with younger people in a park? This could use some factual support, don’t you think? Of course you don’t think, but go get some anyway.

    Oh, and if a heterosexual couple has sex in a park, do you think they should be arrested?

  17. 19

    Sugar Daddy Warbucks spews:

    Gave you site cites and ripped you a new one on Solomonic common books, Dad. Acknowledge your evisceration first, and try to put yourself back together, and then we’ll get to the low down about the down low in public parks that, once upon a time, used to be playgrounds for tiny tots, not hot-to-trot snots from Cap Hill bathhouses.