Sometime between the years 180 and 192AD, Commodus, Roman Emperor and beard-loving dude, built the Temple of Marcus Aurelius, an homage to his late father and predecessor, on a patch of Roman real estate now home to the Piazza Colonna.
It was standard fare for the times. A giant project constructed by slaves, paid for by taxpayers.
Last Saturday afternoon in Vancouver, Constance Barnes, chair of the park board, announced completion of Emery Barnes Park near Seymour and Davie, ending a three-phase construction process that began in 2003.
The mayor was there, perma-smile on stun. So was Rolly Lumbala, B.C. Lions fullback and admirer of Emery Barnes, who played for the Lions in the 1960s before winning election to B.C.’s provincial legislature, eventually becoming that body’s first black speaker. He died in 1998.
The park, replete with water fountain and bubbling streams, boasts an off-leash dog park, playground and chessboard tables. According to the park board, Emery Barnes Park cost $5.5 million not including future maintenance. Most of the heavy lifting, including a $3.8 million expansion in 2010, took place after daughter Constance was elected to the park board in 2008 as a member of Vision Vancouver. Constance can’t take credit for the millions allocated to Emery Barnes Park. That was a joint effort by the park board—the same park board that in 2010 threatened to close public washrooms due to budget woes. But she lobbied for this for years. A touchy subject, to say the least.
“She was not involved in any budget decisions for the project,” said Jason Watson, park board spokesperson, during an interview with the Courier. “Commissioners don’t approve any individual line items for budget.”
So park board commissioners don’t have input on park board budget details?
“They do approve the overall budget plan… but again, most of this money was allocated before she became elected.”
Every news report about Saturday’s event joined in the celebration, where the acting chief of one of Vancouver’s three branches of municipal government christened a multi-million dollar public park in her father’s name. The Vancouver Sun’s slobbering dispatch bordered on satire: “A plaque noting Emery Barnes’ contributions to society was also unveiled Saturday, the first of its kind to be installed in Vancouver parks to educate people about park namesakes. Barnes beamed with pride. ‘Hi dad,’ she said, admiring the plaque, then added: ‘It’s like he is smiling at us.’”
Strange. Yet stranger still was the silence from critics in the media and opposing political parties. Perhaps everyone loves the park. Perhaps they just don’t care. Or perhaps because the Barnes family is black they ignore the park’s family ties, lest they be called racist. But imagine, for a moment, school board chair Patti Bacchus helping name a school in similar familial fashion. Or the mayor cutting a ribbon on The Robertson Family Bike Lane. Many would cry foul, and rightly so.
During his three-decade tenure in Victoria, Emery Barnes advocated for the poor, drawing on the poverty and bigotry of his New Orleans childhood. He brought a valuable perspective to a predominantly white institution and spoke eloquently about the responsibilities of government. “We must govern more realistically,” he said, during a 1987 interview with the Parliamentary Review, “in relation to the poverty line.”
Flash forward two decades. The park board, chaired by his daughter, spends $5.5 million on bubbling water and outdoor chessboards while public pools and rinks close forever. Wonder what Mr. Barnes would think about that.
Back in Rome, the Temple of Marcus Aurelius stood for centuries before it collapsed. We understand why Commodus built it. He loved his dad. But with all due respect to Emery Barnes, may he rest in peace, elected officials dedicating public monuments to dead relatives seems a little too old school for 2012.