Erin Pinover was ready to get her eyebrows and lashes dyed, something she would do every month or so in The Before Times. I know this because she's also my roommate. However, because of the pandemic, this time, she made an appointment to meet the aesthetician in a section of Central Park as opposed to the usual rented salon space in Manhattan.
"I was pretty hesitant to book at first," Erin, who does PR for an art gallery, said. "We decided, what the heck, let’s do it outside, and settled on the park. Wacky for sure, but I’ve also known my girl for years so it felt more like two friends dabbling in a weird new craft project."
Erin is far from alone in taking her typically indoor activities to the grassy utopias across the city. The park has become a lifeline in a time when we're all stuck inside. It’s our living room, our salon, our gym, our dining room, and our toilet. My colleague Ashwin Rodrigues wrote about how comedians have started doing their stand up shows at parks now that bars and clubs are closed for entertainment. An acquaintance mentioned seeing a group of people doing karaoke at Prospect Park in Brooklyn—something I am planning on trying out myself with a few friends later this Summer, though I apologize to the greater Fort Greene Park region in advance. Even pole fitness instructors have started moving their sensuous workouts to the park.
The city park has long been a go-to spot for all sorts of summertime pastimes, from lazy bbq kickbacks, to workouts, to knitting circles. But in cities across America, parks have become a saving grace for people looking to stay active and social while safe. Speaking from personal experience in the overpopulated rat maze that is New York, outdoor public spaces have been a godsend since the city began reopening on June 8. It's one of just a few reliable alternatives to holing up in my cramped and overheated apartment, where according to city guidelines and common sense, I'm still not allowed to invite people over—and as a result the park (and my stoop) have become my saving grace for seeing friends, going on dates, eating a hot dog in the middle of the day after an OB/GYN appointment, exercising, peeing after day drinking, and other activities.
Even though Mayor Bill de Blasio closed off almost 100 miles of streets to cars across the boroughs, reliance on outdoor space isn't a catch-all solution to coronavirus-induced cabin fever. Hoards have overtaken streets outside of bars and neighborhood businesses, eliciting backlash from political figures, critics, and the scowling masses actually following orders. And though the New York City Parks Department website mandates that all park attendees wear masks, maintain six feet of social distance, and avoid congregating in groups, overcrowding has continued to be a problem—even at places like Brooklyn's Domino Park, where social distancing circles have been painted on the grass.
For many Black and brown communities, the park has long been a way of life—a lifeline for staying cool on sweltering days, celebrating with family, or tiring out over-energized kids. As the child of Mexican immigrants, I have always found the park to be an important space for my family to congregate, cook out, and loudly listen to Vicente Fernandez, simply because they're free, comfortable, and easily accessible. I spent years on early morning park duty whenever there was a family party, getting dropped off at the crack of dawn to claim the coveted picnic tables for my nephew's baptism or niece's birthday. Which is why when a Karen calls the cops to stop a BBQ in Oakland or when a new park prices people out of their own communities it feels personal. But because the park is one of the few safe outdoor refuges in major cities, particularly ones where having a yard is a luxury, more people are realizing what we've always known: the park is key to surviving big city life under difficult circumstances. It's been impressive to see the ways people are leaning on these outdoor spaces to continue living semi-normal lives.
When Gov. Gavin Newsom instituted a shelter-in-place order in California on March 19, Nadine Young, a 37-year-old fitness instructor based in San Diego, moved her classes in pole-dancing, aerial dancing, and lyra online. When California parks reopened and protestors started taking to the streets in response to the killing of George Floyd, Young decided to hold private classes at parks, beaches, and other outdoor spaces to raise funds for the Equality Justice Initiative, which aims to end mass incarceration. She ended up raising $2,000 for the cause, which helped drive more students to take online and indoor classes. Even after Newsom shut down California for a second time earlier this month following a spike in cases, she's continued giving classes in parks, which have remained open for fitness purposes.
"It's been fantastic. I just think the ironic part right now is that I'm teaching outside in order to make money to pay rent for a studio that stays empty," she said. "But you know you gotta do what you gotta do."
Young, who has been teaching pole dancing for 11 years, says that though some poles and aerial rings can be tied to a tree branch, they often have a weight limit, so she prefers to use a mobile stand that has a pole attached to it so her classes can remain inclusive of size. Young said no one has ever complained about the pole dancing, except once during a class at a beach when she also had a Black Lives Matter flag hanging on the pole. The police disrupted Young's class twice while responding to multiple calls that she was "disturbing the peace." She claimed that officers agreed she was following all safety protocols and laws, but still asked her to pack up and leave because they were getting too many calls. While she can't be sure if it was the BLM flag that caused the complaints, Young has her suspicions that it might have played a part considering she's never had any police show up when teaching classes without the flag.
Erin said she knows getting her brows done in the park is not without risk. She's immunocompromised, and as a result, we had to take major precautions when stay-at-home orders first hit, isolating away from each other for a long period of time until it seemed safe to live in the same space again. Over the months, as the number of new COVID cases decreased in New York City, we've relaxed a bit, but Erin has been avoiding enclosed spaces with people outside of her quarantine pod as much as possible. However, she had also been dealing with overgrown hair and eyebrows she describes as "ghostly white." "I could go cold turkey, no problem," she said. "But it makes me feel more together even if my only outing is from my bedroom to the fridge."
Erin and her aesthetician agreed on safety precautions ahead of time. Both wore masks, and her aesthetician wore gloves the entire time, using brand new tools that she sanitized after taking them out of their packaging. Erin feels good about her spa moment in the park. "I would do it again," she said. "It was actually quite fun. It's the new glam."
Similarly, Young is proving people with much-needed breaks from pandemic stress.
"I think it's a really safe way for people to spend time with other people from different households," she said of these classes. "They're getting fit, and I think we're doing it really safely. We're not doing anything that would put anyone at more of a risk than doing these activities in their own backyards."
Young admits that her park classes remain mostly PG, keeping mindful that there are children usually around and that some of her students get shy performing pole routines in a public setting. Even so, parents with their children have approached her during park lesson asking if she teaches kids.
Kimberly Burkhalter, owner of Fun Pole Fitness in San Diego, said she has started doing her conditioning classes at Balboa Park, a large, tourist-friendly space that boasts multiple museums, an outdoor amphitheater, a botanical garden, and plenty of free grass space. Currently, her clients are practicing handstands and doing regular workouts in the park, but soon she'll be adding chair dancing classes and pole to her repertoire.
She purchased the studio on March third, and had to shut down just two weeks after, presenting some financial concerns. Burkhalter said she doesn't think that teaching classes in the park will be enough to "save my business." Still, she said she's grateful that these spaces have empowered the local pole dancing community to continue gathering and practicing. Like Young, she says she plans on offering outdoor classes for the foreseeable future— even if and when things go back to normal.
"I think this is going to be the new norm for socializing," said Young. "It's going to hey ' let's go outside!' and not 'let's go into a dusty old bar.'" Ehhh, I don't know about that, but bless the parks for giving us a place to dye, hang, and pole dance when we desperately need it.
Alex Zaragoza is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE.