Picnics, Games and Culture Shock

Park rangers Haleh Mirabrishami and Mirna Sanchez watch as Roxanna Ponce, left, and Jeannette Ponce vacate a spot reserved by someone else.
Park rangers Haleh Mirabrishami and Mirna Sanchez watch as Roxanna Ponce, left, and Jeannette Ponce vacate a spot reserved by someone else. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007

One chilly April morning two years ago, manager Jill Vanden Heuvel was at her desk at Algonkian Regional Park expecting a quiet Sunday when the cars started to arrive. Hundreds at first, then more than a thousand, bringing scores of Iranian families toting blankets, coolers and small grills.

Picnickers without reservations plunked down in areas reserved by others. Toilets overflowed. Cars were parked haphazardly on the grass. Tempers flared. When Vanden Heuvel tried to get the crowd to disperse, they accused her of racial discrimination.

As the crowd quickly grew to 3,000 people, more than twice what the park could handle, Vanden Heuvel called her boss in a panic. They decided to shut down the park to cars -- a rare move for the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. Feeling helpless, parks employees turned to their computers, Googling such terms as "Persian" and "holiday" and "spring." That's how they learned that on Sizdeh Bedar, a popular celebration in Iran, it's considered unlucky to stay indoors. Now each April, the park is ready with extra staff.

As the number of immigrants in the region tops 1 million, such cultural clashes are becoming more commonplace, prompting parks officials to search for ways to educate foreign-born residents on the U.S. parks system, where permits are often required, litter pickup encouraged and alcohol verboten.

Parks are changing, too: Montgomery County built a cricket field for its Jamaican and Indian expats. Fairfax County is contemplating bigger picnic pavilions for Latino families, who tend to gather in large groups and stay longer. The Northern Virginia park authority plans to offer instant kimchi, a cabbage dish, alongside hot dogs at some of its snack stands to appeal to Korean golfers.

"It's about connections rather than enforcement," said John Berlin, program section manager for the Fairfax County Park Authority. "It's putting out the welcome mat to the international community, not just saying, 'Here's how we Americans do things.' "

In the past two years, Montgomery, Fairfax and Prince William counties have hired or directed multilingual staffers and park rangers to target immigrant populations; Arlington is hiring a multilingual staffer as well.

The outreach was in part inspired by nasty clashes over soccer fields, where permitted players would arrive at a field and find a squatter team -- dubbed "cellphone leagues" because they scout for open grass and communicate by cellphone -- which then refused to move. Fairfax, for example, had 154 such incidents last year. But through multilingual education and enforcement, twice as many teams as normal joined after the season started, one sign officials are bringing some of the "cellphone" players into the fold, they say.

Parks and recreation experts say the parks must change to appeal to their new users. In the National Park Service and Forest Service, for example, surveys indicate that visitors are still overwhelmingly Caucasian, more than 90 percent. Locally, minority use is growing. In Fairfax, for example, about 80 percent of households use county parks, and although Hispanic and Asian households lag behind, their percentages are increasing, officials said.

"Parks have to remain or become relevant to the changing demographics of America if they're going to be used and funded," said Robert Burns, a professor of recreation, parks and tourism resources at West Virginia University who is studying the issue. "Most of our local, state and federal parks were designed for the 'Happy Days' family unit -- a Caucasian mother, father and two or three kids -- to go have a picnic and roast marshmallows. That's just not the demographics we have today."

On a recent Saturday in Silver Spring, Montgomery County Park Police Ranger Haleh Mirabrishami, who speaks Farsi, was on patrol, approaching a log house that probably had seen its share of Boy Scout meetings and company picnics over the years. This day it was the site for the 15th birthday party for Zully Pineda of Silver Spring, a rite of passage for many Latino girls called a "quinceaƱera."

Zully was posing for pictures outside in a pink beaded dress when her mother, Marlene, 32, saw the uniformed ranger approach. Marlene Pineda smiled, eyes wary, and without prompting pulled a crumpled yellow permit from her pocket to show the ranger.

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