Flower Power

Today I’ve been researching the history of Zilker park, and in particular, Zilker Botanical Gardens. Yesterday, while waiting for some clients to arrive, I spoke with one of the garden old-timers, an elderly man who is both an employee and a volunteer for the gardens. I have met him dozens of times over the seven years I’ve been taking portraits there, and he is one of the few hard-core garden advocates who does not actively dislike photographers who use the park. You’d be surprised at the animosity we encounter there by those who feel the gardens should be visited for their beauty alone and not commercial gain.

I naturally feel differently, as we photographers bring many visitors to the park, often creating devoted supporters. We also make the park eternal through our images taken there.

The man told me that a proposal is winding its way through the city to charge photographers $35 a day to use the gardens for portraits. “After all,” he said, “other cities do it.” He leaned against a stone pillar between the wood benches, tall and thin and white headed, but friendly, as if glad to bring me in on the secret.

“But didn’t the original deed state that the city could never charge for use of the gardens?” I asked.

“Yes, but they lost those deed rights a year or so back. They are trying to even kick the garden clubs out by charging upwards of $2,000 to rent the visitor center for flower shows.”

“Can they do that?”

“They are. Fortunately most of us are grandfathered in. But eventually, we’ll be out, I’d guess. They started charging for parking you know. Things change.”

His eyes were a startling clear gray in his relatively youthful face for a man I’d peg as nearing 80. “Oops, let me go help her,” he said, smiling broadly at a 60-something woman trying to load irises into her trunk. His stride embodied “spring in his step.” I laughed. Such a flirt.

At home I looked up the City Council agendas and minutes, but found no reference to the proposed fee. I decided to investigate the history of the gardens, and the deed, to see if if I could dredge up the original stipulations and how they might have been changed.

I came across this entry in the historical timeline.

April 1954: 14 white playgrounds and 3 colored playgrounds were opened for the spring season

I pictured white equipment and painted equipment for a moment, wondering why they designated that, then realized, “Oh!” And felt like an idiot. A moment documenting Austin’s intolerance, not quite the city then that it is today, liberal, progressive, although still with its blind spots.

I gave up on my quest for information on the fee. I assume it’s in subcommittee or just being tossed around by some director as a way to scrape up money. If they start charging, I’ll probably have to shoot elsewhere, as my fees would have to be jacked up beyond what my middle class families would pay.

Change, like any evolution, tends to head us toward improvement, but certainly there are glitches along the way, mutations in the structure that cause ill to some. Should this proposal pass, it seems innocuous, a few photogs make less money, a few more families return to JCPenney for pictures rather than face higher prices. But the cost to our perception of Austin, its parks, it openness, and its availability to all takes a pretty serious dive.

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