Last December, the city of Asheville announced that it had hired a ranger for Pritchard Park. The strategically sited downtown park has been the focus of disputes concerning everything from homelessness and free breakfasts to drum circles (not to mention the occasional protest-sign-wielding polar bear), and the news traveled fast. Some in the community saw it as Big Brother tightening his grip; others praised the move as a way to smooth out the park’s rougher edges. Still others merely noted the new kiosk with curiosity.
But to former prison guard Jennifer Paine, the whole fuss over her arrival seemed a bit overblown. She says she’s there to keep an eye on the park and help keep it clean. “I think my presence here has made a difference,” she observes. Just about every day, it seems, she’s visited by downtown business owners, passersby or park regulars who are curious about why she’s there. And at this point, Paine feels she’s settled into the park, though she says she’s looking forward to a promised new kiosk that will have electrical power, so she can have air conditioning in summer.
Mountain Xpress: How long have you been at Pritchard Park now?
Jennifer Paine: I started Dec.31.
Where were you working before coming here?
I was in the [state] Department of Correction. I have about seven years of that, and I worked all custody levels—minimum, medium and closed custody. I started up in Avery County and worked down in Marion; then I ended up here in Buncombe.
How does this compare to your former job?
There are a lot of similarities, a lot of the same issues, but this is a more open location.
What have you learned about Pritchard Park since you’ve been here?
I’ve learned that there are a variety of people here. Most just come to enjoy the park. You do have a lot of people with mental and some substance-abuse and alcohol problems.
What do you consider your role to be here?
Well, my role consists of two things: I do a little bit of maintenance in the park and some cleaning. It’s also partly security and making sure that everybody that visits here feels safe. We’re trying to make it a more family-friendly atmosphere.
You mentioned at one point being an ambassador.
I think they are calling it that. In other words, I’ll also be representing the city here. Because there will be a lot of tourists coming through to ask questions.
Do you make arrests, or do you call in the police to do that?
I do not have the power of arrest; I am not a sworn police officer. If there is a situation I know I cannot handle, I notify the APD. There’s always an officer in the area.
Have you had anything like that happen?
The entire time I have been here, I have called the APD probably six times, but it hasn’t always been a serious situation.
Do you spend a lot of time standing outside this kiosk here?
I spend most of my time outside, actually. I have regulars who are here most every day; I’ve been working on getting a rapport with them. You have a lot of different personalities in this situation, just like the prison system. What I like to do is learn about the people who are here the most.
What have they had to say to you? Are they just coming out to meet you?
They’ve been coming to meet me and also, I guess, they are curious about the individual [the city] would have put in this position. Everything’s been very pleasant. They are very excited to have somebody here.
[At this point, a tour van from Savannah, Ga., pulls up and Paine is asked if the drum circle will happen that night.] Have you been here for the drum circle yet?
Not yet. As it starts warming up a little bit, they will start doing the drum circle. Probably the biggest crowd I’ve had here was the Mardi Gras parade, and I actually enjoyed that [laughs]. There had to be over 300 people. The streets were full; the park was full.
What’s surprised you about this job? What’s happened that you didn’t expect?
One thing that I hadn’t expected was all the attention that it’s gotten from the media. I’ve been made to feel welcome by all city employees. The APD has pretty much adopted me into their family.
Have you come up with any ideas of what you’d like to see in the kiosk that you don’t have now?
Electricity would be the main thing.