Who maintains and decorates the teeny-tiny traffic median on Enfield Road?
Sometimes BEPI Park is a lush field of winter ryegrass. Yellow tulips, red daffodils and white lilies bloom out of the greenery. Other times it’s full of sculptures, like a human-sized replica of Michelangelo’s David or a statue of Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth. It’s had a Japanese zen garden, a Koi pond, even a re-creation of the gardens of Versailles.
The park is only about 50 square feet. And it’s not technically a park, at least not by City of Austin standards. It’s a median. It sits at the intersection of Baylor, Enfield and Parkway, near Pease Park in West Austin.
For years, Austin resident Arnie Ramirez has passed by it on her way to jog along Shoal Creek Trail. And it’s always changing.
“It’s crazy how well it’s decorated,” she said. “I mean, honestly, I don’t understand how some of the stuff isn’t stolen off of it.”
Ramirez wanted to know who was behind these elaborate displays, so she asked KUT’s ATXplained project to find out.
“Is it a situation where someone just did it or decided to do it, and just went with — I’ll ask forgiveness, not permission?” she wondered. “Or does the city know about this little thing?”
The mastermind behind the displays lives, unsurprisingly, right across the street. He's a lawyer named Gary Schumann, but he’s perhaps best known as the founder of BEPI Park.
“I've tried to accomplish so many different things in my life, but I know with a certitude that the sole and single thing I'll ever be remembered for is being that old guy who used to plant stuff in the middle of the street,” jokes Schumann, who has lived in Austin since 1981.
About five years ago, he saw city workers in front of his house drawing lines on the ground. He went out to ask them what was going on, and they told him they were building a pedestrian crossing island — basically a median where pedestrians walking over a wide road can safely wait for cars to pass. The raised area would have grass on it.
“I knew that the sodded area would essentially be nothing but weeds in no time at all,” Schumann said. “So, I asked what would be involved if me or some of the neighbors took it over.”
He learned he could go through a bureaucratic process to get authorization to landscape the public space.
“On the other hand, they said if I just went out there, started planting things, no one would say anything,” he said.
So, that‘s what he did. Once the median was built and the dirt was laid, Schumann waited for the crews to leave and got to work. He went to Home Depot, bought a small white fence and a bunch of periwinkles. He put up the fence, planted the flowers and mulched the area over.
“When the city workers showed up the next morning,” he said, “the garden was there, and they left it there. It's been left there ever since.”
Schumann decided to go all in. He added a birdbath, statues and a topiary. With the help of some neighbors and friends, he started the BEPI Park Conservancy. They created a Facebook page and logo. The name, BEPI, stands for Baylor, Enfield and Parkway Intersection.
“The idea was that it would be a goof, that I would take this little patch of dirt out in the middle of the street and try to make it preposterously fabulous,” he said, “that I would just make it over the top, this incredible thing to where the most beautiful park in the city of Austin would reside right out in the middle of this asphalt street.”
Schumann even went as far as hosting a ribbon-cutting ceremony. In June 2017, he invited neighbors and contacted the city about the event.
People gathered along the street as Schumann, dressed in a suit and bowtie, announced the park was officially open. There were speeches, the national anthem played and Kathie Tovo, who represents the neighborhood on the Austin City Council, showed up to read a proclamation signed by Mayor Steve Adler declaring June 26, 2017, as BEPI Park Day.
“This is a great example of a community coming together and celebrating what is unique and interesting and, frankly, weird about Austin,” Tovo said standing on the median, as cars drove past on either side.
With a pair of oversized scissors, Tovo cut a ribbon that stretched across the entirety of the park. Glitter bombs shot off over the greenery. The crowd cheered. Austin’s “smallest park” was officially open.
The many iterations of BEPI Park
Schumann has kept up with the park over the years, changing the look every few months. He says his designs are often inspired by traveling. When he and his husband came back from a trip to Hawaii, he built a Hawaiian tropical garden at BEPI. After a visit to Paris, he did a gardens of Versailles theme.
Sometimes, it’s movie- or holiday-themed, and there’s often a joke involved. This past Christmas, the theme was “Red Light, Green Light: The Colors of the Holidays,” inspired by the rather gory Netflix show Squid Game.
“For people who hadn't seen Squid Game, it was this lovely red and green park … and they thought it was beautiful,” Schumann said. “But for people who had seen Squid Game, they realized it was horrific and awful and funny.”
Often, neighbors will get involved by donating money. Sometimes Schumann circulates a GoFundMe to pay for more expensive items. For example, in 2018, Schumann spotted a replica of Michelangelo’s statue David, and he thought it would be perfect for BEPI.
“Other cities have Michelangelo David replicas,” he said. “There’s one in Vegas at Caesar’s Palace. There’s one in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, of all places. And I thought, wouldn’t it be funny if Austin had one?”
He put an online fundraiser up on the Facebook page, and within a day he garnered enough money to buy it. He held a big unveiling event, with music and food. Those who donated got "VIP" seats on the sidewalk and watched as the statue was unveiled.
They’ve had other events, too, pre-pandemic, like BEPI Park Oktoberfest. Schumann and his husband would set up a tent in their driveway and hire an oompah band to play. They’d share beer with neighbors and friends, who showed up in lederhosen. And for Eeyore’s Birthday each year, a festival that draws thousands to Pease Park, Schumann decks out BEPI with a red carpet, the David statue, pedestals and large flower arrangements.
“It's been very interesting,” said Sharon Gillespie, who has lived in the neighborhood for about 40 years. “I mean, it has enlarged lives around here.”
Gillespie attends most of the events with her little dog, Sophie, who is known locally as the “Princess of BEPI Park.” When Schumann first told her about the park, she said she had no idea he’d create such elaborate installations.
“You will walk past the park or across the street there, and often you’ll find somebody who has stopped there to admire or to just examine more closely the installation at that particular time,” she said.
The park has encouraged people to create similar projects in their own neighborhoods. Marc Segal, a civil engineer, has helped Schumann construct several BEPI Park installations. He says he’s going to create a similar project near his home — though maybe one a bit more manageable than the grandiose displays of BEPI.
“There's a lot of different cities that have this type of involvement where community members can get involved in public right-of-way and space,” Segal said. “And it really creates a better community fabric and a more sense of purpose to our public spaces.”
Schumann says people sometimes ask him whether people steal things or vandalize the park. That doesn't happen.
“I think it speaks to ultimately the good nature and the goodness of people in general that you can create something as fabulous and as wonderful as BEPI Park, put it in the middle of the street,” he said, “and it’s preserved just through a community’s natural goodness.”
Though the BEPI Park Conservancy claims BEPI as Austin’s smallest park, it’s not technically part of Austin’s park system. It does show up on Google Maps, however. And, even though Schumann didn't go through official city channels, the city’s been supportive of the effort.
“The City supports and encourages the additions the neighbors have made to this area that provide a beautiful space for the nearby residents on top of the safety improvements the City made in 2017,” a spokesperson told KUT in an email.
Some might see BEPI Park as a form of tactical urbanism, which is when individuals take over public spaces to better suit their needs. In some cities, this has come in the form of pop-up bike lanes or colorfully painted crosswalks.
Schumann said he hopes his efforts encourage people in other parts of town to take on similar projects. If you don’t know where to start or can’t buy everything yourself, you can check out the city's Neighborhood Partnering Program, which helps people in a community enhance city-owned property.
“The program accepts all types of projects from mosaics to pocket parks, community gardens, trails and more,” said Cheyenne Dolin, a spokesperson for Austin’s public works department. “It’s essentially a way for the city to fund small but meaningful community-initiated projects.”
The program offers a cost-share option, where the city helps local groups fund, develop and construct projects on city-owned land. In turn, the groups contribute their part, whether it be donated materials, labor or cash.
“We know that there are these projects all around the city that would really have a major impact on the neighborhood, but that just don't really rise to the top of our projects list,” Dolin said. “So [the program] is a way for us to help community members get those projects done.”
Dolin said the city aims to finish projects within 18 months after they're approved, but it depends on the size. And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has a backlog of projects it’s focusing on right now.
If all that sounds too bureaucratic, there’s always Schumann’s do-it-yourself approach.
“Anybody can create a BEPI Park,” he said. “Throughout the city of Austin are all sorts of unattended roadway spaces.”
His latest iteration of the park might be the most practical one yet: He’s turned the median into a vegetable garden, planting corn, potatoes, green beans, squash, tomatoes, peppers and more.
“When all the produce comes in, I'm planning on hosting a big feast,” he said. “I'll set up a bunch of tables out in the driveway and invite all the neighbors over, and we're going to eat a meal made from nothing but what came out of BEPI Park over the course of the summer.”
The garden didn’t look like much at first, at least not compared to some of BEPI’s more extravagant displays. But over the last month, the seeds began sprouting up from the dirt. Just last week, Schumann plucked two tiny green bell peppers from Austin’s tiniest park.