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Chapter Two: Defining the Park for the Public

It is the most pervasive form of green space and yet the hardest to define. The public park is essentially a piece of land maintained by the municipal or public parks body, a city-county department in the case of Charlotte. The difficulty in examining all the tracts of land under the jurisdiction of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Park and Recreation Department is that they include a variety of land alternatives from vast nature preserves to small neighborhood parks to greenways. This paper is designed, however, to examine one landform at a time and therefore must specifically define the public park. The public park for the purposes of this thesis will be those landscaped spaces of no more than a hundred acres that may or may not include sports fields, trails or picnic shelters and that lie in the midst of the city. These are the public green spaces with which the citizenry is most familiar. I choose to look at basically the mean public park, the pieces of land that may not constitute the majority of acreage in the system but certainly the majority of facilities.

It is these parks, today classified as district and neighborhood parks by the department, which make up the great legacy from the heyday of Charlotte public parks. Particularly between 1940 and 1970 Charlotte embraced the public park as its prime green space alternative. This chapter inspects closely these years. It was this period that saw the greatest public park expansion in terms of money spent and number of facilities being constructed. The majority of parks in today's system date from this period. During this period, this landform underwent three distinct phases. Beginning with the war effort in 1942, park officials developed new uses for parks, and expanded funding and services to create the Homefront Park. Once the pressures of the war ceased and the city experienced both economic and population growth the system underwent a period of postwar expansion. Expansion, for several reasons, created a proliferation of unsatisfactory facilities that by 1969 culminated in a postwar bust. Before focusing on these prime years of development, I discuss the history surrounding the Park and Playground Movements and how they fit into the early years of the public parks system in Charlotte.

An overall theme to consider in this chapter is one of identity crisis. It should be understood that the evolution of green space is not a terminal process but a perpetual one and the history of public parks in Charlotte aptly illustrates this principle. The public park is a landform that during its evolution has not settled into one distinct species of park but instead has lived as the playground, the Homefront Park, and presently the greenway, a form so different it does not fit into this chapter. The evolutionary process persists in this haphazard way precisely because of the public nature of the public park. Nearly a century and a half ago, Frederick Law Olmsted foresaw the dangers of placing parks in the hands of the public. He feared the clash of interests from special interests groups would hinder effective park planning. He felt greed would always override the commonwealth. He was against the idea of a public park commission because he feared that meetings would invariably be held behind closed doors and, moreover, that the appointees would have no genuine interests in parks.1 The identity crisis in Charlotte parks has stemmed from the divided leadership of the commission. The problems of this public system have not manifested themselves in the form of greed per se as much as they have in a lack of landscape ideology. The post-War boom provided Charlotte with an abundance of public parks. The post-War bust was, as we shall see, a sign that the commission, in designing these facilities, had forgotten the public. Defining the park for the public is a task that cannot be taken lightly.

In 1890, Edward Dilworth Latta succeeded in creating the city's first landscaped park completely through private funding. During the next decade, however, the call for more parks only grew louder within the municipality. As the city continued to grow, the suggestion was made more than once that Latta's vision of green space ought to be extended to the entire city and that there ought to be a system of public parks. In 1894, Latta himself attempted to sell his park property to the city but the Board of Aldermen rejected the proposal in a move that was not uncharacteristic of Charlotte's or any other southern town's leaders at the time. This was not a period in which services were fully provided by a town. Charlotte barely had a government: a board of elected aldermen and a mayor. Services were costly and townsmen were to voluntarily put out fires, patch roads, or perform any other tasks we now take for granted as city services. In 1894, the Board of Aldermen refused to make parks a city priority because of the assumption that recreation was not the business of the city government.2

Daniel Augustus Tompkins

It was ten years later, in 1904, when the city's greatest industrialist, Daniel Augustus Tompkins, convinced the city leaders otherwise and created Charlotte's first municipal park. Independence Park, in its development and proposal, was very much a corporate venture, involving business structures and transactions heretofore the exception in the governing of this southern town. Thus, this first park and the early years of the first public park body, the Charlotte Park and Tree Commission, were very apolitical. The story of this park and its commission provide another case in which private concerns, and not the public officials, were the forces behind the green space evolution.

Certainly Independence Park, and without question the modern city of Charlotte, owe much to the initiative of Daniel Augustus Tompkins. Like Latta, D. A. Tompkins was a South Carolina native who had come to Charlotte via a northern education. With an engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic, Tompkins came to Charlotte in the early 1880s as a sales representative. After selling Westinghouse textile machinery for several years, Tompkins went into business for himself under the D. A. Tompkins Company. His company went on to design hundreds of textile mills and mill towns for Charlotte and the greater region. Tompkins designed machinery and pioneered the technique of extracting cottonseed oil for use as vegetable oil. In 1889, three new mills opened in Charlotte; all of them designed by Tompkins. The Atlanta Constitution claimed that Tompkins "did more for the industrial South than any other man."3

When Tompkins approached the city's Board of Aldermen on March 7, 1904, he did so in his capacity the city's top businessman. Bringing with him a fully thought-out plan and a number of supporting materials, he succeeded in assuaging the frugal minds of this conservative group. Tompkins plans included a location, a municipal reservoir which had recently closed, agreements from neighboring landowners promising the donation of additional land, two already existent trolley lines promising easy access to the townspeople, and preliminary blue prints.4 Were this not enough, Tompkins brought to the Charlotte Aldermen personal letters written by civic officials from Savannah, Georgia, to Richmond, Virginia, extolling the social and economic values of public parks.

At this time in America, public parks meant many things to different people and the words of these letters begin to explore the philosophy that was to be as much a part of Independence Park as the soil and flowers. As the Mayor of Chattanooga, Alex Chambliss, wrote: "There is no longer any doubt among those who have studied this question that public parks contribute to the health and enjoyment and moral improvement and uplifting of the community." Implied was the belief that the park was a sanitizing element, a piece of pure nature within the soot of surrounding industry. In the same sentence Chambliss also hinted that the park had some ability to deter the moral corruption of the city.5 The Park movement in the United States had been founded over fifty years ago upon such ideals. Architects like Andrew Jackson Downing and Frederick Law Olmsted believed landscape could inspire a higher form of civilization in this country. The park was an open-air museum and sanctuary, even.

Samuel Jones, Mayor of Toledo, wrote to Tompkins: "I place the public parks in the same list and on a par with the public schools and the public highways as educational factors in the making of a city and the building of a nation." The statement suggests the social influence the park had in the American City. With so many newcomers from the hinterlands entering the city's new textile mills, the hope for some educational or cohesive force may have been at the fore of the aldermen's minds. Jones also added, "Public parks are common grounds where all people feel that they are at home." It is likely that Tompkins himself desired this aspect of commonwealth most from Independence Park. It could be a place in which not only the upper middle class of the nearby suburbs could gather, but also the workers from his mills. Tompkins would later say before the aldermen, "There are working people in our factories who scarcely ever see the green grass, flowing water, and waving trees of the country. The park will afford them these with the few aides to nature we can put out there."6  Exactly how seriously the aldermen considered such statements when approving Tompkins's proposal cannot be determined, but their relevance to the contemporary conditions in Charlotte cannot be denied.

Between March and November of 1904, a preliminary commission consisting of Tompkins and four other aldermen continued in the planning of the park. On November 8, the Board of Aldermen passed a bill to formally establish the Charlotte Park and Tree Commission. The new body was designed in the style of other Progressive commissions: the Board of Aldermen appointed its members on a nonpartisan basis and none of the members were given compensation, save the treasurer. D. A. Tompkins was appointed its chair.7  It was this new commission that in June of 1905 hired John Nolen to landscape Independence Park.8

The Lilian Arhelger Memorial at Independence Park.  Designed by Helen Hodge

Unfortunately, the energy of this great planner or that of the initial commissioners could not and would not last into the next few decades. As is the fate of any public institution, the early Park and Tree Commission suffered from lack of funding. Through the 1910s and 1920s, the commission survived off of an annual appropriation from the city. This amount, mandated by the State, was to be no less than $1000. The amount given each year vacillated and never provided the commission with enough of a budget to acquire large parcels of land within the city.

One idea taken up with gusto during the 1910s was the construction of playgrounds. While this term has a generic meaning today and may even bring to mind the mundane schoolyards of our youth laden in tire-play equipment, the playground was a new concept at the turn of the century. Joseph Lee, who created sandlots for children in Boston, is credited with initiating the Playground movement. In 1904, Los Angeles was the first city in America to create a municipal playground commission, and in 1911 Chicago established the first training school for playground leaders.9 The civic survey done by John Nolen in 1917 discusses how between 1914 and 1916 the Board of Alderman appropriated $4750 for the construction and staffing of half a dozen or so playgrounds in the city.10 The Observer, in an article written upon the construction of a new playground in Dilworth, touched on the philosophy of this movement by describing the small park as "a supervised playground where boys and girls learn to play fairly, squarely, honestly, and in a democratic spirit."11 Even this salubrious sentiment failed to take hold in Charlotte. Public money was still scarce in this Southern town and with no innovative leadership the Park and Tree Commission was in no position to fight for the meager spoils.

In 1927, the city made structural changes to the Park and Tree Commission but the Depression and its effects would ultimately stall the evolution of public parks until the 1940s. The Charlotte Park and Tree Commission became in 1927 the Charlotte Park and Recreation Commission. Under the new city charter, the group was made up of seven members, each appointed to five-year terms. More importantly, citizens voted on and passed in that year a tax that gave two cents on every $100 assessed valuation to the commission. This form of regular revenue still would in no way allow the body to effectively provide parks and recreation for the city. For the next decade the only real means of land acquisition came through land donations. Developer E. C. Griffith donated 16 acres that became Bryant Park and later 22 acres for Eastover Park. The major project between 1927 and 1929 was Revolution Park. The 240 acres that would come to include the city's first municipal golf course were the donation of three separate land developers.12

It has been said that the Great Depression was a boon to parks and recreation. Agencies like the Works Progress Administration and Federal Emergency Relief Administration supplied funds and workers for the construction of facilities while the Civilian Conservation Corps and National Youth Administration trained peoples to staff them.13  The emphasis, however, lay primarily in recreation rather than parks. Charlotte built Memorial Stadium and a new municipal pool with federal money in the 1930s but few green spaces.

Before the Depression even seemed over, Americans were facing the Second World War and a new challenge. In Charlotte, and across the nation, the war effort impacted the status of parks and recreation in civilian life. Urban historians and specialists in recreation tend to group the Depression and Second World War together in terms of their influences on parks. Galen Cranz denotes this period the "Era of the Reform Park." The Reform Park differed from the original parks of the Park movement such as Independence in the way they aimed to be more accessible and educational. Reform parks were built in all parts of town, not just the posh sections. They allowed for automobiles. They also offered facilities like branch libraries, nature museums or aquariums.14  Douglas Sessoms writes of the recreation in America at this time as "Diversionary Activity." To divert thoughts away from poverty or the war, cities set up permanent park and recreation commissions. The emphasis was on recreation centers that provided activities and athletic fields that kept youngsters occupied playing.15 In Charlotte, the eminent call of the warfront jump-started the evolution of green space more than the Depression ever did. The city saw a distinct purpose for parks during this period that it had never before realized. The evolution of the public park thus entered the Homefront Era.

If locals were not already feeling the fighting blood in their veins, their pulse no doubt jumped in July of 1942. At a Rotary Club meeting in that month Arthur Jones spoke to the members under his title of Southern representative to the National Recreation Association. Jones was a local banker and native of Charlotte. In his talk entitled "Recreation in the War and After," he discussed parks and recreation and their expanded role in Charlotte and beyond. The two main functions of parks and recreation on the homefront, as he saw them, were, "defending the principles of freedom, and upbuilding the health, strength and virility of the American people." In no uncertain terms he concluded that parks and recreation were out to create a fighting machine.16  To accomplish this end, Charlotte experimented with several new ideas in green space and recreation.

Quickly the commission applied for federal money. The Federal Works Administration had created the Lanham Fund, a trust that made money available for the broad purposes of providing local assistance for the health, safety and welfare of servicemen and war industry workers. The grant was meant for communities not equipped to assume the new burden of the war effort.17  Charlotte submitted an application for some $48,000 in January of 1943 and in March was awarded the less impressive sum of $17,000. The city would also continue to apply for Lanham Funds the next year. The federal money did not go far, however, and was not truly intended for green space. The 1943 funds went to enlarge the staff at the Enlisted Men's Club and soldiers center in the Armory Auditorium, both facilities operated by Charlotte Park and Recreation.18

One effort that contributed to green space in the smallest of ways was the victory garden. These tiny plots were no small consideration in the hearts and minds of some Charlotteans, however. Said Oscar Phillips, the gardening guru for the Charlotte News, "Every potato and cabbage and garden pea that grows in one's own backyard releases just that much more energy for smashing Hitler and Hiro Hito [sic]. If you feel that you're not doing enough for the War Effort, a good garden is your chance."19  In one Charlotte community, 23 households came together and cultivated a communal vegetable garden on city-owned land. Residents primarily along Lombardy Circle tended this public land that rested between their lots and Sugar Creek.20  Incidentally, this strip of land is today preserved as a public greenway. The Park and Recreation Commission even made arrangements for victory gardens to be planted in Revolution and Herman Moore Parks. The stipulations were that the garden be only for home use and not impair the land for subsequent park use.21  At the time, this was a small sacrifice on the part of the commission and it made for an interesting public-private land partnership.

Another element to the Homefront Park was organized play. Ever since the beginning of the Playground movement under Joseph Lee, organized play had been the norm in public parks. What may seem foreign to today's park visitors, is the way in which all city parks until the 1960s and '70s were the place for supervised play and organized games. Charlotte greatly enlarged its summer programs of organized play during wartime. The 1943 Recreation program consisted of daily play routines, tournaments and theme weeks for all parks lasting the entire summer. Organized play was intended to teach good citizenship and build a sense of community. In response to this ideal, Charlotte Park and Recreation created theme weeks in 1943 such as Flag Week and Defense Stamp Week. No longer was simple play good enough for the American kid. Organized play introduced games with a definite end resulting in a win or a loss.22

While the Homefront Era saw the public parks commission reevaluating the uses of its existing green space, it also saw the work of several private individuals culminate in one of the city's most glorious pieces of new green space. Freedom Park, arguably the city's most well-known park, was born amid the spirit to memorialize the already-grand achievements of the American servicemen and women. The park began as a service project of the Charlotte Lions Club and provides another instance in which private initiative picked up the slack of public officials.

Not unlike D. A. Tompkins fifty years earlier, when the Charlotte Lions brought their project to the press in August of 1944, they had a sound plan in hand. Through private donations, the club had amassed 110 acres of prime real estate in the middle of Southeast Charlotte. To finance the landscaping of these acres, a cost initially estimated at $300,000, the Lions were soliciting members for donations. They set a goal for $100,000 through 100 separate $1000 tax-deductible donations.23

Through the whole process, the Lions had worked in cooperation with the Park and Recreation Commission. For over a year prior to the announcement in August 1944, the two groups collaborated on site selection and means of finance.24  The Lions kept the project in their hands under the nonprofit corporation of the Charlotte Park Association (CPA). The CPA collected donations, hired the landscape architect and engineer, and eventually leased the park to the Park and Recreation Commission.

The enthusiasm behind the yet-to-be-named park centered on its role not so much as green space but as a living memorial. The chair of the Park and Recreation Commission mentioned how it would accentuate the need for parks and playgrounds in all sections of Charlotte.25  A Lions Club member briefly mentioned it as an antidote to juvenile delinquency.26  In order to publicize the park and their funding efforts, however, the CPA played their war card. In March of 1945, the CPA began a funding drive. The new goal was to raise $400,000 by allowing the public to by $40 shares in the park. Ostensibly, a $40 share would represent a 400-square foot unit in the park. By this math there was a share for each of the 10,000 Charlotteans in the armed forces. In another gimmick, the CPA allowed the public to name the park through a name contest. When the Charlotte News announced the opening of this contest, however, on March 24, 1945, they printed the one entry they had thus far received. Corporal Joe Gettis, a Charlottean stationed in Corsica, read about the park in August and, unaware when the name contest was to begin, sent in his entry stating, "Park of Freedom or Freedom ParkŠ Because the children will be free from want, free from fear, free from the thought of growing up to fight another war as we did."27  The contest was over before it began.

The Lake at Freedom Park

Sadly, the new Freedom Park was only a single emerald in the Queen City's tarnished crown in terms of public green space. The Homefront Park was to give new definition to the public park as the site for the recreation of the masses. Not just servicemen but all of America's youths could learn healthful ideals in urban parks. Unfortunately, the park system in Charlotte still did not reach every youth. At the aforementioned Rotary Club meeting in 1942, Arthur Jones called the facilities of the Charlotte Park and Recreation Commission grossly inadequate and was quoted as saying "Charlotte is 25 years behind in appropriations for recreation."28  When in 1944 the Charlotte City Council shelled out $1500 for a survey to be conducted by the National Recreation Association, they were blasted when the report came out a year later. The National Recreation Association listed Charlotte's main handicaps in creating an adequate recreation program as such: the lack of a qualified recreation executive, inadequate personnel for training and maintenance and insufficient financial support.29

In an answer to this survey and mounting complaints, the Park and Recreation Commission began a plan for postwar expansion. In 1948 the commission hired Arthur Jones as its superintendent and by the end of that year had developed a plan for modernization that would become the 1949 Park Bond Issue. The '49 Bonds were a public works referendum like nothing seen in Charlotte. The Commission proposed a five-year plan involving 35 projects totaling $999,999. Voters in June 1949 faced two issues, the appropriation of nearly $1 million towards capital improvements and land acquisition and a raise in the special recreation tax levy. Since the creation of the Park and Recreation Commission in 1927, nearly all revenue came from the 2 cents on every $100 valuation. The Commission wanted to see this raised to 6 cents in 1949, 7 cents in 190 and 8 cents in 1951 and thereafter.30  It was a tall order.

To push the proposed 5-Year Plan, Arthur Jones went to the public with the issues facing Charlotte and these bonds. He wrote letters to the editors of the morning and afternoon papers. He and Assistant Superintendent Alice Suiter organized public hearings to explain the purpose and plans behind the bonds. According to him, Charlotte could not afford to lose the few remaining open spaces left within the city. He also played up the social role parks still held:

The present and future cost of not giving Charlotte's youngsters the break they deserve in proper preparation for wholesome use of leisure time are incalculable, while at the same time, our industrial leaders are seeing that beneficial off-the-job living is one of the essentials for on-the-job working.31

What is significant in Jones's words is how different they are from those of park proponents just half a century before. Though men like Tompkins and Jones both saw the social value of parks in a city like Charlotte, the ideology was different. The philosophy of the Park movement that Tompkins expressed became for Jones the science of the leisure service delivery system. Tompkins never would have tried to calculate costs of not giving kids leisure time. Jones was a recreation professional, however, and spoke the jargon. This shift in ideology accompanied the postwar boom as parks became more a quantity to dole out and less a public amenity judged by quality.

From the time the proposal was announced in late August 1948, to when the referendum was held in June 1949, the bond issues had some nine months to ferment in the voters' minds. On the night before the elections, listeners of radio station WGIV were able to tune in and hear a live interview with the superintendent, assistant superintendent and commission chairman discussing the two issues facing voters. Indeed, June 11th would be a big day since referenda concerning street improvements, increased water service and sewer service were also on the ballot. To add more gravity, the announcer that evening put it, "tomorrow the citizens of Charlotte will go to the polls to decide the fate of some eight proposals to make Charlotte a more modern city."32 Besides this lip service paid to the sheer enormity of the bond and the statistics it created in the park equation for Charlotte, the on-air discussion addressed little else. Nevertheless, both the bond issues passed.

Expansion of the public park system proceeded thus for the next five years. Park historian Galen Cranz cites the 1950s as a boom period for parkland acquisition. The Depression and Second World War had deprived park systems of money for construction and maintenance and thus these systems wanted a share of the postwar prosperity. Public parks had to share this prosperity and the urban landscape, however, with highway projects, hospitals and strip shopping centers. These new parks tended to be numerous but small.33 The goal of the '49 Bonds was to create a playground within a half-mile of every home.34 This system of neighborhood parks was well received when the result was a space like Midwood Park. In the case of Midwood, the community had previously raised the necessary money and purchased the land themselves. In 1950, they deeded it to the Park and Recreation Commission with the provision that it be developed as a park. The Commission followed through.35

In the new postwar economy, however, the public park suffered because ultimately commissioners had to choose between the social mission of green space and the economic reality of providing leisure services. By 1969, the Park and Recreation Commission was attempting to operate on a budget of $1.47 million; at one point projected revenue was only $600,000.36 Economic pressure, and of this there can be no doubt, resulted in two main deficiencies in the public park system of the 1960s: reliance on an urban bureaucracy and homogeneity of design. The postwar boom very quickly revealed its outcome as the postwar bust.

As urban government grew in even a southern town like Charlotte, park systems began to rely on other civic agents to provide land or labor.37  In an attempt to increase facilities, Superintendent Marion Diehl pushed for a bond referendum in 1960 that would have planned six parks on school grounds. Such a plan would have expanded service without necessarily expanding maintenance costs.38  By 1969, the urban renewal movement had created the Charlotte Redevelopment Commission. This organ, without any help from the Park and Recreation Commission, botched a proposed commercial-park development near uptown called "Blue Heaven." Though given charge of this land parcel, by not promoting it and acquiring necessary funds to preserve the green space, the Redevelopment Commission lost the chance to create valuable green space.

In the attempt to keep up with the demand for leisure space, public park systems typically cut back on aesthetics. Elements of design in parks became standardized, from play equipment, to athletic fields, to trash cans. Soon all neighborhood parks could be designed with a multi-use athletic field, multi-use hard court and a picnic shelter. Charlotte parks do not exhibit this trend as obviously as other city systems. This streamlined innovation had no ideology behind it other than to produce a cheap product for the masses. As park systems expanded they suffered from a lack of ideology. Any definition of a public park lost its meaning.

The situation in Charlotte seemed to come to a head in the summer of 1969 when inner-city African American residents began to clamor about not only the lack of public parks near to them but also the lack of attention given to their social needs. In that year, the Commission was planning a proposal for city council appropriations that would provide for nine new 100-acre parks and six new community centers over the next five years. In an April meeting before the city council, leaders from inner-city neighborhoods like Belmont Villa Heights Brookhill, Piedmont Courts, and the First Ward brought a hand-colored map depicting how none of the proposed parks were planned for their areas. As if bearing a keen understanding of the social role inherent in green space, one Charles Black pleaded with councilmen, "We have more crime than others, and we don't see where our kids have anything here. We want you to take this under consideration." As if avoiding the issue, Park and Recreation Chairman Daniel "Doc" Martin replied, "The locations did not take into consideration income brackets. They did take into consideration the needs for neighborhoods."39

In two months time the rational pleas turned into volatile protest. While trying to sort out their own budget crisis, on June 17, Park and Recreation Commissioners had their meeting crashed in upon by over 100 angry African Americans. Barging into the small conference room, brandishing a 3,000-name petition, was their ringleader and failed 1969 City Council candidate Mrs. Luciel McNeel. She abruptly exclaimed, "We are here. We are black. We are going to have a meeting here today. Lead out Brothers!" Charles Black, picking up where he had left off in the previous meeting concerning inequalities, angrily stated, "I'm having to pay for Myers Park and people who have only swimming pools and Cadillacs and my kid doesn't have a wagon."40

Days later the News interviewed the president of the First Ward Improvement Association, Joseph Carter, about the meeting. In his comments lies the real problem with public parks at this time, "The main thing was we were asking them to sit down and explain what was going on. We want to have open meetings on the parks. It seemed to me they weren't concerned enough about this type thing."41  In the face of economic struggles, the public parks had lost touch with its constituents and its former social mission. In this manner, the public park ceased to be truly public and ceased to evolve.

The identity crisis seen in the evolution of the public park is not wholly destructive. The park and recreation system is by no means dead in the city today. Rather, as a city-county department, public parks received the blessings of voters in 1999 and secured a bond issue fifty times the size of the one passed fifty years earlier. The identity crisis is only a sign that the evolution of the public park is perpetual. The changing interests of the public and the changing of the guard, so to speak, within the department do not allow parks to crystallize in history as do garden suburbs. Between 1942 and 1969 the park system grew greatly in size but slowly lost it raison d'être. As one New York park planner made it clear in 1969,

It is the quality of urban open space that counts more than quantity. Parks that provide variety and choice are the ones that matter. In addition to being easily accessible, parks should be important in themselves, not merely an incidental adjunct to some housing project, or treated as waste space.42

The pubic parks of Charlotte remain green space only as long as they remain true to the desires of the public. Otherwise, they become waste space.

Continue reading...

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four