City officials aren't amused that a meme featuring the rapper Drake in a wheelchair somehow made its way into the proposal for revamping Margaret T. Hance Park.
On Monday, Phoenix formally unveiled plans to revitalize Hance Park by adding a jogging loop, interactive water feature, skate park, food truck area, and an amphitheater. Less than 24 hours later, Reddit user Don'tForgetThisTime pointed out that one of the people depicted enjoying the new-and-improved park was Wheelchair Drake.
Some explanation is probably necessary here. Before becoming an emotive, endlessly mockable rapper, Drake (real name: Aubrey Drake Graham) starred on the Canadian teen drama Degrassi: The Next Generation.
The fictional character he played, Jimmy Brooks, was paralyzed from the waist down and used a wheelchair. For reasons that no one has satisfactorily been able to explain, the show's promotional image of Drake/Jimmy in a wheelchair became a meme roughly eight years ago, as Drake's hip-hop career was taking off.
While there's always the risk that someone could be offended by it, the Wheelchair Drake meme has been around for nearly a decade and doesn't appear to have received any significant pushback from the disability community.
"My humble opinion as a longtime chair user: Not offended," Loren Worthington, the communications manager for Ability360, wrote in an email. "The character is not being depicted negatively or in any way that someone might consider demeaning."
If anything, Drake's past life as a teen soap opera star seems to be the butt of the joke. In 2011, the website Grantland concluded that "since Drake was just acting, the joke isn’t making fun of the disabled, it’s making fun of a rap star’s drama-club days." Wheelchair Drake received the number six ranking on their list of the top 10 Drake memes.
Apparently, the city of Phoenix doesn't share that enthusiasm. A day after the rendering of the park was first posted on Reddit, it disappeared from the city's website and the Parks Department's Facebook page. A new version has since been posted online; in it, a strolling black man in khaki shorts has replaced Wheelchair Drake.
Gregg Bach, a spokesperson for the Parks and Recreation Department, said that the city had asked Hargreaves Associates, the landscape architects for the project, to update the illustration "so that it would not be a distraction [from] the recent unveiling of new design concepts for the park."
Representatives from Hargreaves Associates didn't respond to a request for comment on Thursday, so we can only speculate about how Wheelchair Drake wound up in Hance Park in the first place.
It's not uncommon for architects and designers — or the third-party subcontractors who sometimes end up creating these drawings — to amuse themselves by sneaking obscure, easily overlooked jokes into their renderings.
In fact, last September, the New York City Parks Department included Wheelchair Drake in their design concept for a proposed new entrance ramp at a Brooklyn park.
Interestingly, the sketch prominently features two laughing men in blue and red jackets who also appear in the Hance Park drawing. The New York City Parks Department does not appear to have contracted with Hargreaves Associates — or any other landscape architecture firm, for that matter — to come up with the design for the ramp.
This deepens the mystery: Was the person who created the Hance Park renderings attempting to emulate — or rip off — someone who works for the New York City Parks Department? Are they friends? Enemies? The same person?
Drake could not immediately be reached for comment.
Update, May 31st: A sharp-eyed reader points out Katie Holmes and Suri Cruise make an appearance in the design sketch for the Central Plaza garden and hill. Take a look at the drawing at left, then compare that to this 2012 paparazzi photo.