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Parks in Peril

Recent budget cuts have left Oakland's parks struggling for survival. Without a funding fix on the horizon, do they stand a chance?

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Montauk presented her findings to the Oakland City Council's Public Works Committee at an early-morning meeting on January 11. Councilmembers Nancy Nadel, Rebecca Kaplan, Libby Schaaf, and Larry Reid were present, but none expressed much shock at Montauk's message: Oakland's parks are approaching dire straits, and need help now.

They did, however, respond to two of Montauk's recommendations: first, establish a new position within public works for a volunteer parks coordinator, who would oversee various efforts to maintain Oakland's parks on borrowed labor (the position has been officially approved, but not yet filled); and second, permit business districts to navigate around union concerns and provide paid maintenance services to medians and plazas. Yet Montauk deemed her third recommendation the most critical: avoid imposing any future budget cuts on park maintenance, and when the economy improves, restore funding to satisfactory levels. It was met with silence.

While the park coalition's annual survey is the most comprehensive of its kind in Oakland, an informal assessment of a selection of parks turned up many of the same results. Ira Jinkins Park, located along Highway 880 south of the Oakland Coliseum at the future site of the East Oakland Sports Center, didn't offer much for visitors to enjoy: A swing-set frame sat empty, its four swings missing; and one of the fourteen-acre park's few benches was covered with gang graffiti and unsafe for use, the wood of one of its seats shattered and splintered. The park's large field area was overgrown and uneven.

The 88th Avenue Mini Park, also known as Eula Brinson Park — a tiny lot in the middle of a modest Elmhurst neighborhood — was overgrown and in need of mowing, raking, and debris cleanup. However, it was largely litter-free: An impromptu trash bin had been set up at the park's entrance, and volunteers had evidently been filling it. Burckhalter Park, in the Eastmont Hills neighborhood near Highway 580, appeared much the same: fallen and dead limbs, overgrown lawns and shrubs, yet a minimum of litter. Its restroom facilities were in need of cleaning, but not unusable.

West Oakland's South Prescott Park was lush and freshly mowed, but damp clumps of grass trimmings had been left all over its concrete walkways. One of its two entrances was locked, and the young trees along its street-facing fence line were inadequately braced and leaned severely in all directions.

But Elmhurst Plaza Park, also known as Officer Willy Wilkins Park, fared the worst. The two-acre square studded with tall redwoods was heavily littered, despite the presence of two city trash bins. Aluminum foil, food wrappers, plastic bags, and paper debris were scattered throughout the park — as were two empty forty-ounce beer bottles, near a park bench, and a small bottle of gin, discarded in an overgrown lawn near one edge of the park. Not far away, a group of children played on a new play structure.


This picture would surely be worse if not for a fortunate short-term fix: volunteers. Park volunteerism has surged in recent years in direct response to the budget cuts. In fact, the paper notices posted throughout the city last summer that alerted Oaklanders to the no-routine-maintenance status of their parks also called on them to step up and fill in some of the gaps.

City Councilmember Jane Brunner promptly established the North Oakland Parks Volunteer Project in her district, asking residents to assume various levels of responsibility for their parks in exchange for training, tools and materials, networking opportunities, and an annual picnic sponsored by her office. New volunteers continue to register every month, she said, and the current roster of 93 volunteers covers fifteen of her district's seventeen parks and three of its five plazas.

Citywide, the Adopt-a-Park program offers volunteers many of the same opportunities; at last count, 28 parks and 12 medians were spoken for by groups and individuals throughout Oakland. Those numbers are on the rise, said public works special assistant Jocelyn Combs, and they don't include the innumerable unassociated volunteers who do their work quietly, without any formal recognition.

The biggest piece of the pie goes to the Oakland Parks Coalition. Montauk said the group currently counts 112 pledged stewards and dedicated volunteers among its numbers, a figure that has climbed significantly since 2009 and is bound to grow larger in 2011. There's quantifiable evidence that the work they're doing matters. District One, with perhaps the largest number of park volunteers, rated very well in the coalition's 2010 survey. District Seven, with the least amount of registered stewards, rated last. As such, Montauk — who has been caring for a small median in the Temescal neighborhood for fifteen years — said one of her primary goals for 2011 is recruiting more volunteers in underrepresented areas.

Throughout the city, volunteers and official stewards pull more than their fair weight. Ron Wolf, a retired businessman who spends hours each week picking up litter, raking, pulling weeds, and trimming plants at the heavily used Lafayette Square Park in downtown Oakland, is among the more dedicated.

On a cold, misty morning in December, Wolf was there, bundled up, trash-picker in hand, snatching up the seemingly omnipresent litter: food wrappers, single-serving liquor bottles, tattered clothing. Outside the locked restroom doors, toilet paper littered the ground. In one corner of the facility, human feces. Wolf avoided it. "I pick up a few things," he said, "that you wouldn't want to see in a public place."

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