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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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Staying on top of cleanup is a never-ending task, even given the good relationship he has with the park's designated public works crew. "Since the 1930s, derelicts and drunks have gathered here," said Wolf, who's been caring for the park for over a year. "A few guys pretty close to live here."

The park's reputation as a homeless hang-out is enough to keep away many of the businesspeople in nearby high-rises, but most of the regulars are good people, he said. Sometimes he plays a game of chess with them or tosses horseshoes carried from his condo across the street. He's here two or three days a week, 45 minutes to an hour at a time, and it helps to make friends. "People think of parks as wild, open space," Wolf said as he bent over to pull a large weed from a planter bed. "It can get a little wild, but in a different way."

Other park stewards have set their sights even higher. At Garber Park, a thirteen-acre enclave hidden behind the Claremont Hotel in the Oakland hills, where the trails are poorly maintained and overgrown, a group of neighbors called the Garber Park Stewards raised enough money to have a number of problematic eucalyptus trees removed.

At Maxwell Park in the neighborhood of the same name, a strong coalition has assumed responsibility for wholly revitalizing their local jewel. Tens of thousands of dollars in grant money, applied for by volunteers, have helped residents plan a complete redesign for the park with the aid of a professional architect. They're nearly done with an ambitious project to sheathe the restroom facilities in mosaic artwork. Lighting has been improved, problematic trees have been removed, and graffiti has been cleaned. On top of that, volunteers scour the park six days a week.

What once was plagued by drug dealers and gang graffiti and littered with syringes, condoms, and drug baggies is now safe for young children to play, said Maxwell Park Neighborhood Council organizer Nancy Karigaca. But there's plenty more construction work left to do, some related to Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and that takes money — money the city doesn't have. "We have no idea how long the fund-raising's going to take," Karigaca said. "Maybe we'll get it done within five years, but it could take ten years."

Friends of Oakland Parks and Recreation, an independent nonprofit organization formed in 1981 that collaborates with the city's Parks and Recreation Department, provides fiscal support and management to more than fifty groups like these across Oakland. Over the past two years, demand for the organization's services from volunteer community groups have gone way up, said Executive Director Paula Ramsey, and basic park maintenance has become an increasingly pressing concern.

Yet despite all these positive signs, volunteers can do only so much. Repairs to facilities generally require city staff time and city funds, and the longer they're delayed, the worse they'll get — and the more expensive to address. "What really is the problem is that all of the repairs are on hold," Montauk said. "You can get them out to fix something when it looks like it might be a potential liability." But barring that, worn playing surfaces, broken outdoor furniture, and plugged water fountains go largely ignored. There's little money left for repair or new parts, she said, and at some point many will simply stop functioning.

That's why volunteers will never be anything more than a band-aid. As newly minted volunteers are faced with ongoing hardships, it's conceivable they may just burn out. "You need to nurture volunteerism, but it's not always a permanent fix," Councilwoman Brunner said. "It's hard to keep volunteers committed for years."

Mayor Jean Quan, an outspoken advocate for Oakland's parkland who promoted volunteerism and neighborhood activism in her recent inauguration speech, agreed: "It's gonna be with us for a while. But long-term, we're going to have to do a structural fix for the parks. You can't take care of the parks the way that we did before with the same dollars that we had in 1993."

Despite the addition of 300 acres of new parkland and the planting of approximately 10,000 new trees throughout the city since then, she said, the Landscape and Lighting District tax that funds park and greenery maintenance has not seen a single cost of living increase. Together with the commitment of 72 percent of Oakland's general fund to police and fire, that makes for a financial challenge no amount of goodwill can overcome.

Even if the public works budget remains flat in coming years, its burden will only increase. The city is still adding new parks all the time, Quan said, and they contribute to its maintenance load. As a councilmember, for example, she introduced a dozen pocket parks to her district and saved another sixteen acres in a small canyon from development. Tiny plots throughout the city are continually added to the parkland roster as empty lots are greened and converted to public use.

Quan suggests that given the current economic climate, however, there may be some wisdom in limiting new parkland. "I think that the city has to make some decisions," she said. "We have to decide whether or not we're going to continue to have as many parks."


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