In so many ways, it is no Dolores Park meeting.
There is no set agenda for the Garfield Park meeting Wednesday night – Supervisor David Campos says he simply wants to know “what works, what doesn’t work, what’s happening, what’s not happening.” He and other representatives from police and the city parks department are visibly relaxed.
When 40 or so neighbors pack the park’s tiny clubhouse, no epic rhetorical battle ensues. The words “hipster,” “noise,” “dogs,” are replaced with “families,” “outreach” and “youth programs.”
The meeting, organized by the nonprofit Neighborhood Parks Council, starts on a positive note.
“It’s a good place to be, the trees are beautiful,” says a blonde woman in the back, who says she brings her 15-month-old to the park almost every day. “He runs around in there and it’s just great.”
“The soccer fields have brought a lot of positive energy to the neighborhood,” agrees Mark, a father of three and a nearby resident for the last 13 years.
“What’s really working is we got our pool open,” chimes in another. “It’s like a brand-new pool, the waters are silky.”
And then we get down to business: unpleasant business.
“Tonight when I walked here, I passed by two guys pooping, all these guys here playing dice, which is fine except that they’re also drinking, smoking pot and doing drugs, a few guys pissing behind bushes,” says the blonde who spoke earlier.
“It’s not an environment for children to see, or even adults or a senior like myself,” says another woman, who avoids bringing children in her youth program to the park.
Another neighbor listens intently, holding a typewritten memo with headings and bullet points detailing the various unsavory characters who occupy the park – the recyclers, the drunks, the gamblers, and their peak hours, activities and leave-behinds.
“I’ve lived here 10 years, I’m in the park three times a day,” she says finally, in a calm voice. “I’ve confronted these guys and I’m afraid to do any more. I call the police probably two times a week. I don’t understand why a foot patrol doesn’t go by, see these carts, with the recycling, the guy’s passed out nearby.”
Through it all, Campos listens, nods. He’s unruffled – except for once.
Campos cocks an ear to hear Connie, a woman, who speaks softly but is clearly angry. “I wish you’d spend more time in the Mission than trying to work with people who are coming across our border,” she says, referring to his recent advocacy for immigration reform. “I don’t ever see you around here where you can see what’s going on.”
“Where have you been?” Campos quips, a bit tersely. Others nod and coo in support of their official.
“I’ve seen him a lot….” a woman against the wall says, then trails off.
“Those illegals coming in, it’s our money that’s paying for them,” continues Connie, as a few neighbors around the room shake their heads and sigh in exasperation.
Campos, undocumented when he arrived here as a teenager from Guatemala, is visibly peeved. “First of all, I think you can talk about parks, recreation areas, open space, without having to go down the route of talking about the legal status of people. I don’t think that has anything to do with whether or not I’m doing my job,” says the supervisor, who has degrees from Stanford and Harvard. Applause breaks out. The room lets out a collective sigh of relief as the near-argument is diffused.
The conversation, and it is a conversation, moves on to youth and violence in the park. A few teens from Bernal Dwellings stand in the back. Luis Barahona, who’s a community organizer and soccer coach for the Mission-based Jamestown Community Center, says he’s seen fights in the park while his kids are practicing.
“Part of the problem is there’s just a so many programs that have been cut. There’s just not as much offered at the rec center for teens, and there’s a lot of free time,” says Barahona.
Ginale Harris, who provides youth services to Bernal Dwellings residents, echoes the sentiment. “Not only have they cut their service hours, but this whole rec center is closed to the public. Now these kids have nowhere to go, nothing to do.”
Encouraged by Harris, whose Bernal Dwellings upbringing lends her an easy rapport with the kids, one of the youngsters speaks up. “Why we the only one to get shut down?” he asks. “Anytime something has to go, it’s always going to be down here in the Mission.”
Neighbors talk about the lack of access to other park facilities, especially the pool, which has been closed on Sundays since reopening. “It’s like screaming in the wilderness,” says Frank Brooks, who adds that he’s a city employee, “and we’re losing our voice.
Campos agrees about the unfairness in city cuts. “You can’t cut a program…and then say why are the kids hanging out at the corner.”
But Harris says she sees a disparity in the way different parks in the Mission are funded. “We took care of this park for two years…we did it because their gardeners were at Dolores Park, beautifying that park, but our kids over here don’t count, because why, there’s a public housing development across the street?”
She finishes amid shouts of solidarity and agreement. “We need this place. It’s not a big space, but we need it.”
“We try to balance it out as best we can,” says Eric Andersen, who manages all of the Mission’s parks for the city’s Recreation and Park Department, “but Dolores gets a million people a year. To be honest, we’re spread really thin.”
(At a recent meeting on Dolores Park, Phil Ginsburg, Rec and Park’s general manager, told residents that it costs $350,000 a year to maintain Dolores Park and that services were not cut last year, but could be cut by 20 percent this year.)
Others say they’ve tried to help maintain Garfield and have been denied. Mark, who once offered to paint benches and do other park cleanup, says he was told it would take the gardeners’ jobs. “I don’t need to get paid, I just want to be involved.”
Says Harris, “I even asked if I can come in here and provide services – I was told I would have to pay fair market rent.” Tongues click in disapproval.
Even organizing a simple park event becomes a headache, says a gentleman in the back. “You gotta get permits, go through hoops, just to have a little movie night. They told me to hire park patrol, additional police, told me to bring in port-a-potties,” he complains. “I mean, this is a small little park.”
Campos takes a break to ask the Spanish-speaking participants if they have any comments. Up until now, they have been listening on headsets as a Campos aide translates the meeting live.
One man, who’s crouching to share a headset with his daughter so she can listen, raises his hand. “I really like this park, my children come here and I really like the trees,” he says in Spanish. “They’re really young and I don’t like what I’m seeing in the park. I walk around the park, and there are a lot of smells that are not so nice…kids, Latino or not Latino, are seeing this and that’s really problematic.”
Campos nods in empathy, but then provides a reality check. “It would be a lie to tell you that City Hall…has all the resources to do everything that needs to be done. But there are things we can do.”
Things like keeping a bathroom open to limit public urination, increasing outreach to youth centers and neighbors about park activities, and including young people in taking care of the park – these are all starting points, the panel says.
But Campos has a call to arms. “In City Hall… it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. You all have to become that squeaky wheel,” he says, adding that he thinks it’s critical that the youth of the community are involved.
Too late; they’ve already slipped out to enjoy the cool night air.
The adults are not far behind, fidgeting and growing impatient, but politely so.
There’s some doubt as to the efficacy of the proceedings. One man, who says he’s lived two blocks away for 11 years, says he doesn’t want more of the same. “Ten years I’ve been seeing these meetings, we rush out, like oh, it’s a community crisis. That’s crap,” he says.
“I don’t think any of us want to see this be just another meeting where we came and we talked,” says Campos as the meeting draws to a close. “I think there has to be action.” Everyone agrees.
As Meredith Thomas of the Neighborhood Parks Council runs through the thank-yous and goodbyes, she says there will be a timely plan of action. She promises to organize a “friends of” group within the month. “Money is really limited, but that shouldn’t be a reason for us not to try,” she says, as the room holds its breath for the meeting’s closure.
Ginale Harris makes her way down the steps as the custodian locks up for the night. “Hopefully something good comes out of all this,” she says, her tone firm but hopeful. Then she walks off toward Bernal Dwellings.