Empty swings at Garfield Park. Photo by Justine Quart

A 13-year-old girl sat on the bleachers at Garfield Park watching her brother play soccer. She motioned to the groups of older men near the fence. “The grown men playing dice can be inappropriate.” She shrugged. “Sometimes they fight with each other.”

In fact, few would disagree that gambling, litter, public nuisance complaints and drinking remain major problems at the park, located between 25th and 26th streets on Harrison and Folsom, near the southern edge of the Mission. These concerns have been ongoing agenda items for the neighborhood’s Friends of Garfield Park despite costly park improvements over the last several years.

In 2006, the park underwent a $2 million renovation to improve the soccer field turf, playground and picnic areas, while $260,000 was spent renovating the pool, which reopened in July 2010. According to the April 26, 2010, Recreation and Park Commission agenda, renovations to the pool included replacing its liner, pump motor and overhead lighting.

But what happens to parks once major renovations are complete, especially as city cutbacks have kicked in? The answer at Garfield Park: The residents take over. Those active in Friends of Garfield — a small group of neighborhood volunteers that meets at the park every third Saturday of the month — help foster a sense of ownership among park visitors, members said.

Although residents have stepped up to answer the call of maintaining Garfield Park, Anthony Lindsey, one of the founding members of Friends of Garfield, said, “Park and Rec are doing the best they can [to help maintain the park]. We are working with them now, but they are underfunded, with no resources.”

Limited resources doesn’t stop the Friends group. For volunteer Julie Lindsey, even the seemingly trivial act of gardening can make a difference. “When we come here and people see us, they feel uncomfortable,” she explained as she gardened with five other volunteers and a Park and Rec worker. “They see us cleaning their trash, so they become more aware that what they are doing is wrong. I think we are making a difference, even if it is small.”

Still, she added, the park needs constant vigilance, especially regarding safety issues. In the last three months, 212 crimes were reported within a fifth of a mile radius around the park — mostly disturbing the peace and drug and alcohol violations, according to crimemapping.com, which extracts data directly from the police department’s records system.

Two stabbings occurred near the park during the same time period.

In comparison, 143 crimes were reported within a fifth of a mile radius of Dolores Park, the majority involving disturbing the peace, burglary and assault. During the last three months there were no crimes reporting a “person with a gun or knife” at Dolores Park, but there were 13 near Garfield, according to crimemapping.com.

Meredith Thomas, executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council, said she is working with Supervisor David Campos and Police Captain Greg Corrales to increase police attention at Garfield. When asked how often the police patrol Garfield Park, Sergeant Ching, an officer who patrols the park, couldn’t give an exact number, but said he passes by at least six time a day. Another 14 to 26 officers patrol the area, he said.

For Anthony Lindsey, more foot patrols in the park and more Spanish-speaking officers are important to reducing crime. When asked if police do get out and walk the area, Ching said, “There isn’t as much need for it as it used to be. On a scale from one to 10, the park is at about an eight in terms of improvement.”

Mark Scandrette, who is active in the park group, disagreed. As Scandrette spoke about the need for more policing, a motorcycle cop drove by a group on the corner that had alcohol hidden in their jackets. “You can’t just drive by. You have to get out and talk to people, get to know them, speak to them,” Scandrette said.

Moments after the motorcycle cop drove by, a homeless man asked Scandrette if he was undercover FBI. In disbelief, Scandrette said, “You see, I’ve lived here for 15 years, and they look at me like I’m an outsider.”

To some residents, the differences between Dolores and Garfield park go beyond class and color of skin. Kevin Reid, a Park and Rec employee since 1971, believes there might be a connection between a neighborhood’s political power and how well its parks are taken care of. He pointed out that Dolores is in a more affluent neighborhood, and said that “residents there are more likely to talk to elected supervisors directly.”

Others think Park and Rec is doing the best it can in the face of major financial problems, and note that many parks are suffering cutbacks.

The Friends of Garfield Park tries to partner with the city whenever it can. On Sept. 24, the group teamed with the Mayor’s office of Neighborhood Services to host a park barbecue where 1,500 school backpacks and emergency kits for youth between the ages of 5 and 18 were given away, said Victoria Bell, deputy director of the Neighborhood Parks Council.

The Garfield group hopes that such outreach events will create a wider interest in keeping the park clean and safe. Their work is beginning to pay off in the eyes of fellow park-goers. Pedro, a young soccer player from El Salvador, said that there’s no competition when choosing which park to visit. “I think this park is better. Here is like home.”

“This park has become better not because of the city, but because of the community,” said Jose Avila as he prepared for a neighborhood soccer game.

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Justine Quart knows everyone calls themselves a foodie in San Francisco, that's why she goes by gastro-ethnologist.

Before joining Mission Loc@l, Justine graduated from Brown University with a double major in Ethnic Studies and Visual Arts. In between gypsy stints abroad and working at a community health non-profit, she learned the delicate art of playing roller derby and making the perfect veggie burger. After working at the Discovery Channel Headquarters in Washington DC, Justine migrated to the warmer coasts of California to hone her reporting skills.

Aside from food, Justine likes to get nerdy about visual storytelling, experiential journalism, and investigative stories.

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  1. The park has come a long way from even 10 years ago. The gambling goes unchecked and the kids smoking weed keep on doing it. The community just has to remain persistent. Hold our leaders, officers and neighbors responsible.

  2. This a good story that shows how a community can stand together to protect the things that are for..the community. Too many times in urban cities you see parks and areas that are built for children and families, taken over by undesirables.

    Its sad that the more affluent neighborhoods have the political power on their side but that is how it usually is anyway. Great story

  3. 2 problems:

    1) Adults drinking and gambling. Seem fairly harmless but certainly doesn’t add the “park” charm

    2) BBQ’ing _RIGHT NEXT TO_ f’ing playground. Seriously wtf is that all about? Open flames + young kids = fail.

    3) Ghetto-ass kids. Fat-ass kids eating cheetos and talking smack all over the place. Where are the parents?

    How about some organized activities to get this place going in the right direction? More family activities! Its not hard. We just need the city to help kick this thing into gear.

  4. Wow, I used to come to this park to swim as a young child my cousin used to bring us..Crime is everywhere unfortunately. But parks are suppose to be an enjoyment. Life has changed so much. I agree with you the police should get out there driving by doesn’t accomplish a thing. You can hide your drugs and alcohol to simply.