Amid budget cuts, volunteers preserve city parks
on October 7, 2009
Residents of North Oakland’s Bushrod neighborhood have created a haven in Dover Street Park. A few years ago, weeds choked the mostly vacant stretch near the intersection of 58th and Dover streets. But neighbors helped transform this acre into a place where small children ride bicycles and play on the purple and yellow swing set. Today, the park is framed by a pair of smart two-story houses, including one with a for-sale sign.
It’s been a marked transition, according to Claudia Heron, who lives near the park and volunteers there.
“Our neighborhood has had its share of violence. I had bullets come through my living room window four years ago in bright daylight,” recalled Heron, who coaches new teachers for the Oakland Unified School District. “When a family got accosted at the park one afternoon two years ago, I decided to do something. That is how the first Sunday of the month at Dover Street Park was started.”
This first-Sunday-of-the-month initiative draws members of the neighborhood into the park for an all-hands-on-deck gardening and cleaning effort. Years of work by committed volunteers like Heron, and by the city’s Public Works Department, have helped preserve the new park. McDonald’s hamburger wrappers and Doritos bags still crop up from time to time, but neighborhood residents are quick to remove them.
“We do garbage pickup, which is crucial,” Heron said. “One of our neighbors does graffiti abatement, and our park is very clean. We do weeding, prune roses and trees—it’s a tiny bit and so much is needed.”
With the current budget situation in Oakland, volunteer initiatives like this one may become more of a necessity in maintaining the city’s parks. As part of an effort to close the city’s $83 million deficit for 2009, in July the City Council approved several cuts to Oakland’s Public Works Department, which maintains the city’s parks. All told, the city has laid off more than 100 members of the department—24 percent of the staff—since July 2008.
“Oakland parks, like the rest of America, are facing huge economic challenges,” said Kristine Shaff, an Oakland Public Works spokesperson. “Like state and federal parks, we’re having to do a lot more with a lot less. We have to work very carefully, with public safety being the number one concern and beautification down the list.”
This year’s cuts have translated into a 50 percent reduction in litter removal staff, 39 percent cuts in tree removal staff, and a 24 percent reduction in landscaping staff, according to the Public Works Department. Faced with these limitations, the department had to prioritize which parks should receive the most consistent maintenance, according to Zac Wald, chief of staff for North Oakland City Councilwoman Jane Brunner. The idea was to try to minimize disruptions in the city’s largest and most frequently used parks, like the Mosswood, Bushrod and Golden Gate parks in North Oakland.
“The three main criteria were if the park had been built in the last five years, if it’s a green space around city facilities like a library, or if it has sports fields, since those are major rental facilities we want to keep up,” Wald said.
The cuts have had the greatest impact on the 212 park locations that the city has designated for “no routine maintenance,” which means the areas are mowed every three weeks rather than weekly and that trash pickup has no set schedule. This designation applies to 13 smaller parks and 11 traffic medians in North Oakland’s City Council district.
Dover Street Park, where Heron volunteers, is one of the fortunate ones—it still receives services from the city, although these have been reduced. On a recent weekday, the lawn at the park emitted a fresh-cut smell, but several trimmings remained strewn on the sidewalk. Still, most litter had made its way to the trash cans, which were less than half-full.
Meanwhile, over at Grove-Shafter Park under the MacArthur Maze in North Oakland’s Longfellow neighborhood—one of the sites no longer receiving routine maintenance—wind buffeted discarded newspaper circulars and a small smashed bottle of Jack Daniels garlanded the entrance to the basketball courts.
“We lost some of the newest, most enthusiastic [Public Works] gardeners with the cuts in July,” said Susan Montauk, chair of the Oakland Parks Coalition (OPC), which organizes volunteer cleanup efforts in the parks. “There’s concern that the gardeners that remain are going to be stretched too thin. Even with all the no-routine-maintenance parks, there are many parks that need more attention than current staffing can give them.”
Carol Bieri, who lives down the street from Rockridge Park, a quarter-acre green space that stopped receiving routine maintenance from the city back in July, said the unkempt medians are a bigger problem than parks at this point.
“The biggest decline has been on the medians, like the one on 51st Street between Telegraph and Broadway. And the median down Broadway looks terrible. Those were looking pretty decent, but now everything’s looking dusty,” Bieri said.
With these concerns in mind, OPC volunteers like Bieri, Montauk and Heron are working to ensure that even if the grass is not greener in city parks during a recession, at least it will be mowed and weeded on a regular basis.
“OPC has close to 100 stewards across the city, many of whom have been working in their parks for a while,” Montauk said, explaining that stewards sign a pledge to help clean the parks in their area. “North Oakland has one of the strongest groups—there are 30 steward pledges in North Oakland. Practically every park has someone,” Montauk said.
The OPC has already organized clean-up efforts in recent weeks, including one last Saturday at the Rockridge-Temescal Greenbelt. Volunteers like Heron also conducted a survey of conditions at all Oakland parks as part of the city’s “Love Your Parks Day” on September 26. After surveying five North Oakland parks, Heron said even the spaces that receive regular maintenance are showing some signs of decline.
“Golden Gate Park [along San Pablo Avenue in North Oakland], for instance, has all kinds of great after-school, weekend activities and sports practice, but it doesn’t look as cheerful as it could because of the litter,” she said. “Picking up garbage makes a huge difference in the way people feel about a space.”
In recent months, Councilwoman Brunner’s office has begun working with the OPC to link new volunteers up with park projects. Both Wald and Montauk say North Oakland is better positioned than many other parts of the city to weather the cuts in park personnel.
“North Oakland is lucky in that most parks are already covered in some way,” Wald said. “There are a lot of volunteers already in North Oakland parks, so we have that advantage. But they need help.”
People looking to volunteer to help maintain North Oakland’s public parks can contact Councilwoman Jane Brunner’s office at (510) 238-7001 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about volunteer opportunities is also available at www.oaklandparkscoalition.org. To report a problem with an Oakland public park, call the Public Works Department at (510) 615-5566.
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