By Tricia Ornelas Watkins
Sitting on our front stoop in the afternoon, we watch packs of different faces shout their excitement in different languages while they all make their pilgrimage to the park. Some armed with soccer balls, others with shovels and buckets and others completely empty-handed. These children know that for the next few hours they will escape to their urban jungle gym.
I have joined the ranks with my 2-year-old son, opening my front gate to join the 4 p.m. rush hour traffic to the children’s park by Ted Williams Field. We count the frogs, we slide, we climb, we swing and for at least two hours every day we just play at the park—it is pure childhood bliss. I love the diversity of children who play at this park. In fact, its diversity is the reason we fell in love with North Park—besides, we’re just not the suburban type. We have woven ourselves into the intricately cultural fabric of North Park, which celebrates all people trying to carve a place for themselves in this urban environment.
It has been exciting to be a part of the revitalization of this community, to see people come together in a common interest and work together to make a beautiful home for everyone. Only in North Park can we walk to dinner, a park, the theater, and an art gallery! This is the place where I want to raise my son. These are the values I want to teach him. And the children’s park is where I take him to play.
However…and here is my grievance: this park is dirty, very dirty. In addition to sliding and climbing, we also pick up cigarette butts, candy wrappers, gum, alcohol bottles and a host of other items I try to throw away before my son finds them. While my son is a busy little guy (did I mention he is 2?) there is no reason that our children should have to play in trash. A child’s environment impacts them in ways we fail to realize. It is important that we give them a safe, clean place to play. In today’s world they need to learn as early as possible about their impact on the environment, and it begins by making a clean place familiar to them.
Five years ago, I watched as they revitalized the park. During construction they put a chain fence around the park, against which children’s faces pressed and fingers curled, anxiously awaiting the reopening of their park. These kids, our kids, deserve this park. It took over one million dollars and one year to make it beautiful, yet it can be trashed in days. After contacting the North Park Association, I found a very quick response from Omar Passons, who organized a clean-up on June 13th. This was be a great opportunity for North Parkers to come together and take ownership of their park. It should also be said that Debra Jones, the park’s area manager, is doing everything within her means, including daily maintenance of the park. She explained that the park is surrounded on all sides by residences, which contributes to its popularity and extensive use.
Regular clean-ups will surely provide a quick fix for this problem; however, I would also like to elicit conversation around a long-term solution. In an interesting article, “Broken Windows,” George Kelling and James Wilson offer a theory “that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” The idea behind their research and findings is that when graffiti, trash, and vandalism becomes a familiar sight, people who otherwise would not participate in said behavior will. Likewise, it follows that a well-kept environment encourages us to walk the extra steps to throw trash away in a trash can.
Of course the theory is complicated when looking at an area like North Park, where much gentrification has and continues to occur. Graffiti marks territory for many reasons. It lays claim to an area in danger of being taken away. In some cases, those doing the taking are those who can afford to buy and invest in the neighborhood. For the tagger, graffiti may then become a mark that she or he “was once here.” An underlying reason may be that one who is unable to “own” has no voice in our society, therefore lays claim to a sidewalk or the side of a building to rebel against the disparity between classes, a disparity that is magnified in areas experiencing gentrification.
One evening about five years ago, again sitting on my front stoop, I watched as a softball team exchanged words, and some fists, with a group of guys who claimed the Ted Williams field was “theirs.” Of course the team just wanted to play ball and to them this idea was ridiculous. But to the group laying claim to the field, their protest spoke to a much larger issue. Perhaps that field was once “theirs,” so to speak. And now it is not. Gentrification may work to “transform” a neighborhood’s character when what we really want to do is embrace that which makes North Park unique. Sensitivity to the many underlying issues of this change is imperative. When I look at our park by the water tower and see transients relaxing under the trees, I am faced with this same concern. While I can’t deny (and I have personally witnessed this) that drug use, sales and prostitution occur within this transient population, if we offer no alternative, how can we feel justified in running them off? I have heard many park-goers blame these transients for the filth at the park—which may be partially true, I don’t know—but asking them to leave with no alternative plan doesn’t seem right either. Lest we see the same thing happen as did in the Gaslamp where the entire homeless population was pushed to occupy Sixteenth Street. Do they no longer exist because they aren’t in plain view or block our entrance to sidewalk restaurants on Fifth Avenue?
So what is to be done about our little million-dollar park? Clean it up? Certainly. Maintain what we have spent our money renovating? Absolutely. See our community as something beautiful, unique, and diverse? Why not? The issue, and in many cases the irony, lies in the simple truth that we don’t want to “transform” North Park into something it is not. We all have lived here and have seen many changes. We loved what North Park was and we love what it is becoming. If we wanted mandated manicured lawns, we would live in Orange County. We love it here. We love the urban setting which allows us to be just close enough to the center of things. But we also want to feel safe, and we want our kids to play in clean parks.
Tricia Ornelas Watkins, a native San Diegan, is a resident and buisiness owner in North Park. She has an M.A. from NAU in Flagstaff and currently teaches Literature.