Taking Back Saint James Park

I recently left a meeting that was hosted by Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) at the Silicon Valley Athletic Club, when a group of downtown residents and I overheard a little girl crying because her mother would not let her play at the playgrounds at Saint James Park (SJP). Her mother was overheard saying, “It’s just too unsafe for us to play here.” I was saddened and disappointed that our residents are unable to enjoy the park due to safety issues. Unlike the glory days of almost a century ago, when presidents and unions held massive rallies in the square, neighbors and downtown workers now describe the park as an unfortunate eyesore.

In 2002, the SJP Master Plan was put on hold as a result of the ongoing budget cuts. Those cuts have decimated our parks department. SJP is not only a place where drug dealers congregate, but it is also home to a large homeless population. Just recently, our police department had to move out a homeless man who was living in a cardboard hut at SJP. These people spend their entire days in the park, and, unfortunately, they leave it full it full of litter and unappealing. 

Councilmember Sam Liccardo’s office and the county have launched a pilot program to get the homeless in the park into transitional housing and drug rehab—help that our homeless communities so desperately need. Councilmember Liccardo’s office is working with our law enforcement agencies to impose “stay away” orders for folks arrested in the park on drug or prostitution charges, especially those on probation.

Additionally, the San Jose Police Department and county Sheriff’s Office have increased patrols at the park. It is definitely progress but politicos and law enforcement cannot do it alone. Fellow St. James neighborhood leader Frank Penrose continues to believe that taking back the park should be a collaborative effort. Organizing long-term goals instead of short-term solutions will help our residents take back the park.

All across America this past weekend, we had the Great American Litter Pickup. Downtown’s District 3 residents could chose from four different sites. About 15 of us chose the Saint James Park location, and we collected and cleared over 30 bags of trash just at SJP.

An event like this is just one of many ways our residents can take back SJP. Frank Penrose helped create the Saint James Historic District Neighborhood Association (SJHDNA) back in the mid 2000s, and he was instrumental in organizing his residents to be more proactive with issues and concerns specific to SJP. SJHDNA would host movies in the park with the help of the San Jose Downtown Association, bi-weekly litter days and other types of events that engaged our residents and sustained SJP.

In fact, the American Planning Association’s main key on revitalizing a problematic park like SJP is through the collaboration of community members, nonprofits and local agencies. The renewal of Central Park in New York, Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and Riverfront Park in Salem, Ore., are excellent examples of urban parks revitalized because of public-private partnerships. (Worth noting, Frederick Law Olmsted, landscape architect New York City’s Central Park, also designed SJP.) Proactive agencies and proactive neighbors must continue to work together to offer measureable and successful long-term solutions for SJP.

The City, county and VTA have taken steps to begin that process, and it is time for our nonprofits, local businesses and neighbors to begin to do so as well. The city’s contract with Groundwerx only pays for cleanup around SJP and not inside the park, where it’s most needed. Groundwerx should help our already cash-strapped parks department aggressively maintain SJP.

SJP has all the amenities to be a premiere park for the city again. It takes up six city blocks, has plenty of trees and shade, benches for picnics, a recently installed playground and open space for pickup games of soccer or football. But most importantly, our downtown residents want to utilize this great open space. The type of community events a neighborhood can experience here are endless. A revitalized park will lead to a revitalized neighborhood, and a revitalized neighborhood will only revitalize our greater downtown community, especially our small businesses. 

Omar Torres continues to reside in the Washington community in the greater downtown San Jose area. He has served on the Santa Clara County Democratic Central Committee since 2007 and was recently re-elected to a fourth term in 2012. He also serves on the executive board of the California Democratic Party, elected by voters of the 27th State Assembly District. Upon graduating from San Jose State University, he was hired to be the executive director of the Santa Maria Urban Ministry. He continues to be involved with the Guadalupe Washington Neighborhood Association.


  1. Yes, SJP can certainly be more than what it is. Please email me at [email protected] and I will reply with what the St. James Park Neighborhood Association and other local associations and groups are doing to restore and preserve the park. Thanks for writing a timely article.

  2. Another thing about being in the park is one has to be concerned with stepping on used needles. Who would want to go to a park that is “dirty”? The drug use is done out in the open and deals can be heard being made like they aren’t afraid of anyone knowing what they are doing. At one time, I use to use that lightrail station going home. I have heard and seen a lot of things over those years.

  3. Interesting wrote, “The drug use is done out in the open and deals can be heard being made like they aren’t afraid of anyone knowing what they are doing.”

    You’re obviously mistaken because the park is clearly signed as a “drug free zone.” No way would anyone disobey such a rule.

  4. Those pesky homeless people, always trying to enjoy public parks!  Why can’t they go someplace where no one has to see them? 

    The only thing preventing community events from being held at Saint James Park is people’s phobia of homeless people.  They are our neighbors too..

  5. The issues surrounding St. James Park and, indeed, homelessness in general, are far more complex than are being addressed here. Broadly, there are three kind of homeless with which any city deals.

    1. There are the recidivist substance abusers. Mostly, the substance in question is alcohol, but other drugs such as meth, crack and heroine also play a part. More often than not, these folks have no interest in sobriety and have walked away from any supportive relationships which might have helped them get sober. At times they may have participated in some kind of treatment program, but dropped out or started using again. Right now, their primary interest is getting more substance of choice by whatever means they can.

    2. Mental illness plays a huge part as well. Often people on the street suffer bipolar disorder and/or schizophrenia.

    3. There are also the ‘social rejects’ for lack of a better term. These are the ones who are anti-authority, anti-society, anti-community, except with others who have the same set of views. These are the ones who just don’t want to have a job like ‘normal people’ or pay taxes, etc.

    4. Then there are the legitimately jobless. These are the ones who are out of work for one reason or another and who have suffered most because of the bad economy. Sometimes they have family. Sometimes not. Many times, they are just too far away from genuine support structure or what support structure they may once have had is in just as bad a place as they are.

    Many times there’s overlap. For instance, the second type often are drug users, self medicating because the don’t like the side effects of prescribed pharmaceuticals. Other times, the social rejects are also chronic drug users. Many times, too, they are also mentally ill, to a degree, but make a conscious choice to reject ‘society’. And sometimes the genuinely jobless are there because of drug use or mental illness. Also, because of how narcotics affect the brain, chronic drug users often present as though they were mentally ill (and, indeed have made themselves thus) but don’t respond to meds the same as someone who was born or became mentally ill without drugs.

    Bottom line is this: the only ones I feel bad for are the genuinely mentally ill or out of work through no real fault of their own. They’re the ones who genuinely deserve or need help. In the case of the fomer, although it’s not PC, the best thing to do for them is put them in an institution. There’s better oversight, better meds, and better understanding of the patholgies involved. In fact, getting the mentally ill almost entirely out of residential care facilities and into institutions would also be a lot more humane. Frankly, almost without exception, the residential care facilities have been, maybe one notch up from living on the street. Yeah. they suck that bad.

    For the rest, there’s the public health issue. We as a society certainly don’t owe them anything, and they are certainly not entitled to turn wherever they’ve chose to set up camp into the kinds of festering cesspools I’ve seen in parks, along creeks or under overpasses. All too often, the narrative when it comes to such things is that they’re entitled to live somewhere, so why not the park. Well, living somewhere – as opposed to out in the middle of nowhere, which is where vagrants USED to live – is a privilege, one which comes with some responsibilities. If a person chooses – as all too many homeless do – to abdicate the responsibilities of living in a community, then they’re certainly not entitled to any of the privileges that go along with living in a community, privileges such as access to parks, potable water, good food, etc.

    I’ve seen how they live in those homeless encampments. All too often you need a hazmat suit to safely deal with the campsites and, even the homeless themselves, who often are so covered in vermin, filth and offal, that they, literally, are untouchable.

    For the seriously mentally ill and the substance abusers, put them in institutions. Give them the bare essentials: shelter, food, water, basic medical and dental care and access to a library and an exercise area (sounds a lot like Agnews, right?). The ones who stabilize or get sober and are still mentally competent could be released back to the community, but this will happen far less frequently than not.

    For the ones who are able-bodied, but just out of work, get them into a shelter, with the condition that they work for their shelter and food somehow. Public assistance is a privilege and a gift (albeit, often, a reluctant one). That privilege should be earned.

    For the rest: they are violating so many statutes and public health codes that they can and should be prosecuted and incarcerated. The issue of what to do with their property ought not really be an issue at all. 99% of the time, it’s so contaminated and infested it should be handled by people in hazmat suits, placed into hazmat bags and incinerated like medical waste. Really. It’s that awful and unsafe.

  6. “99% of the time, it’s so contaminated and infested it should be handled by people in hazmat suits, placed into hazmat bags and incinerated like medical waste. Really. It’s that awful and unsafe.”

    This is so true and you have volunteers going out and cleaning up these camps, unprotected. When/if they become ill, they probably do not have any idea why. They are breathing in all of this contamination when the stir up the area during the clean up and they don’t even realize it.

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