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.