Friday, November 16, 2007

Sunnyside Park Reborn

Tomorrow is the ribbon-cutting ceremony for our newly renovated neighborhood park, Sunnyside Park. Things were a little tense around there when I stopped by this afternoon to check out the progress. An authoritative lady stepped toward me as I took a picture and said, "Uh, this is a construction site." Down by the entrance, one of the gardeners was fretting because it was four o'clock and she still had about 20 plants to get in the ground.
As I walked past the park, I ran into a woman from my yoga class pushing her toddler in a stroller. She was very excited about the opening of the new playground tomorrow. "We've been waiting so long for it!" she said.
"Well, I'll tell you something. My son is almost fifteen, and he was three when we started the process to get a new playground," I told her. "So I've been waiting a long time for this, too." This was one of those rare times when what I said actually caused someone's jaw to drop.
"My god," she said. "I can't believe the wheels turn so slowly."
I explained that the slow wheels were actually the neighbors, who couldn't agree on whether the park should be renovated. What kind of misanthropes wouldn't want to build a new children's playground? The issue was over where the new playground would be located, since the old one was not visible from the street and difficult to access in a wheelchair. (It also was furnished with the most deprived, toxic, dangerous play equipment you could imagine; even my own children spurned it.) The logical place for the new play area was on the neglected sloping grass field, too small for ball sports, with a sweeping view south to San Bruno Mountain. This was also the unofficial neighborhood dog owners' gathering spot, and a convenient place for their dogs to run off-leash.
For a brief time I served on a committee, the purpose of which was to try to create common ground between people who wanted to see the park renovated and people who wanted to maintain some kind of place for dogs to roam. When we started, I naively thought that it would be possible to come to some compromises, but I quickly learned the first lesson of San Francisco politics: stake out your position on the extreme, and kick and scream your way every inch toward the center. Our committe became polarized, dog feces were smeared on cars, and I quit in disgust soon afterward.
I think what saved the park and enabled the neighborhood to carve out some kind of plan--a prerequisite for city funding--were ADA requirements and one leading neighbor with both a child and a dog who could talk to both sides. The new playground just couldn't be built in the old spot without adequate wheelchair access, and regrading the slope was way out of range of the budget. And there were other neighbors, both dog- and childless, who realized park vandalism would decrease if there were more people using it, and property values would go up if the park was renovated and maintained.
Of course, there were the inevitable delays in appropriations to fund the project, but once our supervisor got behind it, it was clear it was going to happen. I'm just happy that now the families with young children have a gathering place in the neighborhood, and a safe and beautiful playground. Sure, there will still be problems from those dog owners who insist on running their dogs off-leash when children are around (and I know it's not all of them). But the park looks fantastic and I think it will create a greater sense of community in our neighborhood.

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