Lots of Great Ideas for South City Park – But First …

Last night I joined about 60 other people who attended a public community meeting at Redding City Hall hosted by the City of Redding Community Services department. The purpose was to discuss ways to “reinvigorate” Redding’s South City Park.

I realize that the latest trend when discussing Redding is to not point out our scars, because any fool can point out scars, and that trend is to think positive, to look on the bright side, have a can-do attitude about our city and have hiiiiigh hopes, no matter what.

I get it. But we’re talking about South City Park. Anyone who’s lived in Redding for more than a week knows that if you play the word-association game and ask for the first words that come to mind when South City Park is mentioned, that words like “homeless” and “scary” and “unsafe” and “drugs” and “violence” will be among the responses.

Unfortunately, there’s truth behind those words. And damn, I get tired of sounding like Doni Downer, but the truth is –  like it or not –  South City Park, in its current state, is one massive, ugly scar. No amount of lipstick or concealer will change that present reality.

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South City Park photo source: City of Redding website.

But beneath that scar lies untapped potential galore. And I suppose that was the point of the meeting facilitated by Kim Niemer, Director of Community Services, and Mel Freilich, an architect from Nichols, Melburg & Rossetto (the later of whom caused me to wonder if NM&R already has some plans in mind for our pitiful park).

The meeting was  held at 5:30 p.m. Pizza and water were thoughtfully provided for those who’d just come from work. Residents were encouraged to bring their ideas “as we work together towards a solution”.

Be part of the solution. Bring your ideas, energy and talents. 

Niemer began the meeting by clarifying that despite how some media had mischaracterized the meeting as being about the homeless in the park, the focus would not be about homelessness, but rather, to develop a list of activities for South City Park for further consideration.

I confess, my first thought when I saw the original email about the South City Park Re-boot meeting, was to wonder if the South City Park Re-boot included first booting out the street people who’ve claimed the park in increasingly high numbers to the point where no sane family would bring children there. How crappy is that park? That park is so crappy that if someone said they’d dropped children off there to play, CPS would probably be called in to investigate a possible child-endangerment situation.

It turns out that although the city hasn’t figured out where to house our homeless, it has decided that South City Park will no longer be that place. Its solution to reclaiming South City Park is to erect a fence around its primary perimeter. This may end up being effective to keeping street people from continuing to treat the park as their collective de facto bedroom and bathroom, but it just means those people will be squeezed out elsewhere in town. Fencing off areas, whether it’s Library Park or the post office stairwells or around so many businesses, is a desperate act by desperate citizens in a desperate city at the end of its rope. The upcoming fence around South City Park reminds me of walking through a smoke-choked casino to reach the casino’s non-smoking section. The barrier’s there – sort of. But either way, the smoke’s still there. I see it. I breathe it. My clothes stink like it.

South City Park fencing plan.

Back to the meeting, where the walls displayed large pieces of paper covered with images and descriptions. People were given stickers to place on the ideas that most appealed to them. 

But first, there were a few speakers, starting with  former Redding Mayor Rick Bosetti, who’s also the general manager of the Colt 45s, never one to candy-coat an issue, even if the meeting’s goal was to accentuate the positive.

“We just want to see people using it,” Bosetti said of South City Park. By “people” Bosetti did not mean those park regulars he described as “smoking crack, shooting up, living in tents, selling drugs and participating in the world’s oldest profession.”

That last part got a chuckle.

Bosetti said that last year the Colt 45s saw their attendance numbers drop because of the public’s fear of venturing into the park. Plus, he said the transient numbers in the park increased.

He was pleased to report that the fencing and gates would ensure that those areas would only be accessible to the public during events.

“We want to provide a place to do cool stuff and have fun,” he said.

That — do cool stuff and have fun — seemed to sum up everyone’s goal for South City Park, including representatives from Sons of Italy. They spoke of wanting a place in South City Park so the organization could expand their Paesano Days and have a designated area for bocce ball, and how they looked forward to the installed fencing too, because last year they had to hire 24-hour security  to protect their belongings during those weekend activities, a big strain for a small non-profit. And speaking of security, another Sons of Italy member mentioned that in previous years they had trouble getting vendors to commit to coming to South City Park for Paesano Days. Why? “Because they were afraid.”

Oh, that again.

Someone from the tennis community was there, too, saying that they’d like to grow tennis in Redding, and South City Park would be ideal to have 12 courts for not just tennis, but pickleball and basketball. He envisioned a small clubhouse with a full-time tennis pro, too.

How cool would that be? Very.

Next came the folks from Shasta Dogs, who said that South City Park would be a great location for all kinds of canine activities, like fly ball and agility training and rallies and even dock diving.

After that a man spoke up about the need for more gymnasiums and multi-use recreation spaces for youth, something he said was a “dire need” in Redding.

So many great suggestions. So much potential for South City Park.

The audience was asked to talk among themselves in groups and discuss other ideas, which they did. One woman, who asked that I just use her first name – Barbara –  said she and her husband retired here two years ago, because her husband loves to fish. She said there’s a lot she likes about Redding, but a lot she doesn’t.

“I love the library,” she said. “But I don’t like to go there because there are so many homeless. It doesn’t feel safe.”

Barbara said she was inspired to attend the meeting because she was excited by the possibilities at the park, things like festivals.

“But I want to be able to go to the park and not feel afraid.”

From the audience Barbara asked Niemer to identify the big empty “brown spot” on the map, and Niemer replied that it used to be a children’s play area, but it’s since been removed.

I remember that play area well, and didn’t even know it was gone. How could I? I don’t recall the last time I ventured more than a few feet inside the park, and that was to interview some homeless people for a story.

But I remember a different South City Park, the one of my childhood — and to some degree, my children’s childhood — where the park belonged to everyone, especially families, and it felt safe. When I was a kid, there was even a small swimming pool there, and swings and all kinds of playground equipment. From my child’s perspective, that was a very cool park, right in the middle of town.

Last night’s community meeting included some families, some of whom brought children who participated. One little girl with a long French braid stood on tip toe to reach the paper and write her wishes for South City Park. Of all the ideas proposed that evening, hers was probably the most simple, but most important.

Silly wabbit. Parks are for kids.

“I want a new playground a big one with slides, swings and other fun things …” she wrote.

And that’s exactly what we should give her, and all Redding’s children.

But first, we need to find humane solutions for those troubled souls who’ve claimed South City Park as their home all these years, people we’re evicting from that space. Yes, a fence may shut them out, but they’ll still be here; somewhere.

Maybe that’s another community meeting for another day. Skip the water and pizza. Bring booze, chocolate and lots of scratch paper.

In the meantime, for those who missed the meeting, in your dreams, how do you imagine South City Park?

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Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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