Finding a Place to Park

39th Street Park

The character of a neighborhood is found in its parks. For more than ten years my family and I have been getting fresh air and exercise at three parks that lie within a mile of our house: 39th Street Park, Kensington Park and Trolley Barn Park. 

 My neighborhood is Normal Heights. It got its name for it’s proximity to San Diego State, which was a teachers’ college or “normal school” back in the old days. Since then San Diego State has moved elsewhere and Normal Heights has become a racially mixed inner-city neighborhood. Its main street is Adams Avenue, which divides the district along economic lines. North of Adams is the better side of the tracks, moneywise.

Thirty-ninth Street Park didn’t exist when we moved here. It was a bare field where road-building crews parked their trucks and bulldozers. Interstate 15 passes less than a half-mile from my house and it stretches from the Canadian to the Mexican border. But somehow it took until 2001 to fill in a two-mile gap in the freeway right in the middle of San Diego. 

When the state finally filled the I-15 gap it agreed to build three parks along the new stretch of freeway. One of them was 39th Street Park. My kids still call it the new park.

Go to 39th Street Park as the sun is going down and you’ll see lots of families of different colors. This is an immigrant park. You’re as likely to hear Spanish there as English. Arabic and Somali are commonly spoken. The blacks play basketball and the Mexicans play soccer. Families rope off the cement tables near the playground when they want to reserve space for a gathering. You can tell the difference between the African families and the African-American ones by the absence of men in the latter group.

Just on the other side of the freeway is Kensington and it’s a different world. The mayor lives there. So do lots of other high-income white folks. Kensington Park is tiny… two patches of green on either side of a small library. One patch has grown a small crop of play equipment. In the late afternoon moms and dads, still well-dressed from work, push their kids in swings and chat with each other. During the day, toddlers go there with their Mexican nannies.

Trolley Barn Park is about a mile west of my house where you cross over into University Heights. This used to be home to an actual trolley barn before the automobile pushed trolleys to the margin of urban American transportation. Today, Trolley Barn Park is a place where lots of people let their dogs off leash (illegally). The park is mostly white and partly gay. It’s popular with the yuppie crowd. During the summer they have concerts there on Friday evenings.

Parks are places where community takes place. They are backyards for people who don’t have their own. You hope they are bustling and safe, and in my neighborhood they are. When my kids are adults and think about where they grew up, I think they’ll see the park.

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2 Comments on “Finding a Place to Park”

  1. Tom,
    Great essay! Jerral had great comments as well. Our urban outdoor spaces truly are the heart of any community and a window to a community’s soul. I am saddened by the fact that our State and City leadership does not to “get it”. I believe that these spaces, these places, these parks, these plazas are a barometer to the health of a community. With your new focus (KPBS) on health issues, there are countless studies being done on the relationship of the the physical environment to our overall mental and physical health. Thanks for “getting it”.

  2. Jerral Miles Says:

    Perhaps because my wife and I have made the retirement move to an apartment, your essay on Parks as public backyards touches me. It also moves my thinking to the possibility that public places that cost tax money to maintain may become relics if the trend to cut taxes in California continues. I wish everyone in California would read your essay and come to an “aha!” moment… seeing that what we get for our tax money is actually pretty amazing. Thanks, Tom.

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