Oakland’s Fruitvale Neighborhood Transforms César Chávez Park
Oakland, CA, September 5, 2002 – Two years of work by local school children, residents, and the nonprofit Spanish Speaking Unity Council culminated today when volunteers installed a new sign marking the recently renamed César Chávez Park. The sign, created with 4-inch-square tiles hand-painted by students from nearby Dolores Huerta Learning Academy, embodied the sense of pride and ownership Fruitvale residents have found in their park, which until recently suffered from gang activity and under-use.
César Chávez Park, a small neighborhood green space that measures about 2 acres, received its new name–honoring the legendary union leader–through the tireless efforts of the Youth Advocates for Fruitvale Parks and Open Spaces. The Advocates, advised by two AmeriCorps members working at the Unity Council, had set out in early 2002 to learn about the civic process to officially rename a park in the City of Oakland.
“The feeling here was, ‘Hey, this may not be a wonderfully brand-new park, but it sits right in the heart of our community and we use it.'”
They researched the process in their civics classes, and interviewed Parks Department staff and a Parks Commissioner. Their efforts yielded over 800 petition signatures and 14 letters of support from local businesses, church and neighborhood groups, Oakland’s Superintendent of Schools, and the City Councilman for the Fruitvale district. Once they gathered support, the Youth Advocates made their case through presentations to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission, the City Council’s Rules Committee, and finally to the full City Council.
One Parks Department staff member felt the park was too small to take on César Chávez’s name, but Fruitvale residents thought otherwise. Unity Council Program Manager Rita Torres-Gonzalez explains: “The feeling here was, ‘Hey, this may not be a gleaming Lake Merritt or a wonderfully brand-new park, but it sits right in the heart of our community and we use it. We are proud of this man, and he means a lot to us, so why is this park not worthy? It’s more than worthy!'”
The Youth Advocates achieved their goal on May 28, 2002, when the City Council unanimously approved renaming Foothill Meadows Park as César Chávez Park.
While the Youth Advocates were learning the ins and outs of city government, other young people from Dolores Huerta Learning Academy worked with a local artist to design the new sign for the park. It was installed by the Youth Advocates and adult volunteers, and a community celebration is planned for September 28.
The process of reclaiming César Chávez Park began in the summer of 2001, when it was still known as Foothill Meadows Park. Students and residents of the Fruitvale community participated in beautifying a large, 40-foot wide planter box at the park’s entrance with hand-painted tiles depicting the life and values of César Chávez. The project was one of five that were funded through a Unity Council grant from the California Governor’s Office of Service and Volunteerism for the César Chávez Day of Service and Learning.
The beautification project also tied into local classrooms at Hawthorne Elementary School and the Fremont High School Media Academy. The Unity Council commissioned a local artist to visit classes to discuss the values of César Chávez and help students understand how the project would help improve the community. Teachers at the elementary school helped their students draw designs for the tiles that were later painted by the high school students with artist and staff guidance. Over 2,500 tiles now cover the planter, an achievement celebrated in the park on September 15, 2001. The new planter has engendered a strong sense of pride of place and accomplishment in the students and their families.
“After the tiles were put in it was amazing to see how more families were coming,” said Torres-Gonzalez. “The kids were using the play structure, the older kids were playing basketball, and people would stop and look [at the tiles] and say, ‘I did that,’ or, ‘My cousin did that one.’ You can literally spend hours just walking around this planter and looking at the wonderful art.”
The success of the planter project led to a collaboration between the Unity Council and the City of Oakland’s Environmental Services Division to restore a portion of the Peralta Creek that runs through César Chávez Park. Poor site design around the creek made it a site for drug use and other undesirable activities, and it became a major source of concern to local residents. As part of the Peralta Creek restoration, the Unity Council has held two major community meetings to educate residents about the project and collect input and ideas for the changes that will be implemented.
The transformation of César Chávez Park has triggered an infectious sense of pride in Fruitvale residents – and ideas for the park keep on coming.
The meetings reinforced the growing sense of ownership residents felt towards the park. “A lot of the people in the neighborhood have come to be a part of the meetings, to have a say-so in what’s going to happen, and to learn about how it will affect them,” said Torres-Gonzalez.
Construction for the creek restoration project is scheduled to be completed by October 2003, and the Unity Council will work with community groups to maintain a presence in the park through quarterly events such as festivals and art activities.
The transformation of César Chávez Park has triggered an infectious sense of pride in Fruitvale residents – and ideas for the park keep on coming. After the sign was raised, a group of students noted the ten benches in the park and the ten teachings and values of César Chávez: “Maybe we can do that as a project! We’ll fix up the benches for next year!”