MODESTO — Fairview Park had suffered from gang problems, vandalism and the neglect that results from county budget cuts.
Now, a group of neighborhood residents is working to revitalize the south Modesto park, off West Whitmore and Tucson avenues, in a time of scarce public funding for efforts like this.
"We understand there are limited resources," said Manuel Rivera of Manos Unidas, a group working to change the narrative of the nearby community. "What we are willing to do is engage the community and talk about ways they can get involved with maintenance of the park."
With cuts to local government budgets, volunteers have stepped up to save other neglected parks in Modesto and rural areas of Stanislaus County. West Side farmers made more than $100,000 worth of improvements to Laird Park near Grayson. Playgrounds in Modesto's La Loma neighborhood were upgraded by an active group of residents.
Fairview Park is different, in that the south Modesto group has more energy than dollars for restoring the park. Residents brought rakes and weed trimmers to cleanup days last year. They prodded the county to start watering the grass again and to control squirrels that dug holes on the baseball field.
Unsafe for families
Twenty-four residents attended a county parks commission meeting held at Fairview Park in October, where two commissioners were appointed to help residents develop a sustainable plan.
Omar Herrera, a longtime resident, said he remembers people using the park for baseball and softball games in the 1990s. In time, vandalism, gang troubles and loitering convinced residents the place wasn't safe for families.
The restrooms have been torched more than once and county budget cuts meant the grass wasn't mowed. "Even during the daytime, people felt scared coming here," Herrera said.
County Supervisor Jim DeMartini said Fairview is the only public park serving the Bret Harte area, which stretches south from Hatch Road to Whitmore, west of Crows Landing Road. He said he believes the parkland was donated decades ago by a farmer who wanted to subdivide his property. The park was developed, but the homes never were built.
Rivera said that efforts by volunteers and the county are slowly bringing people back to the park. The group plans to reach out to business owners, schools and other organizations for support to start making key improvements.
Residents first want to level the baseball field which is riddled with squirrel holes and remove a fence so that kids can play soccer games. The county has agreed to install owl boxes to keep the squirrels from coming back. Rivera said that other needs are better lighting and measures for preventing vandalism.
"We are waiting to see what the community comes up with, then we will look at what we can do," said Jami Aggers, interim director of the county's environmental resources department. The county could seek grants for restoring the restrooms, but first wants to see more people using the park and less vandalism.
Creating a positive vibe
The residents should get expert advice from the park commissioners they are working with. Commissioner Chad Kennedy is a landscape architect and Adrienne Chaney is recreation and community services director for Patterson.
"It's neat to see a grassroots effort," Chaney said. "Both of us are working with them to help them pull off this project."
Volunteers with Manos Unidas have worked to create a positive vibe in the neighborhood by holding Family Fun Nights, neighborhood cleanups and a 5K Race-Walk for Peace. Herrera said the group could hold barbecues and a hoops tournament to raise funds for the park.
Fairview has a basketball court, tetherball poles, a picnic shelter and tables.
Resident Joe Borroel said practices for youth soccer teams are canceled for lack of facilities or are held at fields miles away. He hopes to see his two girls playing soccer with their teams at Fairview Park.
Soccer would bring more parents back to the park. Rivera said that adults who walk for exercise on the streets and canal banks could use the park if they felt safe.
"We want to focus on things going right," Rivera said. "When we work together, we can make things happen."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.