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South Park, Santa Rosa?s vibrant, ever-changing corner


I have it on good authority that when the ride-by shooting occurred last Tuesday at Martin Luther King Jr. Park, the police converging in squad cars found that flying bullets from a gun-toting cyclist did not stop the soccer game in progress.

Nor did it deter the spectators. The crowd did not disperse, neither did it gather to bear witness. No one came running to tell the officers what they had seen. The dent in a parked truck, made by a bullet, was pointed out by the truck?s owner and, with something like a collective shrug of the shoulders, life in South Park went on.

If it wasn?t that people who have lived their lifetimes in that corner of Santa Rosa insist that things are better than they used to be, it might seem that South Park is still a problem to be solved.

Historically, it?s always been the first stop for immigrants. Our Ellis Island, someone has suggested. Or, as others have said in Monopoly board terms, our Mediterranean and Baltic. The low-rent district ? from day one.

And, you know, for a nation that takes such pride in being a melting pot, that savors its stories of the ?immigrant experience,? Americans have not always made things easy for newcomers, relegating them to the far corners of our towns and cities ? out of sight, out of mind, the saying goes.

For all the glorious promises of the Statue of Liberty, each immigrant group, finding its way out of these corners and into the mainstream, has shown little sympathy for the next in line.

JESSE LOVE, who has lived on Grand Avenue for 40 years, observes that he has noted ?several changes? and that ?it is quieter now, although some terrible things have happened.? He is alluding to the murder in April of a young Grand Avenue neighbor, Luis Sanchez, shot in the street in front of his home.

Love is a retired county employee who was among the first of a post-World War II group of Southern blacks to find Sonoma County and establish a small but determined black presence around the Community Baptist Church in South Park. He has seen the infrastructure improve, with wider streets and curbs and gutters to replace the drainage ditches. He has seen old houses repaired and remodeled. And he has seen a change in demographics. Change is the name of South Park?s story.

THE FIRST RESIDENTS of South Park were lured to their new homes with a promise of ham sandwiches, watermelon and claret wine.

That was 123 years ago, when land auctions were common in small cities bordering San Francisco Bay and the prospect of a free lunch was the 1880s version of the glamorous resort weekends offered to prospective time-share buyers in today?s real estate trade.

The neighborhood that began as the South Park Addition was typical of the times. In September 1887 its 131 acres, 30 blocks (bordered on today?s maps by Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa Avenue, the fairgrounds and Aston Avenue) were divided into some 200 lots and offered at auction to the passengers on a special train from San Francisco. The sale was, according to the Sonoma Democrat, ?a success in every particular and has been the means of adding to Santa Rosa?s prominence as a booming city.?

There were 195 lots sold that day, at an average price of $165. By the time the official map was filed with the county in 1889, some houses had been built and South Park School was open.

There was, however, no talk of booms five years later when local real estate agents were buying up the lots for back taxes ? $2.70 for one, $3.20 for another. None more than $5. Nor did Santa Rosa?s enthusiasm endure. It would be 85 long years before South Park, designed as an ?addition? to the city, would be allowed inside its limits.

Land prices were well suited to the European immigrants who were arriving in substantial numbers by the turn of the century, most working at low-paying jobs and without either language skills or credit references.

People who grew up in South Park in the early 20th century had fond memories of their colorful and even exotic neighborhood. There were probably more Italians than any other nationality but there also were German families, an Englishman with an appropriate accent, an old black man, Jimmy Carter, who lived alone and had a shoeshine stand in a downtown hotel. There were Portuguese women from the Azores who carried baskets on their heads, several Russian families, one of whom opened the first grocery store there, and an Indian named Andy who told bear-hunting stories.

The one electric street light at DeTurk and Ware streets was the gathering place for the children, who played games there long into the summer nights.

There was no rush to annex to Santa Rosa. The tax base was too low to attract city interest and the residents had no interest in paying city taxes. The lack of services was not deemed a problem.

NEXT TO COME were the blacks, building their church, its social hall; founding a chapter of the NAACP, educating Santa Rosans on the meaning of civil rights. But being regarded as the ?black neighborhood? (although they were still and always a minority) had its problems.

The Rev. James Coffee, pastor of the Community Baptist Church, lived through some of the worst days there, but admits he has missed the place since his congregation moved to Sonoma Avenue. ?Definitely, we loved it there,? he said, adding that Community Baptist still has a presence in the neighborhood. The congregation owns a city block of land, Coffee said, which it donates as a community garden. ?It?s been a real blessing,? he said. ?Each person gets a plot to grow vegetables. In the last week of September we have a festival, with all the food cooked from what?s grown in those gardens.?

The Rev. Coffee?s former church, rebuilt after an arson fire, now houses a predominately white congregation as the Landmark Baptist Church. The social hall is the meeting place for ?Iglesias Apostolica,? an Hispanic congregation.

Jesse Love?s black neighbors who defined South Park from the 1950s through the ?80s, have yielded to Hispanics, proving that South Park?s appeal as the first home for newcomers holds true.

?There?s not many of us here anymore,? Love says of his black neighbors. ?They moved away, or died? ? and their children choose to live in other parts of town.

Census figures show the Hispanic population of the area continues to grow. In the 1990s, the neighborhood was 51 percent white, 21 percent Hispanic and 17 percent black. In 2000, the figures were 26 percent white, 64 percent Hispanic and 4 percent black.

City Councilman Ernesto Olivares keeps track of such statistics. As a former head of the Police Department?s anti-gang program, he knows the territory and he is positive about South Park today.

?If you go back in history, we?ve had a lot more problems in South Park than we do today,? he said. ?Yeah, there?s a gang problem, but it isn?t localized in the areas we used to consider trouble spots, like South Park, Apple Valley and the Roseland.?

Olivares knows that these aren?t the gangs from ?West Side Story,? meeting to rumble under the freeway. They are mobile. They have guns and fast cars and they are equal-opportunity terrorists ? white, Asian, black and Hispanic.

?The whole town is their playground,? Olivares says, indicating that the violence in South Park isn?t a neighborhood thing. Example: The suspect in the murder of Luis Sanchez lives in Lake County.

This would be a factor, along with a familiarity with violence that has made it seem commonplace, in the police statistic that shows just 2 percent of the city police calls come from this area.

Despite the perceived ?commonplace? attitude of the soccer crowd at MLK Jr. Park last week, the residents are definitely engaged, Olivares said. They have a new approach to old problems ? strengthening community responses, holding community action partnership meetings, taking ownership of the gang threat and other issues.

Councilman Olivares heralded the return of the ?beat cops? under new police chief Tom Schwedhelm as an opportunity for even more interaction.

Looking back through a dozen decades and the dozen or so ethnicities that have called South Park home, one can?t help but wonder who comes next. Or, with the increasing color blindness of succeeding generations, whether, at last, it won?t matter.