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Gaye LeBaron: What history can tell us about the future of Doyle Park

Two creeks merge at the west end of Doyle Park. Spring Creek, the smaller one, flows into Matanzas Creek. Their diverging paths form the borders, the natural boundaries of what is arguably Santa Rosa's most historic park.

Matanzas is the Spanish word for “slaughters.” The way the story has come down, this oak-studded glade was named because those creeks - both flowing wider and deeper in all seasons 200 years ago - created a natural corral where the little long-horned Mexican cattle were driven to be slaughtered for the hides and tallow that were the financial base of the California rancheros.

Matanzas Creek marks the southern boundary of Doyle Park, which was established a century later. It was a gift to the city in 1923, from civic leader Frank Doyle in honor of his only child, son Frankie, who died at age 13. As Santa Rosa's city limits grew around it, it would become the pride of a new park and recreation system.

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THE SHADED GLADE was regarded as a special place long before it became a park. Known as Hoen's Island, for the pioneer family that owned it (and much of the eastern edge of town) it was a favorite picnic spot and playing field and a go-to destination for artists and naturalists. Painter Elizabeth Hoen was among several who gave art lessons there in the early 1900s.

Luther Burbank, we have been told, liked to walk there (undoubtedly greeting every tree and shrub with great respect and by their proper names). In 1926, it was chosen for his funeral service. The newspapers reported that more than 5,000 people packed the new park to bid farewell to their “Plant Wizard.”

Hoen and her art students and Burbank and Doyle weren't the only ones who appreciated this island of early morning calm. Hoen's Island offered solitary walkers passage under and among the oaks to “visit” with wild ducks and geese and egrets and small birds, squirrels everywhere you looked and more-than-occasional deer.

In 1920 Santa Rosa had but three tiny parks - the ½-acre Library Park at Fourth and E streets, the ¾-acre open space between Orange and Olive streets known as South Side Park and the narrow strip owned by Northwestern Pacific Railroad at the depot where Fourth Street ends.

Doyle's generous gift led to the creation of the Santa Rosa Playground Association, which he chaired. It would become, as more parks were added (Fremont in '29, Juilliard in'31, DeMeo soon after), the city's first Park Commission.

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THE NEW PARK attracted even rural neighbors, charmed by its shaded beauty. It was a tiny Golden Gate kind of park, handy and comfortable for Santa Rosans and also favored by people from the county's small towns and farms for family reunions, school picnics and as a quiet stop for coastal ranch families on school-shopping expeditions.

Mr. Benincasa's ice cream truck may have been one of the reasons. Feliziano Benincasa made regular passes through the town's neighborhoods but in between, his little white truck could usually be found in Doyle Park.

There are grown men in their 70s and beyond who still get misty-eyed about Mr. Benincasa and will swear that no Eskimo Pie has ever tasted so good as those he peddled in the park on summer days

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FROM THE 1970s, when Santa Rosa's population exploded, Doyle “regulars” came in layers: early morning aluminum hunters who scavenged the trash cans before the maintenance staff arrived; on-the- way-somewhere cyclists with amazingly compact gear in their packs cooking breakfast at one of the park barbecues; the fitness crowd of runners, fast walkers and joggers, exchanging waves and “good mornings,” or stopping for a word or two with a dog-walking neighbor. (Not the runners. Runners don't stop.)

By late morning it was the place for small children rolling on the grass, climbing up the slide and pushing empty swings while mothers, some minding babies, watched and waved.

The after-school rush brought the grammar school kids on their stubby BMX bikes, making their own jumps and trails along the creek banks or, as parents wouldn't hear about for another 20 ?years, riding “moto-cross” down the playground slides - a do-it-yourself gymkhana.

Then the late afternoon volleyball players arrived, stretched a net between oaks on the lawn and seemed to have a lot more fun than the after-work beer drinkers around the picnic tables.

Weekends still belonged to families. Patient fathers taught the basics of soccer to 5-year-olds on the big lawn while the Saturday morning Tai Chi class lined up in the smallest, shadiest parking lot.

This was Doyle Park's role in the last decades of the last century, growing perhaps a bit more sinister by some measures and, as the police might tell you, making room for the more-than-occasional drug deal.

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THAT WAS THEN. This is now – the last day of May, the end of a spring like no other, in a year that awaits judgment.

Mind you, Doyle still is the sheltered place, the glade between the creeks that drew people for hundreds of years. But for the last 20 years or so, kids don't go alone to that park anymore.

In what we can now regard as the pre-COVID period, “Hoen's Island” was still filled with walkers and cyclists, morning and evening. And the addition of a dog park brought “regulars” who meet often and visit, just like folks in the “olden days.”

The east side, an early addition to the original park, has a parking lot big enough for a small mall. This is the “let's get down to serious leisure” end of the park. There's a clubhouse facing Hoen Avenue that has through the years been home to everything from nursery schools to Scout troops - both boys and girls - and day camps to small church services to AA meetings. (Needless to say, never at the same times.)

Maroni Field is (or was) a busy baseball diamond - fenced, with a scoreboard and bleachers and even a snack bar, open for “big games.”

It is the historic home of the Santa Rosa Rosebuds and the home field to high school teams and youth leagues. It is named for the late Norm Maroni, ace shortstop, Rosebud manager and the organizer (perhaps even the quiet financier at times) for all the hardball in town.

There are horseshoe pits, the homestand of the Sonoma County Horseshoe Club. They are fenced, but there's always an open gate for the public (Bring your own “shoes.”) The club maintains the pits. Members pitch on weekends, sometimes against other clubs.

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THERE ARE MORE than 70 parks covering 700-plus acres in the city limits today, an explosion of open spaces that came in the population boom of the '70s with requirements that every subdivision in the city limits include a dedicated park.

Doyle, for all its charms, has to be regarded as one of 70 and that should be kept in the minds of the Doyle faithful who despair of its current condition.

Santa Rosa's Public Works Director, Jason Nutt, responded to questions in an email last week, saying that maintenance crews “patrol daily to address immediate safety concerns.”

Fallen oak trees and limbs are perhaps the saddest sight in the park - after, of course, the makeshift “housing” of the determinedly homeless, which is another issue entirely, well beyond the pay scale of a public works director.

Nutt notes that the walking paths have been cleared and patched and the fallen oaks “have been barricaded off until crews are able to address them further.”

“Turf maintenance” (which is government talk for “mowing the lawns”) “is performed by a contractor on a regular schedule,” he says, adding that “The work of the park department is being done on a priority basis with safety being the highest.”

This means that the looming fire season puts weed abatement, all over town, at the head of today's work schedules “while attempting to keep the park facilities that comply with the shelter-in-place order open and safe.”

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SO, IN GOVERNMENT-SPEAK, “the situation is fluid. As this is written there are posts on the social media site Nextdoor saying that the “SRPD and homeless outreach” are relocating “Doyle Park campers to the Finley Center.”

Not everyone will go. Recent history proves that.

But, if “ancient history” is any help, no park in Santa Rosa has a better chance of survival than young Frankie Doyle's sweet legacy.

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