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09.01.10

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Resident Alien

An outlier's report from the neighbors summit

By Rachel Hart


When I bought a little house in South Park 20 years ago, the real estate agent called it "a neighborhood in transition." No kidding.

In the 1800s, a road called Park Avenue ran through Santa Rosa, and the little square of land at its southern end became South Park. Back then, it was the part of town where African Americans were welcome, and when I moved here in 1989, my neighbor was Rhoda Lawson, an African-American woman who had earned enough as a cook and caretaker to have her own home built, where she lived and gave shelter to relatives and friends of relatives, and probably total strangers, for 40 more years.

Rhoda was a good neighbor, chatting about her old home in the South and her church meetings and choir practice, while we pulled weeds on each side of our shared picket fence. She is gone now. A joyful Juneteenth celebration is still held at Martin Luther King Park up the street from Rhoda's house every year, but if there are any African-American families still living in South Park, I don't know them.

I estimate that over my 20 years, I have attended between 30 and 40 meetings about how to improve the neighborhood. We had a South Park Watch and a newsletter for a while, in both English and Spanish. We organized clean-up days. Some meetings were called by the police after the cold-blooded shootings of workers and walkers. Other meetings were hosted by the city of Santa Rosa, and at a couple of these I was the only resident in attendance while three or four government agencies made hopeful presentations, followed by coffee and cookies.

To maintain my claim to fame as the meeting lady from South Park, I was in the crowd at the Neighbors Summit on Aug. 20 and 21. Friday night's featured speaker, Jim Diers, a community organizer from Seattle, was brutally upbeat, and the neighborhood groups carried his positive tone through the follow-up workshops on Saturday. Mr. Diers' message: Change starts from the bottom up. Don't wait for the gubmint to fix your problems for you. And have some fun. His audience agreed. There was a burning desire among the attendees for block parties and street-long barbecues. Artists envisioned more art. Gardeners sowed the seeds of front-yard gardens. Musicians called for more music.

"Ah, hell," I thought. "Come to my neighborhood. The music never stops! All I want is a little peace and quiet to lay down my old, gray head."

So I was not on board when the party boat sailed, and I was not digging the garden catalogue much either. Vince Harper, director of youth services at Community Action Partnership of Sonoma County, who is a true hero of Santa Rosa in general and South Park in particular, used the South Park Community Garden as an example of successful neighborhood organizing when he spoke to the summit on Saturday. He described the vacant corner lot donated by the Community Baptist Church, and the volunteer hours and water-getting and weeding that followed, and finally the new garden plots that residents cultivate in summer.

Now, Mr. Harper works incessantly year after year to raise up the kids in our neighborhoods. They love him, and so do I. But he called that pre-garden vacant lot "an eyesore." An eyesore! Not a sun-sparkled meadow of soft white Queen Anne's lace and parakeet-blue chicory dancing with butterflies, which is what it was. An eyesore.

When the vacant lot (my meadow) was first plowed under, I was sad and I grieved for it. All the vacant land around South Park has been built out, and the birds and butterflies and bees that existed on that land are gone. My own garden is lonelier without them. But I came over to pull weeds and clean up street trash from the community garden when asked to help. I donated some artichoke plants. I worked with the kids on the children's garden. I want to be a part of my neighborhood. I just don't want the same things my neighborhood seems to want.

All you activists and organizers, remember, please, somewhere an outlier is desperate to be considered in your scheme. While you party, someone, maybe that same someone who gave you a ride to the hospital when your niņo was sick needs to get some sleep. Someone who fed your dog while you were out of town is being driven mad by the nonstop barking. Someone who once loved a butterfly meadow now passes a corner covered with scrap lumber and barbed wire and "No Trespassing" signs in both English and Spanish. And I tell you what: that someone is your neighbor too.

Rachel Hart is a Santa Rosa painter.


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