Used diapers, empty 40 oz. beer bottles, and torn up lottery tickets were some of the most interesting items I picked up Saturday morning. Not how I imagined spending my day.
However, the thing about non-mandatory community service is that once you get there, share a beer and a laugh with your friends and do something good for your neighborhood, you can’t imagine doing anything else. I don’t even like beer. I only drink it for kickball (okay, sometimes on the porch after a long day).
“Community service is the best cure for a hangover,” said Luke Holland, laughing as we walked down Labor Street, slowly filling trash bags.
About 20 members of the Downtown Kickball league, myself included, showed up at Labor Street Park in the historic Lavaca neighborhood throughout the morning and late afternoon to fill in ankle-twisting potholes, pick up trash and plant bushes and vines.
The park – we’re calling it Labor Street Park for lack of an official name – is really just an open, empty field with a baseball backstop and a small, seemingly decades-old basketball court off to the side. Perfect for kickball. Two weeks ago, organizers moved the games from our usual field at Hemisfair Park just off South Alamo Street to play here. Beer, ball, bases, boombox, done.
Players immediately noticed quality disparities. Buried in the heart of Lavaca, the park is void of lighting, trash cans, benches and a level playing field – simple amenities the league has come to enjoy at Hemisfair, less than a mile away. They also noticed the curiosity of nearby residents. People stood on porches and sidewalks to watch the games, most just wanted to know what all these young folks were doing here.
“Just playing kickball.”
That’s pretty much it. But this time, it’s more.
An email went out shortly after the game from Downtown Kickball co-founder Ryan Bigley, calling for teammates to contact District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal about the state of things at Labor Street Park. During his recent State of the Center City address, Bernal made it a point to draw attention to work being done for healthy, green spaces in the city – among other things you can read about here.
By the way, Bernal will give the address again – free admission, save for two cans of non-perishable food – at Woodlawn Theatre on Thursday, March 27, at 7 p.m. in case you missed or couldn’t afford to attend the first one. RSVP required by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 207-0900. Find details here.
But there’s a long list of improvements to be made to a long list of public parks across the city and technically Labor Street Park is property of the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA), not the City of San Antonio. That is, not yet.
Teammate Regan Turner, of recent “ghost building” research fame, contacted Bernal to get the low-down. Labor Street Park and nearby Victoria Park are currently a part of a land swap between SAHA and the City, Bernal said, an arrangement initiated by City Council earlier this month. Click here to download the ordinance, which states that the “1.95 acre property commonly known as 440 Labor Street” is a good trade for the City because it’s central location makes it more accessible to more residents and will increase walkability/connectivity.
The official transfer will occur in early April. The park will be added to that long list of parks waiting for public input, review, improvements and amenities. The slow “maintenance carousel,” as Bernal candidly put it. “If (you’re) waiting for us it’s going to take a long time.”
In a city as spread-out as San Antonio, of course, resource allocation is a challenge. Every neighborhood wants its park to get the same attention as Hemisfair. The former world’s fair site may be “the city’s front porch,” but for many residents, their front porch looks out over a park filled with broken glass. The proper paperwork needs to be filed. Consensus needs to be reached.
Instead of waiting, Turner sent out a few emails to the kickball team and bought about $29 worth of dirt. Monks Toolbox, a.k.a. Zac Harris, donated beer. Teammate Jeremy Bastche acquired a $150 donation from Shulz Nursery. Other teammates brought a grill, brats and snacks. In less than three hours, the park was picked clean of trash, major holes were packed with dirt, and new plants dotted the nearby SAHA fence and outfield. It’s still not perfect. But it’s better.
“With the number of people we have, I thought we could harness that energy and just do it ourselves,” Turner said Saturday afternoon. As long as we don’t harm/trash the park in any way, do anything permanent or mess with existing permanent structures, we’re good to go.
“Ask not what your city can do for you, ask what you can do for your city,” Turner said, laughing.
The park is between several mixed-income apartment complexes and condos owned by SAHA on the former site of Victoria Courts and many single family homes. The neighborhood itself is mixed-income. Some residents are new, some families have lived here for generations.
Native San Antonian Valdemar Martinez lives across Labor Street from the park and regularly walks his dog, Gypsy, on the grounds.
“The community uses this park already,” he said, adding that it was good to see new people and activity in the neighborhood. He has seen the neighborhood change a lot since he moved here in 1999.
He said he knows the people that drink in the park, “they’re good people,” he said, most come from the senior community high-rise down the street because they can’t drink there.
Martinez said he looks forward to more amenities whenever they come – even a trash can or two would be nice. “(Transferring) it to the City is going to enhance the park.”
Organizing in this simple, grassroots way allows a more direct connection between neighbors and their public space(s). No offense to the work that the city does, but Bernal and Turner are right – we can do it a lot faster than they can.
Bernal suggested that some sort of “Friends of [insert your neighborhood park here]” programs be developed for smaller, public parks throughout the city. The nonprofit San Antonio Parks Foundation, he said, might be able to provide a funding umbrella for smaller organizations to create focused volunteer groups. Focusing the philanthropy of neighborhood associations and residents into one park at a time is the key, he said.
The former SAHA headquarters building flanks the northwest corner of the park, empty and surrounded by barbed wire fence.
Teammates eyed the property closely as we passed by the vacant building.
“This would make a great community center,” said Harris, peering mischievously into the dark windows. “Or Kickball headquarters.”
It really would, wouldn’t it? Baby steps.
In the meantime, Labor Street Park (or the “property commonly known as 440 Labor Street”) will need a proper name. Any ideas?
*Featured/top image: Downtown Kickballers (from left) Cotton Estes, Ashley Heeren and Ryan Bollom hard at work cleaning up Labor Street Park. Photo by Iris Dimmick.