Beleaguered Oakland park still beset by broken lights, sewage, drug dealers

A one-acre park in West Oakland with a beleaguered history is a source of frustration for many neighbors who say the bathrooms are clogged with sewage, the lights have been shot out by bullets and the damaged play structure has been removed and never replaced.

That's not to mention the infestation of rats.

"It's awful," neighbor and Willow Park activist Victoria Harris said. "It hurts so much. We fought so hard for a space that would bring us together. It took so much effort. To see how it became so neglected and a drug haven, it dishonors the hard work of the community. The kids really don't have a place to go. It's unacceptable." 

Oakland's Willow Park, once a playground for children, now overrun by drug deals and sewage backups

Harris is referencing the park's troubled past. In the early 2000s, the former scrap yard at Willow and 14th streets was run down and contaminated with high concentrations of lead. After a push from the community nearly 20 years ago, it finally reopened following a $1-million redevelopment project. Half of the money came from the EPA "brownfields" loan fund.

But in the recent years, it's become run down again – a place for drug dealers and homeless encampments – a fact on which neighbors and the city agree. 

Over the last few months, the residents have filed at least 300 fix-it tickets with the city of Oakland – all to little or no avail, they say. They have lobbied to get the bathrooms closed or locked at night because they say it's become a haven for drug deals and unsheltered people sleeping there and clogging up the pipes. They have implored the city to remove the encampments and illegal dumps from the park. And they have urged the city to replace the missing play structure, which was removed some years back because it was damaged and never put back. 

They are holding a community meeting on Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at 1671 8th Street to figure out how to resolve these issues and set the date for their next neighborhood cleanup, which they do regularly on their own. 

This week, after KTVU wrote the city to inquire about the complaints, Oakland Parks and Recreation Director Nicholas Williams responded, telling neighbors via email that he visited the park six times since this news organization first reported the issues in early August.

He said on the most recent visit, he went to the park with Oakland Public Works Director Jason Mitchell to see firsthand what the park looked like. 

He said cleaning up the park isn't as simple as one would think. 

"Oakland is an urban city with urban issues - homelessness, drug addiction, and despair," he said, noting that it can become a slippery slope when officials start considering banning the homeless from parks.

But he did promise some changes. 

Williams said his department is "working closely" with police to address safety issues and illegal activities at the park, such as drug dealing and gunfire. He also said that park staff would be installing a hot coal bins so that people can dispose of their cooking materials, without chucking them into the grass.

In an email sent to the neighbors, Williams also said the city would soon close the bathrooms temporarily to fix the clogged pipes. But he said closing them permanently is not a viable option.
"Removing or closing restroom can cause a decline in the frequency of park use as it creates a great inconvenience to families with children and the elderly," he wrote. "This action has also shown to detour potential users."

The best solution, Williams said, "is activating the park." He said the community should come out and play basketball, have picnics and simply be there as a populated park is one where criminals don't want to be in.

Many residents said they were hopeful with Williams response, but remained skeptical and unsatisfied until they see real changes. 

Harris said these issues have been "allowed to flourish" under Williams' watch for so long and their pleas have been "consistently ignored," until KTVU got involved. And she said that the lights are still broken and the park is still infested with rats despite the 300 tickets that have been filed. 

"It's one thing to write an email," she said. "It's another thing to actually follow up on these issues. Many have not been addressed. I don't believe you. I'll believe you when the lights are on."