Lost Park in transition
A short section of Bidwell Park is a nest for bad behavior, a crash pad for the homeless and a sticky problem for the city
On a hot September weekday, while the streets of downtown Chico bustled with traffic, a group of about 10 people, three dogs and one cat lazed along the banks of Big Chico Creek.
The people looked to range in age from the mid-20s to maybe the mid-40s. It’s hard to say because some appeared to be transients, and spending a lot of time outdoors can hasten the aging process.
The dogs were of that particular mixed breed that populates the local animal shelter waiting for adoptions that will most likely never happen. The cat, a black-and-white male named Spot, was curled in a circular canvas container farther up the creek bank.
When I approached, one of the dogs lifted his head, eyed me wearily and let out a muffled “woof,” which seemed to carry both a warning and a welcome.
A man who identified himself as Brody stepped forward and offered to speak for the group. He was wearing a T-shirt with the word “Misfits” across the back, sported tattooed arms and legs, a lip piercing and those big circular gauges that stretch the ear lobes.
“We just hang here,” he began, explaining the group’s presence. “Some have [medical-marijuana] scripts, and they sit in a circle and smoke. Mostly we just talk.”
A woman with short-cropped blond hair, shoulder tattoos and a dog on a leash spoke up. “This is our park,” she said. “The rich kids hang out at One-Mile. But we’re no different.”
Brody smiled and nodded toward the sounds of the city above.
“The people up there have no idea who we are,” he said. “They’d be surprised at the intellectual conversations we have.”
These are some of the people who hang out in Chico’s Lost Park, that strip of public property that straddles Big Chico Creek between the Camellia Way bridge and The Esplanade and marks the westernmost section of Lower Bidwell Park.
In recent weeks Lost Park has made the news, associated in one way or another with late-night and early-morning crimes, including a sexual assault, and a stabbing that led to a mini-riot behind the nearby 7-Eleven store.
The park is obscured on the south by city parking lot No. 5. The north side is hidden behind a row of five stately homes whose back yards are directly adjacent to the park boundary.
There are no signs identifying the park as a park, with the exception of two brown 4-by-4 posts on the north side with the words “Bidwell Park.” A few years ago the city installed a trash can on the south side, at the edge of the parking lot. But there are no stairs, no picnic tables, no benches and no signs defining the space as a public park.
A large commercial building that houses three businesses sits with its whitewashed back to the park, creating a less-than-attractive view.
The only access to the north side of the park is obtained by snaking between the Christian & Johnson flower shop building and its trash bins, which leads to a dirt path that in turn leads to the park. It’s not exactly welcoming.
The Esplanade end of the north side of the park is blocked off by Bidwell’s Mill Creekside Apartments and an adjoining black wrought-iron fence.
People like Brody and his companions are most likely viewed with suspicion by those feeding their parking meters in the lot above them, or those north-side neighbors enjoying their back yards and catching glimpses of activity through the vegetation that serves as a buffer.
It’s easy to forget that these misfits, these transients, these ne’er-do-wells who hang out in Lost Park are also individuals, each with a story to tell.
Take Brody, for example: Now 26, he moved to Chico with his family when he was 4 and has been here ever since. He was tossed out of Pleasant Valley High when he was a sophomore for bad behavior. He then attended Ridgeview High, a continuation school in Magalia, but ended up punching out a teacher, which axed his enrollment there.
Today he’s homeless, but not hopeless. He said he tried to get into Shasta Community College this fall, but missed registration by a week. He now has plans to try to get into Butte College next semester.
Two days earlier I’d spotted Brody picking up trash on the sidewalk in front of 7-Eleven. When I asked why, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Somebody has to do it.”
But the park is a problem. It’s used by high-school students who call it “The Jungle.” Juggalos and Juggalettes, that odd, face-painted social group borne of the Insane Clown Posse, hang out here, as do those looking to shield their nefarious activities behind the heavy vegetation that keeps the park hidden.
There is a trail of sorts that runs between the park and the 7-Eleven on the corner of First and Main streets. The store, responding to a request by the police, has stopped carrying single containers of beer and high-alcohol malt liquor. Sales have taken a hit, the owner says, but the clientele has improved.
And, of course, the park serves as a campground for the homeless, who bed down for the evening and then are rousted by police officers, who conduct sweeps there on a regular basis.
In July a woman was sexually assaulted in the park during the early morning hours. Brody, who knows the woman, says he and some others had been in the park that night but were rousted by police with flashlights. About an hour later, he said, the woman was assaulted.
“You know, that might not have happened if we were still in the park,” Brody suggested.
“Lost Park” is not just a nickname. That’s how it’s referred to in the Bidwell Park Master Management Plan. And that plan includes suggestions for improving the area: clearly marking the property lines; developing a specific plan to “incorporate this section of the Park into the fabric” of the bigger park and the downtown; improving access and constructing an all-weather trail from Bidwell Mansion to Annie’s Glen; and renaming the park to something less daunting.
Susan Mason is with Friends of Bidwell Park (FOBP), an advocacy group that organizes volunteer efforts to protect and preserve Bidwell Park. FOBP got involved with park cleanup seven years ago.
“For three years we did monthly weed removal and trash pickup sessions,” she said. “We started here because the trash was just overwhelming at that time, and the park department didn’t have any resources to pick it up.”
In the last three years, the park volunteer coordinator, Lise Smith-Peters, has organized work sessions that come in a few times a year to pick up the trash. And on Sept. 17 the Butte Environmental Council’s annual Bidwell Park cleanup included a sweep through Lost Park.
But that trash accumulates constantly, Mason said, noting the downtown location and the nearby 7-Eleven.
“There’s a lot of activity here, but there’s not very much of the general public coming here who would have a more positive impact on the area. It would be a great spot to have picnic tables so people could come down and eat lunch—business employees and the customers of those businesses.”
A walk through the park revealed a lot of trash, including drained beer bottles, plastic bags and bottles and food wrappers.
The south side of the park is about 75 feet wide from the parking lot to the creek. The western end is thick with vegetation, both native and invasive, which includes pokeweed, hackberry and privet trees. From the middle to the eastern end, the park floor is clear of grass, weeds and ivy. The trees are tall, many tagged with graffiti, including a message to local law enforcement: “Fuck you CPD.”
The easternmost end sits just north of the Sierra Central Credit Union, is fenced off at the parking lot, and has a brick wall rather than a dirt slope. Two downed telephone poles provide seating.
The north side is thick with vegetation and difficult to negotiate. There are more signs of campers on this side, which makes sense since it is so well hidden and camping in Bidwell Park is against the law. At what was clearly a camping spot, I found a couple of sleeping bags, an empty bag of dog food, a plastic milk jug, an empty box of Cheese-Its, a ripped-up backpack, crumpled pages from the CN&R and the DVD cover for the Adam Sandler movie The Waterboy.
Mason says a plan to improve the park was once included on the city’s capital-projects list, but it disappeared when the city budget went flat.
One plan, outlined in the Parking Lot 5 Redevelopment Feasibility Study, submitted in 2000, calls for the elimination of the 150 parking spaces in the city-owned lot. But the plan cautions that the ground beneath the parking lot pavement may be contaminated. Up until the 1950s a Sacramento Northern Railroad spur ran where the lot now sits. And the building on First Street once housed a laundromat, which could have leaked contaminants into the ground as well.
The plan calls for the construction of a two- to three-story office/retail building that would recognize the existence of the park in its design. But the plan is contingent upon the building of a multilevel parking structure on the parking lot at Second and Wall streets. That project raised fierce opposition that effectively killed the structure, and without those added parking spaces Parking Lot 5 stayed in place.
“It would be nice to get some ideas from the public on how to better use this area and get the DCBA [Downtown Chico Business Association] involved in restoration plans here, since it could have some positive economic impact on the downtown,” Mason said. “People need to become more familiar with this park. It’s very attractive. It’s the only area in the downtown where we’ve got access to Big Chico Creek.”
Working on the north side has been tough, she said, because in some spots it’s hard to tell where the park ends and private property begins.
“I fault the city of Chico more than the north-side residents for the current situation on that side,” Mason said. “The city’s portion is very overgrown, and they’ve made no effort to remove encroachments or to even define the park boundary.
She said the neighbors who live there—including City Councilman Bob Evans—have been very cooperative with FOBP’s efforts.
“Bob had been picking up trash on the south side of Lost Park for years,” she said, “and was interested in finding ways to reduce the trashing and get more use of the area by mainstream folks.”
But city cooperation has been spotty at best, she said.
“We got [former Parks Director] Dennis Beardsley to put in a trash can and cut up a few logs next to the creek that were gathering spots, but he wouldn’t put in stairs to the area or take other actions to make it more inviting to the general public. However, he did include a Lost Park restoration plan in the city’s capital-projects budget for years, but no one on the Bidwell Park and Playground Commission was interested in pursuing it.”
She said FOBP and the city park division recently held a joint work session on the north side of Lost Park to remove some of the invasive plants.
“But the work is tough,” she said. “Although there have apparently been several perhaps informal boundary surveys on the north side, no one from the city has been willing, or maybe able, to tell me how much of the property is city-owned.”
Dan Efseaff now holds the position of parks director (the formal title is park and natural resources manager). He’s lived in Chico since 1993 and formerly worked as a restoration ecologist with River Partners. He is well aware of Lost Park and its problems, but contends that things are looking up.
“It’s Lost Park, but it’s not forgotten,” he said one recent morning, standing on the south side. “I think a lot of people are surprised at how much we do in here. Three times a week we do sweeps to pick up trash; [park] rangers come through, as do the police. They have had a big presence this year.”
He said over the past three or four years the park has seen great improvement.
“When I first came to Chico there was a wall of privets here, and the park was much more impenetrable than it is now. Now you can actually see the creek. … This whole psychological approach with vegetation is that if it’s more open it tends to attract people; there are more sightlines.”
He says Chico is not alone when it comes to cities and the waterways that cut through them.
“For a long time the approach for a lot of urban areas and their creeks was to turn their backs on them,” he said. “Those were the areas where you wanted to put up a wall and have the parking lot out there. Now when we look at this area it is not only a lost park, but a lost opportunity for the community.”
Efseaff said he’d heard of ideas to help integrate the park into the downtown, but added there is only so much the park division can do beyond controlling and improving the vegetation and adding signage.
“If this had a linkage to the rest of Bidwell Park it would actually solve a lot of issues,” he said. “We get into room and infrastructure issues, as we get to the Camellia Way bridge, as far as linkage.”
For a long time, he said, Annie’s Glen had problems similar to Lost Park’s.
“Annie’s Glen is a bit of a transportation corridor now, which means a lot more people are going through there. If we could do that, provide a linkage between Annie’s Glen and the Children’s Playground, people could access Bidwell Park from Chico State, and once you get into the park you have 11 miles to explore.”
He said the homeless camps are also a community problem because chasing them from one area simply shifts them to another. “It’s not just a park issue, and that is what makes it tough.”
As Efseaff was talking, park ranger Andrew Verbrugge pulled his city truck into the parking lot and climbed down to join the conversation.
Verbrugge is a seasonal ranger, which means he’s on the job between Jan. 1 and Oct. 1. “It is part of my routine to come through here daily,” he said. He begins his day at 6 a.m. and goes until 2:30 p.m., often working with the Chico Police Department’s Target team to move people along.
“It’s more of a societal kind of issue here at the park,” he said, “where it feels like the homeless, transient folks I contact most often in the morning times have been pushed out of a lot of the other downtown areas. This is still close enough to downtown, it’s shaded, it’s a park. They feel like they can go ahead and camp out here.”
A few days later, members of the CPD’s Target team conducted a sweep through Lost Park. The team was headed by Sgt. Dave Britt, who on this sweep was joined by Officers Dave Bailey, Terry Tupper and Bill Dawson.
Bailey gestured to the thick vegetation that grows toward the west and along the north sides of the park.
“We’re hoping that this can all be opened up,” he said. “This makes it seem to the park user that nobody cares about it, and people of a criminal element figure that if nobody cares they can come down here and do what they want.”
The trash in the park was also thick on this mid-week morning. Bailey pointed to a bottle of Steel Reserve malt liquor. “This is all from last night,” he said. “That Steel Reserve is 8.1 percent alcohol. That’s six to eight shots of whiskey for a buck twenty-five.”
He noted some human excrement about 30 feet from the creek. “That is the kind of shit we have down here, literally,” he said, shaking his head.
“We kind of get a rap that we are harassing homeless people. That is not our mission; that is not our goal. Our goal is to change behavior and help where we can.”
Bailey said the park serves as a hub for criminal activity in this area. “We’ve arrested people for having stolen property, trading property for drugs. We’ve found needles, meth pipes—you name it and it goes on down here.”
He said the alcohol beverage restriction at 7-Eleven has helped and even changed the type of people now coming to the park.
“It used to be we’d come down here and see 15 to 20 people drinking 40s and all hooting and hollering. We don’t see that anymore. And we make it a point to talk to the regulars down here who are drinkers. They say, ‘Oh man, this is terrible. We actually have to walk all the way to the Liquor Bank or to Safeway for our 40s now. Fuck this. We ain’t gonna stay here.’”
But the fact is, Bailey says, he and the Target team are only displacing the problem.
“Sometimes that’s really all you can do. We’re not going to be able to cure 40 people of alcohol addiction. What we can do is make this area more enjoyable for citizens and residents and the businesses that surround it.”
Right about then, the team came across a camper—Thomas, aka Digger, the man who owns Spot the cat.
“He’s actually a pretty nice guy,” Bailey said while Tupper and Britt talked with Digger. “He’s really low-keyed. We’ve tried to line him up with services and get him some help to get off the street, but the reality of it is a lot of the people down here enjoy the freedom of being on the fringes of society, of not having to conform to society’s rules, and he is one of those people.”
Digger talked with the officers and then packed up his things and headed out of the park, with Spot tagging along.
“Our intent,” Bailey said, “is not to arrest every person we see down here who may be committing a crime. We want to change the behavior so it doesn’t continue. The nice thing about Chico is that we do have a lot of resources and can support a lot of the homeless community here through shelters and through the Jesus Center and through other resources. A lot of these people who are here aren’t aware of the resources available.”
A couple days later Digger was sitting at his usual daytime location on the southwest corner of First and Main streets, reading a paperback. Spot was in his canvas container.
“It’s not just homeless people down there,” he said in reference to Lost Park. “You’ve got high-schoolers, college kids who come down and trash the area and pick fights. You got people who will steal from you. You got homeless that will steal from other homeless. And after a while you kind of get into a flow or rhythm about who you can be around and who not to be around. Being homeless is one thing but …”
He never finished the thought. Spot was asking for some attention, and Digger had to return to the realities of life and another night sleeping under the tree canopy that shades Lost Park.