Dive in, the water’s fine

After two years—and a concerted neighborhood effort—Southside Park finally gets its pool back

Goodbye dry spell: Southside Park’s community pool has reopened after a two-year budget-related closure.

Goodbye dry spell: Southside Park’s community pool has reopened after a two-year budget-related closure.

Photo by William Leung

It’s late in the afternoon of June 15, and screams of laughter fill the air as the sun starts to set over Southside Park. The temperature is still hovering near triple digits, but no one seems to mind.

The park’s pool, in fact—reopened two years after it was closed due to budget cuts—is a splashy oasis of excitement, filled with crisp, cold, sparkling blue water and a few dozen delighted children.

This reopening is a benchmark—the triumphant endnote to a quest that took two years and a lot of hustling on the part of a group of dedicated neighborhood residents.

Now, kids play in its icy waters while adults relax nearby. They barbecue burgers and hot dogs, snap photos and enjoy shady respite beneath towering trees. Clearly, the pool—and the park that surrounds it—is more than just a place to cool off, it’s this summer’s unofficial heart of a neighborhood.

Empty coffers, drained pools

The community pool at Southside Park, located at the edge of downtown near the Broadway corridor, closed in August 2010. This year, it was on the verge of remaining empty again for the summer until local residents Catherine O’Brien and Alice Levine stepped in and called the YMCA for help.

O’Brien had only lived in the neighborhood for a couple of weeks when the pool shut down, much to her disappointment.

“I only got to swim in the pool once before it closed,” she says.

In 2011, upon discovering that the pool was slated to stay closed for the summer, O’Brien started looking for a solution.

The result: the formation of the Southside Park Pool Association. One of the association’s first steps was to reach out to others for help.

Jay Lowden, president of the YMCA of Superior California, remembers getting a call early this year. At the time, the status of neighborhood pools were already a much discussed topic in Sacramento—particularly the fundraising push initiated by Save Mart Supermarkets, which successfully pledged to match corporate and community dollars to keep six Sacramento-area pools open for the summer.

As it turns out, Southside Park was not one of those pools.

Photo William Leung

“Southside Park was not included in that campaign,” Lowden says. “[The SPPA called] and asked [if the YMCA] would be interested in possibly running [Southside Park] pool this year.”

It was. But not without some serious number crunching, a task that led to a concerted fundraising campaign that included getting subsidies from the Sacramento Parks and Recreation department, as well as the solicitation of generous donations from local residents and businesses.

All of that hustling was worth the effort, Levine says.

“It’s a perfect marriage,” says Levine. “The Y needed more room, and we needed the pool open.”

Scheduled to remain open until it closes for the season on September 3, it also represents a first step in the YMCA’s efforts to keep similar facilities open.

“If this works well, there might be the opportunity of not only continuing to operate Southside, but the opportunity to operate other city pools,” says Lowden.

It also marks something of a victory, not just for the kids and avid swimmers who’ll dive in and splash around this summer but for the neighborhood at large—a tight-knit, diverse community of long-time residents and newcomers.

A long history of good neighbors

Southside Park, lushly green and shaded by towering leafy trees, fills an almost-perfect rectangle located downtown between R and X streets on the north and south borders, and 12th Street and Interstate 5 on the south and west borders. Until approximately 1900, the area was sparsely inhabited due to its regular flooding. Eventually, the city built a levee at the nearby Broadway corridor—a move that served to redirect floodwater and essentially dry out the Southside area.

In the neighborhood’s early days, it was mainly populated by Italians, Portuguese, Japanese and African-Americans—in short, an immigrant district. Remnants of that era are all but gone now, but there’s still a bit of history to be found if you know where to look.

For example, the Parkview Presbyterian Church, which relocated to Eighth and T streets in 1940, was once a storage facility used during World War II. According to William Burg, a local historian and author of the book Sacramento’s Southside Park, the Parkview P.C. housed the possessions of Japanese residents forced to relocate to internment camps.

“A lot of people lost everything they had during that time, but some people were able to store their personal property at that church,” says Burg. “The neighbors all kept an eye on their things and took care of them until they were able to return.”

Historical churches still pepper the area—Southside Park boasts the first African-American congregation in California, for example: St. Andrew’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, located at Eighth and V streets, still features the church’s original stained-glass casement hanging in its front window.

Alice Levine (third from left) and Catherine O’Brien (fourth from right, in hat) formed the Southside Park Pool Association, gathering community support to reopen their neighborhood pool.

Photo by William Leung

The neighborhood’s most eye-catching landmark, perhaps, is the enormous Virgin of the Guadalupe mural that graces the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church at Eighth and T streets—notable as a stopping point for Cesar Chavez when he led members of the United Farm Workers of America on a march through Southside Park in 1966.

Longtime Southside Park resident Tony Lopez remembers a time when the park was much different. The actual space he says was nearly twice the size it is now. In 1962, construction on the Highway 50 interchange plowed the freeway right through the park, demolishing everything past U Street.

Back then, the park sported a small baseball diamond and a couple of bocce ball courts. Today, those have been replaced by an asphalt basketball court and tennis court.

There was also no pool back then—just a small wading area. Still, there was plenty of opportunity for water play. Visitors to the Southside Park pond enjoyed rowboat and pedal-boat rides (5 cents for one trip or 10 cents for three trips), but swimming in the pond’s actual water was forbidden.

Not that the rules were always observed.

Lopez recalls sneaking in dips with friends.

“You’d get 10 minutes per ride, so we’d hide behind the island to go swimming,” Lopez says of those impromptu, illicit dips.

Faraway, so close

These days, the park may be significantly smaller and boat rides a thing of the past, but neighborhood residents now have the full-fledged pool as well as a new draw for parkgoers near and far-flung.

On this day, for example, as kids play in the nearby pool, Sacramento photographer Wayne Armour is staking out a spot to snap a couple of shots. He comes here often, making the trip with his kids from his Natomas home.

“I come all the way [here] … past my own parks, to bring my kids to this one,” Armour says. “It’s a safe place.”

Amy Serna, who live across the street from the park, and on this particular Friday afternoon is stationed at one of the park’s barbecue grills with her husband, says she appreciates the park’s fun and diversity.

“There is always something to do here,” says Serna. “You wake up on a Saturday morning and say, ‘What kind of event is happening today?’”

In the end, Burg says, there’s that’s the one thing about Southside Park—amid its wake of changing playgrounds, activity courts and pools—that remains a constant: family.

“There used to be this time when families were discouraged from staying in the central city, so they would get married, have kids and move to the suburbs,” says Burg. “Southside never lost that tradition, because there are still a lot of families there.”