The solar calendar installation at César Chávez Park in Berkeley is an homage to the famous activist, a peaceful waterfront vantage point and, lately, the target of multiple acts of vandalism.
Repeatedly over the last few months, stones from the installation’s retaining walls have been removed or thrown in nearby bushes, and signs with descriptions of the tribute have been smashed.
“It’s more annoying than anything else,” said Santiago Casal, the director of the solar calendar project. “It’s consistent. Every two or three days, these stones are broken or disappear. I think we’re up to 125 stones missing.”
Casal and others think the vandalism may be linked to new markers delineating where dogs in the park can and cannot be off leash.
In recent weeks, people have also vandalized the red and green boundary posts that the city installed earlier this year to mark the park’s off-leash dog territory, which borders the solar calendar to the east.
The city waterfront manager installed the controversial boundary posts without warning. That may have annoyed some people, even though “that was consistent with the mandate from the council,” said Jim McGrath, chair of the Parks and Waterfront Commission. “But it caused a lot of concerns.”
It didn’t help that the red and green signposts around the off-leash area boundary were initially placed in the wrong area.
“It effectively removed some acreage from the off-leash area,” Casal said. “It was corrected quickly, but not before it upset a lot of folks and triggered the vandalism of the posts.”
When the city council unanimously approved the 17-acre off-leash dog area in 1998, the city placed hay bales along the borders. They were effective for awhile but soon fell apart and weren’t replaced. There have not been any signs since then clearly marking the border between on-leash and off-leash areas.
“A lot of bad habits have developed,” Casal said. “There’s no education that goes on for the park users, there’s no enforcement. That area, the northwest section of the park, is particularly an area of contention.”
“It’s very nebulous. It’s very difficult to find out if you’re new to the park,” agreed Claudia Kawczynska, one of the earliest advocates for the off-leash dog area and a former waterfront commissioner. She is also editor-in-chief of The Bark magazine.
Following the first instances of vandalism against the boundary posts, the waterfront commission held a series of meetings this spring to talk about what kind of signs to use in the park and where to place them. There was general consensus regarding the final design, McGrath said. City staff is in the process of manufacturing and installing the new signs.
Because the vandalism of the Chávez memorial coincided with the destruction of the boundary posts, Casal assumes the perpetrator is from the dog community, though he said most of them are allies.
“We never had that kind of vandalism on the site in the past,” Casal said. “That’s why it makes sense that it’s in connection with these other squabbles that have been going on in the park. I think it’s rogue members of the community acting out. Off-leash dog people are some of the best supporters we have.”
A few months ago, a dog owner “verbally assaulted” Casal at the solar calendar site, linking the memorial to clashes about the off-leash area boundaries, he said.
Kawczynska is less certain that the memorial vandalism is the doing of a dog person, but has posted notices on the community bulletin board and Facebook alerting her cohort to the situation.
“Even if we didn’t do it, it reflects on us,” she said. “I hope to God it’s not a dog person.”
The dispute about the boundaries comes in the midst of frustration in the dog community about dangerous foxtails in the park. The off-leash area advocates want the city to mow the foxtails, which seriously injure dogs and are more prevalent than usual this year due to the drought. But a biological assessment of the area predating the establishment of the off-leash area advises the city against mowing, to protect other species that depend on the foxtails. The city only mows two of the off-leash area’s 17 acres.
The foxtails have deterred many dog owners from using the park lately, Kawczynska said.
“The fewer people that go out there, the easier it is for any vandal to mess around with stuff there,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of the dog people are wonderful people who wouldn’t think of doing something like that. They would protect it.”
Kawczynska said she and Casal had spoken in the past about collaborating on a project — Chavez was a major dog-lover — but have been sidetracked by the foxtails and vandalism.
The purpose of boundary signs is to make the park welcoming to its wide range of users — including dogs, Casal said.
“I totally support the whole concept of the off-leash area, but not when it compromises the mixed-use character of the park,” he said. “There’s a lot of families and people with mobility issues who might not be comfortable around. And there’s off-leash dogs all over the park.”
McGrath said there is wide support for an off-leash area among the waterfront commissioners as well, as long as boundaries are defined.
Casal has reported the destruction of the solar calendar to the police and the city council.
Police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer Coats said the beat officers are aware of the vandalism.
In the meantime, Casal continues to visit the site every couple of days to replace the damaged pieces.
In a letter to the police, he wrote, “I try to practice the four Chávez Virtues that we honor at the site. Hope, Determination, and Courage are not difficult in this case, but Tolerance is being taxed quite a bit.”