By Rachel Gross
On Saturday evening, hundreds of flickering paper lanterns floated serenely across the main lake of the Berkeley Aquatic Park in commemoration of the victims of the 1945 nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now on its sixth ninth year, the Japanese Lantern Ceremony for World Peace has become an annual Bay Area tradition, with hundreds showing up to decorate the lanterns and watch the ceremony from the shore.
Aside from the whooshing of cars on the nearby I-80 freeway, the event was met with quiet excitement, marking what main organizer Steve Freedkin called “a visionary time to reflect on how we’d like the world to be”. Children and adults folded paper cranes and emblazoned lanterns with peace-filled messages, while a musician played a traditional Japanese bamboo flute.
Besides hosting community events like the lantern ceremony, the aquatic park — a 70-acre, man-made lake and waterfront area adjacent to the Berkeley Marina — is a popular locale for hiking, cycling, boating, bird-watching and frisbee-playing. But it’s also dealt with significant challenges to its image.
In October last year, park officials were “shocked” by the number of needles and condoms found along the perimeter and damage to the habitat by trampling, according to Sue Ferrera, superintendent of the park. Ferrera has worked to restore the area by leading coastal clean-ups, planting California native plants and removing “dens” in the underbrush where people were having public sex or illegally camping. She has even fenced off certain areas of the lagoons to prevent future trampling.
Then, in November, the body of a murdered 23-year-old woman was found in the park; the body of her infant son was found in the San Francisco Bay near the Marina, which shares water with the park. Since the incident, Berkeley police say they have continued to do regular night and early morning security checks of the area, often responding to community complaints including car theft, homelessness and other “suspicious activity,” according to Berkeley police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss.
While illegal activity is alarming, Ferrera’s focus is the destruction of the wildlife habitat, which includes fish and migratory birds. By restoring the park’s natural surroundings, she said, she is also making the area a more appealing spot for recreation.
“The same things that displace wildlife displace people,” she said, adding that the city considered the park “a really precious area, and we want to see it restored and protected.”
Despite its history, the aquatic park has no worse a reputation than many other urban parks, according to Ferrera. But some residents disagree.
“What Berkeley thinks the park is and what it actually is are very different,” said artist Deborah Oropallo, who has lived next to the park for 20 years. “It’s a gorgeous park, but it’s very sketchy.”
Oropallo said the park has long been neglected by the city, resulting in a multitude of abandoned buildings and a dearth of park-goers. She said several of the buildings along the perimeter of the park have burned down, and she has seen a mortuary truck enter and leave the park on two separate occasions.
City Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who attended the lantern ceremony, agreed that the city “has not been a very good environmental steward of the park”, often dumping rusted junk metal by the railroad tracks. (The park is in Councilmember Daryl Moore’s constituency.) And the park’s lagoons have been used by the city to hold floodwater overflow, an issue currently being discussed by the Berkeley City Council, according to Mark Liolios, a longtime cyclist and park-user who runs a habitat restoration volunteer group called EGRET. Floodwater can cause the shoreline to collapse and contains waste and toxins that hurt the wildlife.
Liolios added that his group’s efforts to remove weeds and otherwise improve the area around the main pond have helped reduce inappropriate sexual behavior at the park. But although the instances of camping and trampling have fallen, he said these are not the greatest threats the area faces.
“A condom is horrible for a park visitor to find, but I’m sorry–some sexual activity in a private area does not really have that much of an environmental impact,” Liolios said.
In fact, environmental and safety concerns haven’t stopped many visitors from enjoying the aquatic park.
“I love the park. I feel safe here all the time,” said Byron Solis, an Albany resident who brings his neice to the playground on the East side of the park twice a month.
But Oropallo, who originally helped build the playground, said she no longer lets her two children ride their bikes through the area alone, citing a lack of lighting and people in the vicinity.
“It always makes people feel safer to be with other people, and I never felt safe in that park,” she said.
Some of Oropallo’s concerns may soon be assuaged. In addition to the recently-opened Waterside Cafe, part of Waterside Workshops, the park may be attracting more visitors with its “Touchdown Plaza” where the Berkeley Marina bridge touches down at the North end of the park, according to Ferrera. The plaza will be home to the city’s new animal shelter, which will replace the Berkeley Animal Care Services on Second Street. Construction for the shelter is expected to last one year.
Amber Rich, who runs the Waterside Workshops, said visitors have been steadily increasing to the park as nonprofits open up and groups increase their clean-up efforts.
“It’s really being rediscovered,” she said.
Addition 8/10: Berkeley City Councilmember Darryl Moore, whose district encompasses the aquatic park, said he has worked closely with Ferrera in her efforts to clean up the park, including cutting down brush to prevent instances of trampling and public sex.
“I’m an openly gay man, so I’m a little sympathetic to those who are closeted and feel they have nowhere to go,” he said. “But it’s simply not appropriate. The park should be available and open to everybody in the district — families, kids — not just one group of people.”
Moore added that while floodwater poses an environmental hazard for the park, it would be economically impractical to implement the $30-40 million pumping system recommended by the city’s public works department to alleviate the problem at this time.