Sarina Williams (left) and Margaret Dixon are excited about the major investment that will improve facilities at Verdese Carter Park and Recreation Center in East Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

Laura McCoy was raised in San Francisco public housing in an area that didn’t have parks nearby. 

“There was no green,” she said, “but you might see a little tree holding on for dear life.” 

For the last 30 years, McCoy has lived two blocks from Verdese Carter Recreation Center and Park in East Oakland. She appreciates the green space and volunteers at the center to distribute food to neighbors in need, host clothing swaps and an annual health fair, and offer free COVID-19 vaccinations. 

Sarina Williams, 23, lives directly across the street from the park, which has played a big part in her life. “I was literally born and raised at the center,” she said. She credits its children and youth programs with opening many doors for her in life, including providing a scholarship and helping her determine her future.

Across town at Oakland Chinatown’s Lincoln Square Park and Recreation Center, Tiffany Eng can trace the park’s benefits back to her great auntie Helen, who played on the Dragonettes softball team in the 1930s, and her father, Dr. Weylin G. Eng, who still happily displays a trophy he won in a yo-yo contest in 1956 when he was 14. Eng and multiple generations of her Chinese-American family have visited the park over many years for Wa Sung Easter pancake breakfasts and Lincoln Summer Nights. Her two daughters spent nearly every afternoon there with their caregiver or grandmother. 

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These three women know very well that parks and rec centers are an investment in public safety, violence reduction, and community resiliency. Most importantly, they provide opportunities to Oakland’s underserved kids. 

So all three are pleased that their community’s aging park and rec center, supported by the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation, was recently awarded over $8 million badly needed improvements. 

The awards were two of eight California park equity proposals given voter-approved 2018 Proposition 68 funds, known as the California Drought, Water, Parks, Climate, Coastal Protection, and Outdoor Access for All Act. The proposition raised $4 billion for various projects up and down the state. Oakland’s share is part of $548 million in grants announced by the California State Parks department to deliver new parks to more than 100 communities and advance California’s “Outdoors for All” initiative.  The grants represent the single-largest investment in state history in expanding access to parks in underserved communities with new or enhanced parks funded in every region of California.

Better recreation facilities in deep East Oakland 

A basketball player sits on the bench at Verdese Carter Park. Credit: Amir Aziz

Located at 98th and Bancroft avenues—the former site of a battery factory which has undergone decades of work to remove lead contamination—Verdese Carter Park and its rec center was dedicated in 1978. The center was named after Verdese Carter, a former Oakland associate superintendent of schools and principal of Castlemont High School.

The park features basketball courts, a children’s playground, picnic tables, barbecue pits, an exercise area, and sports fields. The rec center building contains a computer lab, kitchen, bathrooms, pool table, and an administrative office used by the Police Activities League, whose mission is to “offer educational and recreational programs that provide a common platform for positive interaction between Oakland’s youth and Police Officers.”

The $8 million grant will be used to improve Verdese Carter’s outdoor elements, providing intergenerational fitness and play areas, a community plaza with stage and entry promenades, a large group picnic area, a nature play area, a fitness area and walking loop, a shade structure to allow for expanded PAL programming, a community garden, renovated multi-use fields, landscaping and shade trees, lighting, and a new park entrance. 

McCoy is pleased that the grant will increase the number of people served in her diverse neighborhood, particularly the potential to expand after-school and summer programs for kids. She notes the park is currently in a state of disrepair; there’s a broken swing set, cracked concrete, and no lights to illuminate the park in the evenings. The improvements will no doubt be appreciated by families that already heavily use the space for barbecues and birthdays. The money isn’t earmarked for improvements to the rec center building itself, which needs some fixes. McCoy said that the roof of the rec center leaks and the space is outdated and not conducive to serving kids.

A damaged fence around the community garden at Verdese Carter Park. Dixon said Bancroft Avenue is known for dangerous driving. Credit: Amir Aziz

Margaret Dixon, a retired 25-year Oakland police officer who has been with PAL at the Verdese Carter Center since 1985 and serves as the organization’s president, is also hoping there can be improvements to the rec center building soon. She has coached a track team since 1985, which now has over 150 kids registered for an 8-month program.

“We wanted the whole building remodeled,” she said, envisioning a separate computer room, indoor gym, homework center, community meeting room, and an enlarged kitchen. “I’d like East Oakland to have some of the luxuries that other neighborhoods have; we’ve waited a long time.” 

Even with its aging infrastructure, the rec center has proven to be a lifeline for community members like Williams, who took advantage of PAL’s wide range of recreational and educational offerings, including cooking, budgeting, and finance classes, field trips, sports, mentorships, and leadership, and community service opportunities.

“Officer Dixon saw me as a leader, not just another number in my very rough neighborhood,” said Williams, who went on to mentor others at the Center and is currently applying for jobs in government and social work that will allow her to help at-risk youth. 

A big investment in the Chinatown community

Located at 11th and Harrison streets, Lincoln Square was one of the original seven squares set aside as public parkland when the city of Oakland was first designed. It was called Oakland Square but was renamed on February 12, 1898, the anniversary of former President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In 1925, the park was made the playground for Lincoln School, whose new buildings left no playground space. The park has served as the school’s playground for generations.

Lincoln Square was re-dedicated in 1969 with the addition of the iconic junk boat play structure. 

The original “clubhouse,” on 11th Street is still actively used for programming by Family Bridges, a long-time neighborhood service organization. It was built in 1935 and funded in part by the City as a WPA project, and by local Chinese-American donors. 

Today the park includes the Wa Sung Community Play Area, a tot-lot, three basketball courts (renovated by Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors), a large artificial turf field, two backboards, 4-square courts, and an outdoor gym.

With no other public senior or recreation center in Chinatown or downtown Oakland, Lincoln Square is one of the busiest parks in the city, serving over 1,000 people a day, the majority of whom are kids and seniors. With thousands of new apartments recently built nearby, many new residents are taking advantage of the green space and rec center programming.

The $8 million in state funds earmarked for Lincoln Square Park, plus $4 million in city funds, will create a new Community Center, outdoor classroom, badminton court, two patio/garden areas, and add landscaping and lighting throughout the park. It will also renovate three existing basketball courts.

Even so, the grant is not enough to pay for the sort of expansion that community members feel is needed to serve the next generation. 

“We’re beyond capacity,” said Tiffany Eng, who, along with a multi-generational group of other community volunteers and organizations formed Friends of Lincoln Square Park three years ago to help steward the park, and build a bigger and improved recreation center.  

Eng said the rec center currently offers something for all ages, from the athletic to the artistic: tai chi, basketball, Chinese brush painting, ballroom dancing, and after-school and summer camp programs. Right now, programs are “stacked,” meaning that intergenerational programming is not an option, given the lack of space. The kitchen is inadequate for the people served, additional bathrooms are needed, as well as flexible classrooms and an outdoor garden for festivals and community events. Desired features like solar power and battery storage require additional planning and funding as well.  

The Friends group envisions building something more than just a recreation center, something they call a community-based resiliency Hub. Such a hub would not only meet the neighborhood’s recreational needs, it would also support the community’s overall health and power. The friends group estimates the total cost of a resiliency hub would be $32 million and they’re currently exploring funding options. 

Sometimes a city or organization will think, if we build it, they will come; the building comes first, and then the programs and people follow.

“I think we have a different dynamic at Lincoln,” said Eng. “We already have one of the busiest parks and rec centers in the city so I imagine once the new center is open, we will finally have a rec center that matches the energy, growth and sense of community that already exists.”

Verdese Carter and Lincoln parks, although miles apart, have a lot in common. Both serve a wide range of cultures and ages, with communities dealing with crime, poverty, and the pandemic. And the management of both is completely committed to the community’s youth.

The funding coming to these two aging centers will help ensure that future generations will have the opportunity to reap some of the educational and recreational benefits experienced by those who’ve come before.

“It feels like home,” said Williams about Verdese Carter Rec Center. “And there ain’t no place like home.”

C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for EatDrinkFilms.com and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.