View: Police calls at Seccombe Lake 2012 | Police calls at Seccombe Lake 2006-2011
Photo Gallery: Seccombe Lake: A Park in Distress
SAN BERNARDINO - In the shadow of downtown lies a tract of land that has become a vivid symbol of San Bernardino's painful slide from a thriving western city to a broken urban community mired in bankruptcy court.
Seccombe Lake Park is a graffiti-marked and litter-stricken monument to San Bernardino's unkept promises and unfulfilled visions.
"It's a nice park, a beautiful park, but there's no maintenance," said Jose Cuebas, a 30-year-old transplant from Santa Ana.
Cuebas occasionally brings his 2-year-old son to the park. But a visit on one occasion prompted a quick exit.
"There were dead birds everywhere," he said, pointing to a playground where his son played on a brisk Monday morning. "I was like, let's go."
A reminder of the area's decline hit residents last week when a respected high school boys basketball coach was shot in one of the park's parking lots.
Steve Johnson, the heralded floor general of Rialto's Eisenhower High School basketball team and campus athletic director, was shot several times after stopping at the park on the night of Jan. 21.
Briana Pastorino, spokeswoman for Loma Linda Univesity Medical Center, said Wednesday she was not authorized to release information on Johnson's medical condition, and referred the inquiry to Johnson's brother, Phil.
Phil Johnson couldn't be reached for comment.
History of Seccombe Lake Park
- 1942: San Bernardino buys Garner's Swamp
- 1946: Municipal fishing lake opens
- 1967: Formerly known as Inland Lake Park, officially named after W.C. and Ormonde Seccombe
- 1991: The state conveys Seccombe Lake Park to the city
SOURCE: Staff Report
Family members said Tuesday that Johnson, 47, was in stable condition after undergoing several surgeries.
On the night he was shot, Johnson stopped at a place that even city officials concede has become an emblem of urban decay.
"It's what you think of when you think of San Bernardino," said Kevin Hawkins, director of the city's parks and recreation department. "That park symbolizes the future of San Bernardino. I'm not overstating."
'A very deadly city'
If the park is in fact symbolic of the city's future, as Hawkins suggests, then the future is looking pretty bleak.
Police calls for service at the park over the last six years show a steady pattern of reports on violent crime ranging from strong-arm robberies, carjackings, battery, assault with a deadly weapon, domestic violence, fights and suicidal people.
Police also are routinely called to address myriad nuisance problems at the park, including transients, loitering, drunk in public, suspicious vehicles, indecent exposure, petty thefts, vandalism and illegal dumping.
A recent visit to the park illustrated part of the problem. In the very parking lot where Johnson said he was shot, heaping mounds of trash lay scattered in front of a dumpster.
Trash was also scattered on the grass adjacent to an illuminated baseball diamond as a couple of children scurried about.
Park visitors say it's no place to go when the sun sets. Drug deals are common and folks have seen their share of lewd acts and violence. The few families there during the day leave before night.
"I wouldn't show up here after 8 o'clock," said Michael Patton, 65.
Stephen Tibbetts, a professor of criminal justice at Cal State San Bernardino, who has monitored the city's violent crime for the last 12 years, said the problems at Seccombe Lake Park are an indicator of the larger, systemic problems in the city.
"It just shows how volatile the city can be in terms of the danger that's there," Tibbetts said. "The bottom line is we're just a very deadly city - a very violent city."
Compared to other large cities in Southern California, San Bernardino - with it's 213,000 people - typically has the highest homicide rate per capita, said Tibbetts, adding that the city's homicide rate is usually three times higher than that of the city of Los Angeles.
Last year, the city's 47 killings didn't eclipse the 58 in 2005 but the toll was higher than 2011's 30 homicides.
Tibbetts said the nexus of violent crime in San Bernardino is inherent poverty. Nearly half the citizens of the city are on some kind of welfare, he said.
And parks, along with schools, are havens for violence and other criminal activity, especially in poverty-stricken cities, according to Tibbetts.
Though other parks in the city, like Perris Hill Park for example, continue to endure similar crime and nuisance problems, Tibbetts was at a loss for words as to why the city has failed to curtail the problems at Seccombe Lake Park, which is in the middle of the city's civic hub, less than a mile from City Hall and the Police Department.
Police Chief Robert Handy said other areas of the city with dilapidated infrastructure fare far worse than Seccombe Lake Park.
"If you compared crime in that area to other areas of the city, you'd find crime higher in other areas," Handy said. "We deal with these problems all over the city. Our homeless population, unemployment rates, gang and drug problems all contribute to these issues."
He said the city's lack of general resources is part of the problem. He agrees the park is in need of repair, but in terms of priority, it has fallen off the city's radar in recent years as San Bernardino struggles to provide the bare essential services to residents.
"We're doing everything we can in many areas of the city," said Handy, adding that he doesn't have any plans, as of now, to do anything about the park.
"We lost a lot of our proactive staff . . . and our ability to proactively quell some of these types of conditions that cause crime, we don't have those resources right now," the police chief said.
Tibbetts had an equally pessimistic outlook on the issue. He said given the city's bankruptcy problems, things are likely going to get much worse before they get better.
"I can't see it getting any better if we're suffering cuts across the board. So I don't see how it could get any better at Seccombe Park," Tibbetts said. "I hate to be pessimistic, but I'm trying to be realistic."
Sights on a swamp
Garner's Swamp was a little forest of willow and cottonwood trees in 1942 when Mayor W.C. Seccombe convinced the city to buy 12 1/2 acres of land north of 5th Street between Waterman and Lugo avenues that contained the marshy patch.
Seccombe and his family enjoyed hunting duck in the area and the mayor wanted to turn Garner's Swamp into a city fishing spot.
It opened four years later and was known as Inland Lake for years.
The state in 1987 gave the city $8 million to clean the lake and perhaps overhaul its unsavory reputation in the process.
It lies among 45 acres of parkland - surrounded by Fifth Street and Pioneer Memorial Cemetery, and Sierra Way and Waterman Avenue - which the city took over from the state in 1991.
Generations of politicians have pledged to turn Seccombe Lake Park into an urban jewel. It once was touted as a destination for military families of the former Norton Air Force Base.
Plans included a wave pool for body surfing and rafting, a theatre and a restaurant on the lake. Upscale apartments and condominiums were promised. Single-family homes in a gated community were on a forgotten horizon.
Officials used to mention Seccombe in the same breath as the long-dead Vision 2020 Lakes and Streams project that proposed using ample groundwater under the city to create lakes and streams in San Bernardino and draw visitors and spur economic growth.
Developers and residents in recent years have suggested the park could have a tot lot, coffee kiosks, a dance pavilion and a wedding garden.
Instead, dirty diapers and empty liquor bottles are scattered about in a park where food scraps are strewn among dead grass and tangled weeds. The smell of human waste hangs in the air.
Ducks swim in a lake where dead bodies have been found.
Seventy years after W.C. Seccombe dreamed of turning Garner's Swamp into a central city haven, a beloved basketball coach nearly lost his life in a rancid parking lot across from a cemetery.
'Too much to maintain'
Hawkins came to San Bernardino in 2007. Two days into his job, a body was found in Seccombe Lake.
The park's potential to be a light in the region and its reality as a place to be avoided have kept his attention ever since.
A master plan developed in 2007 with consultant RJM Design Group recommended $6.8 million in improvements for the park - new lights, relocated facilities, new parking spaces - among $77.3 million in recommended changes to the city's parks.
The report laid out various funding sources, including private donations and grants from the federal and state government, but that turned out to be a nonstarter for a department that for the last decade has been among the heaviest hit by budget cuts.
When Hawkins started, he said, his department had one worker for every 16 acres of parkland, compared to an industry standard of one person for every 10 acres. Then the city went through a round of steep budget cuts that reduced that to close to one person per 60 acres.
City budget documents show a 32 percent reduction in the department's staffing level between 2008 and 2012. Then, as part of a 30-percent reduction to most departments as the city filed for bankruptcy and took its first stab at a $45.8 million deficit, another 32 positions were eliminated in September.
In April, the city won $5 million in state funding for a 2.5-acre park for the corner of Ninth and E streets, in an area along the city's planned sbX bus rapid transit line.
Intended to be part of the city's revitalization along that line, the park attracted scores of residents to planning sessions before state and city officials began to worry that the city's bankruptcy jeopardized its ability to pay an estimated $50,000 a year in maintenance and upkeep.
At the city's request, the San Bernardino Valley Municipal Water District voted this month to take over the park and pay for it with money from the water district's water sales and property taxes.
But there just isn't the money to maintain parks the way other cities do, said Jim Morris, son and chief of staff to Mayor Pat Morris.
"It's one of the items that's first on the altar of services that gets cut when you're trying to solve budget problems," he said.
As San Bernardino fights creditors who are trying to convince a judge that the city doesn't deserve bankruptcy protection and should pay all of its bills - something city officials say would force the city to disincorporate - more funding isn't likely, Morris said.
In the case of Seccombe Lake Park, Morris said, creating an attractive park might require shrinking it.
"It simply becomes too much to maintain," he said. "Just having it sort of exist in the state that it is actually makes it a more unsafe place and more of a liability than an asset."
Activity is key to safety, Morris said - even as safety is key to activity.
Maintaining activity and sustained improvement in the park were the main reasons the Urban Conservation Corps of the Inland Empire recently decided to move its headquarters to Seccombe, said program director Sandy Bonilla.
Work crews of five to 10 young adults with one or two supervisors will work from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. five days a week at the park, according to a report given when the City Council approved the work Jan. 7.
"We've been working in the park for several years now, but now (before the shooting of Johnson) we realized we need to have a greater program at the park," Bonilla said.
Because the program, part of the Southern California Mountains Foundation is involved in urban forestry, it receives state funds that Bonilla said can be used to help clean the park.
Occasional large-scale clean-ups are nice, but parks across the city need more consistent work, Hawkins said.
"The bottom line is the entire park system needs additional funding," he said. "We've had beautification day, but there needs to be a dedicated and consistent investment into the park system."
Vandalism, resident homeless and other problems with Perris Hill Park drove resident Debbi Matley to join the city's parks commission in early 2012, and she quickly found the problems were common at many city parks and harder to solve than she realized.
"Parks and rec is a tragedy," said Matley, who is now the commission's president. "You have a parks and recreation staff that is committed and dedicated - there was a time (in 2012) when the city couldn't afford toilet paper, and people were bringing toilet paper and pipes and other things on their own. They're paddling as fast as they can, but there's just not a lot of movement."
A body was found shot in Lytle Creek Park in September, Matley noted, so the problem of violent parks isn't limited to the downtown area.
Volunteers, though, work mostly in the north end of town.
"We need more citizens involved, we really do," Matley said. "You go to neighborhood association meetings, and we have probably 20 active presidents, but that's out of 50-some spots for presidents. We need more citizens if we're going to turn this around.
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