Growing up near San Pablo Park has always been special. Some people raised in the neighborhood decades ago, have never moved away.
Bordered by Ward, Park, Russell and Mabel streets, the park has remained a home for neighbors to meet and children to play.
San Pablo Park is also filled with history. Not only is it the oldest park in Berkeley, but the 50-year-old San Pablo Neighborhood Council is also the oldest neighborhood council in the city.
The 12.95 acres of land in South Berkeley were purchased in 1907 by the city for $35,000. By 1918, San Pablo Park had two baseball diamonds, two tennis courts and a field house. According city records, it was known as one of the best recreation fields in the Bay Area at that time.
Kermit Bayless, the current San Pablo Neighborhood Council president, is one of those who grew up in the neighborhood and never left. His mother, Corene Bayless, still lives in his childhood home, just across the park from where he lives today.
“Back then, when they said it takes a village to raise a family, it was practice,” Bayless said.
Today Bayless and Debbie Dillahunty, another neighbor involved in the council, sit around and talk about growing up in the San Pablo Park neighborhood. They remember playing games in the streets with other neighborhood children and going over to the park to borrow basketballs and tether balls.
“To think about growing up in this area always brings a smile to my face,” Dillahunty said.
“At the park they had so many activities. That’s another thing that we would like to get back to having. We always had a talent show to look forward to. It was just a place where you could go. They had cooking classes, you name it and it was over there for us to do.”
Doris Branch Tabor moved into the neighborhood from Texas in 1943. The neighborhood has changed some in the last half century, she says. The main difference she has noticed is that she used to know everybody on the block, but there isn’t as much of a community feel any more.
Tabor is one of many neighbors who have been involved in the neighborhood council for decades. Her husband was a founding member, as were Corene Bayless and Esther Bell, who are both still members, but Tabor didn’t start attending meetings until the 1970s.
“We are a group of dedicated people who want the best for our neighborhood,” Tabor said. “We are few in number but we are in unison and we are in cohesion.”
The council was formed in the 1950s by a group of people concerned about changes the city wanted to make at the park. The city was thinking about building a fire station and school on the grounds of San Pablo Park, and the residents wanted input on the direction in which their park was heading.
“At that time, out in the center of the park was a little shack that was dilapidated, ready to fall down,” Kermit Bayless said. “The park needed a lot of work.”
The early members of the council had the park totally renovated during the 1960s. New tennis courts were resurfaced and three full-length basketball courts were added. The renovation also replaced the old clubhouse in the center of the park, which by that time was over 30 years old.
“There were a lot of stories about that old clubhouse,” Bayless joked. “We thought ghosts were in there. It had some history; spooky history.”
The council, made up of residents who live between San Pablo Avenue and Sacramento Street and Dwight Way and Ashby Avenue, is constantly working to improve the park and bring back some of the community feel to the area that has been lost over the years. Monthly meetings usually attract 25 to 30 people from the neighborhood.
To celebrate its 50th anniversary, the neighborhood council will hold an all-day festival in the park on Sept. 23. Bayless is arranging baseball, basketball and tennis tournaments, entertainment, food vendors and other neighborhood merchants to be at the event.
Organizers hope that the association will grow as a result of the festival and that it will rebuild a sense of community that the San Pablo neighborhood has been lacking.
The festival is being held, in part, for the children of the area, Dillahunty said. “We want them to take over the position that Kermit is handling now and to appreciate the park in the same manner. But they have to know the history so that they can appreciate the beauty of the park as well.”
Organizers of the San Pablo Neighborhood Council’s 50th Anniversary Fair are looking for vendors and advertisers for the event. The public may contact Kermit Bayless at (510) 845-4951 for more information.