Until recently, if highway 580 commuters glanced eastward toward Berkeley, they saw a collage of green shoreline with dilapidated, graffiti laden buildings, and a strip of flat water on the backdrop of an industrial landscape. This view has started to change in recent years and will continue to change for the better in coming months.
The Berkeley community has a long and often tumultuous history with its largest park. Flanked by a traditionally industrial area and highway 580, since its birth in the 1930s Aquatic Park has often been forgotten, and fallen into a state of disrepair. The 1930s through the 1960s were exciting times for the park, with active sailing programs and community members enjoying its waters. In the mid ’60s, concerned citizens were able to stop a developer who wanted to fill in the lagoons to create an industrial/business park. However, by the ’80s, community involvement had started to slow down and as the ’90s rolled around, many buildings stood empty and the neglected shoreline collected trash from the neighboring highway. Crime became a problem and rumors began to circulate that the park was “closed.” Finally, new life was brought to the park with construction of Dreamland for Kids Playground in 2000, the opening of the Berkeley Pedestrian Bridge in 2002, and the leasing of park buildings to local nonprofit organizations in following years.
Though crime and drug use have greatly subsided, Aquatic Park still suffers from its old reputation. While covering the recent tragedy that took place at the southern end of the park, news outlets from the East Bay to Fresno referenced drug use, prostitution, and other negative activities while setting the scene for the story. As it turns out, it was a very unfortunate series of events that lead the horrible crime to the park, but it had nothing to do with the park or its activities.
Aquatic Park has come a long way from where it was only ten years ago. Aquatic Park is now home to a handful of nonprofit organizations and bustles with joggers, cyclists, disc golfers, dog walkers, bird watchers, and boaters on sunny afternoons. Newly installed way-finding signs lead the community to the park from San Pablo Avenue and the Fourth Street Shopping District. The old boathouse at 80-84 Bolivar Drive is now inhabited by Waterside Workshops and Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP). Waterside Workshops is a nonprofit organization that consists of a community bicycle shop, a wooden boat shop, a youth education program, and soon, a small café. BORP provides an adaptive cycling program for people with physical disabilities and provides community members with the opportunity to ride in the park and on the adjoining Bay Trail. In the coming year, the two organizations will be working together to provide an adaptive boating program, and will install one of the first docks in the Bay Area that will be fully accessible to people with physical disabilities. Last year, the organizations jointly received a $200,000 grant from the Stewardship Council to renovate the old boathouse and improve the park infrastructure. Many other nonprofits are dotted along the shoreline and provide services including habitat restoration, community rowing and paddling, and waterskiing.
The community will have an opportunity to enjoy the progress of Berkeley’s Aquatic Park during Waterside Workshops 4th Annual Holiday Event and Toy-Making Workshop on Sunday, December 13th from 1-5pm. Bring your family to make wooden toys from sustainably sourced materials, enter a raffle for 1 of 25 kids bikes that will be given away, or just sit in the Waterside courtyard and enjoy the parade of brightly colored migratory birds on the waterway. This is a free event with a suggested $5 donation to support the organization’s efforts in Aquatic Park. For more information, please go to www.watersideworkshops.org or call (510) 644- 2577.
Amber Rich is the executive director of Waterside Workshops in Aquatic Park.