Community Voices

How Saving Cayuga Park United the Neighborhood

By and large, most older people want to remain in their own homes as long as possible. Senior services professionals call it “aging in place.”

For the neighbors in Cayuga Terrace, a residential neighborhood of single-family homes tucked away between Geneva Avenue, San Jose Avenue and Alemany Boulevard, aging in place demands residents know and care for one another.

Until several years ago, that didn’t exist.

Cayuga Sketch

Illustration: Neil Ballard

By and large, most older people want to remain in their own homes as long as possible. Senior services professionals call it “aging in place.”

For the neighbors in Cayuga Terrace, a residential neighborhood of single-family homes tucked away between Geneva Avenue, San Jose Avenue and Alemany Boulevard, aging in place demands residents know and care for one another.

Until several years ago, that didn’t exist.

The community was blessed with two strong forces for change: a park in need of serious attention and many young retirees.

The Park

There’s magic in Cayuga Park, the city park in the corner of Cayuga Terrace. In 1986, San Francisco Recreation and Park assigned Demetrio “Demi” Braceros to the park and what he did was a miracle.  In addition to creating lush gardens with hidden trails, Demi began sculpting wooden folk art from trees felled by storms. People from around the city visited, and the neighbors loved him and his work. But even Demi’s creativity and vigilance could not save the park.

“Cayuga Park was an ugly and depressing place, controlled by gangs from neighboring communities,” Barbara Fugate, a key player in the revitalization of the park, said. “You didn’t visit without a group of friends, or two big dogs.”

In December 2011, the city closed the park for renovation.

The other impetus for change came from the neighbors. Many of the residents of Cayuga Terrace are retirees, with energy and the expertise to get things done.

Suddenly home during the day, the new retirees—mainly women—discovered that they really didn’t know their neighbors. So they began knocking on doors and organizing events in their homes: a game night, ladies night. Neighbors shared tools and time: a ride to a doctor’s appointment, pet care, trips to the grocery store, checking up on neighbors who weren’t well.

People who thought they had nothing to offer found themselves happily engaged in a network of mutual exchange. Saving Cayuga Park gave the community a focus that brought neighbors together in planning the new park. By the time the park reopened two years later, neighbors had become friends.

“It changed our whole neighborhood, it was a ripple effect. Sometimes I just go to the park with my camera and sit and watch,” remarked Chris Dillon, resident and community organizer. “It’s always pure magic and it is the heart of our vibrant community. Had Demi not chosen to share his stunning vision and gift of love, I have no doubt that our community would still be cold and angry. We weren’t an open community, we are now.”

The Community

The challenge of creating community did not fade with the opening of the park. The Reverend Glenda Hope, community organizer and neighbor, explained: “We wanted to create an infrastructure so people will stay in the community. We don’t want anyone to feel isolated, whether they’re seniors, immigrants, new residents. We wanted to integrate people into the community, to keep our neighborhood together. Our ultimate goal is for people to connect with each other and look out for each other; we want everyone to know they have something to offer. It’s not going to happen by itself.  We’ve got to let every person know we’re here.  People who thought they had nothing to offer found themselves happily engaged in a network of mutual exchange.”

Two years ago, Hope, Dillon and others approached their supervisor, John Avalos, for funding to rent space at the Center at Bethel Lutheran Church to offer an exercise program for seniors. Supervisor Avalos committed $6,000, and the organizers hired fitness instructor Terry Watson to run the program.

Hope and Dillon then turned to the Department of Aging and Adult Services for continuation funding. “We said, this is what we’ve done. We’re bringing people together. This area of the city is vastly underserved, here’s what we’ve been able to do.”

The Department agreed to fund both the exercise program for seniors and the larger organizing effort.

“The exercise program makes a big impact,” Fugate said. It’s during the day when seniors are at home by themselves. They’re isolated.  Now they have to get dressed and come out.  We talk to one another, we say hello. On Mondays, we serve refreshments after class.   In talking, we learn that this person lives around the corner, but I never talked with her.  We build trust by taking classes with someone.

People come separately, but they leave in twos and threes. We’re knitting together in an ‘old-school’ neighborhood. Before this, the only way people met each other was when they were walking their dog.”

Mathilde Houghton, a member of the class added, “It’s exciting. All these people live in the neighborhood. Now I say “hello” to them when I see them in the street.”

“What we’re doing now is working to create clusters of community, organizing block-by-block,” Hope said. “We’re bringing in young and old. This is not aging in place, this is aging in community. Our vision of community is intergenerational with everyone of whatever age contributing his or her gifts, wisdom, strengths, time and love to others here. Old people want to age at home and remain ‘givers’ as we have always been. Young families need our guidance and support. Adolescents and youth need encouragement and the joy of helping, as well as what they can learn from their elders.  People really change when they know they can do something.”

“We all need each other and everyone has something to contribute,” Dillon added. “We’ve done a lot and we’re going to do even more. We’re going to create an infrastructure so people stay in the community.”

For more information, contact Patti Spaniak at pspaniak@mac.com or (646) 409-7775.

 

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