From last BIKE magazine: Nice job Mr. Mark Davidson!
UNCOMMON ALLIANCEAll across North America, drug havens are being transformed into community areas centered around mountain bikes. Could locations like Santa Cruz, California’s former ‘Heroin Hill’ set a paradigm for the future?
BY PETER FRICK-WRIGHT
There was little mystery to the crime wave that hit Santa Cruz in 2009.
In certain parts of downtown, heroin was about as hard to find as a Subway restaurant, and the Sureños—a division of the Mexican Mafia—were duking it out with Salvadoran drug cartel MS-13 for rights to the franchise.
Business was built around Pogonip Park, 640 acres of forest and thickets tucked between UC Santa Cruz and the city—a prime setting for anything illicit. It was hard for police to access, easy for dealers to hide in. Heroin sold for $5 to $10 a hit and concentric circles of sentries hidden in the bushes would hoot like owls if the cops were coming.
I’m not making this up.
Drug camps proliferated and the park was dubbed ‘Heroin Hill.’ Syringes littered the ground outside nearby businesses as drug users wandered out of Pogonip and through the rest of the city, funding their habits with petty crimes. In 2008, there were 5,601 reported thefts in Santa Cruz. In 2009, there were nearly 1,000 more.
By October, Santa Cruz resident and self-described ‘regular person’ Analicia Cube had about enough of it. On Halloween night she went online and created a group. Then she went downtown and stood on a corner with a sign reading, “Find ‘Take Back Santa Cruz’ on Facebook.” When she got home, the group had 1,500 members.
“We knew where to go, we knew where people were dealing drugs,” she said. “All I did was say, ‘Hey, join me.’”
A few weeks later, Cube told the group to meet on a street corner and brought hot chocolate and a sleeve of cups. She was 8.5 months pregnant, but she spent the evening standing with the 75 people who showed up. They didn’t hold signs or chant slogans, they just got in the way, dealing cocoa.
Cube got death threats, but it worked. Take Back Santa Cruz did more positive loitering, trying various tactics to see what was most effective.
“There was no book on how to do this,” she said.
Pretty soon, they were the ones hiding in the bushes at Pogonip, reporting drug violations to the police to create a record of the problem and then showing up at city council meetings to ask what politicians were doing about it.
In 2010, Santa Cruz police joined forces with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and scared up two high-profile Salvadoran gang leaders, Jose Alvarenga and Jose Abrego Galdamez, who fled on mountain bikes when the police showed up.
Both men discovered such joy racing through the trees, however, that they quit selling drugs and began running youth mountain-bike programs for poor kids in El Salvador.
No, just kidding. That didn’t happen.
What did happen was that police arrested both men during a traffic stop and deported following their sentence. Alvarenga came back, was arrested again and is currently serving 27 months in federal prison; Galdamez shipped out in October 2010 and hasn’t been heard from again.
Shortly after their arrest, however, the city announced there was no money to staff the patrols that had been working Pogonip. Patrolling the park would be left to two rangers armed with pepper spray and two community service officers carrying batons.
Then a ranger found a loaded handgun just off a trail and supervisors barred their officers from confronting any drug users. There were certain trails they couldn’t even walk.
Sporadic efforts at clearing out the park continued, but after every raid, Pogonip’s addicted population returned and rebuilt their camps, like a splashed puddle flowing back to its lowest point.
SEVERAL YEARS PRIOR, New York City had a similar problem.
The first time Mike Vitti, president of the Concerned Long Island Mountain Bikers (CLIMB), went to Highbridge Park, near Washington Heights in Manhattan, he was offered a blowjob and drugs on his way in, then chased with a baseball bat on his way out.
“I was giving them the stink-eye, they were giving me the stink-eye,” he said of his relationship with the park’s tenants, though he was impressed by the encampments.
“There was one that looked like a duplex,” Vitti said. “They had furniture in there.”
Vitti was at Highbridge because he’d written a letter to park’s district commissioner Adrian Benepe after learning that mountain bikes were outlawed in all New York parks. Conventional wisdom had it that mountain bike access caused rogue trail building; Vitti saw it differently.
“If you let us build purpose-built mountain bike trails, the exciting place to be is going to be on the trails,” Vitti wrote in his letter.
Vitti was put in touch with Dawson Smith, head of the New York City Mountain Biking Association, who was in the process of trying to get a mountain bike trail built in every borough.
“The stars aligned for us,” Smith said. “At the time, New York was being considered for the Olympics. Mountain biking had become an Olympic sport and they needed a venue.”
Vitti wanted to build seven miles of trails in Cunningham Park in Queens, since it was bigger and less decrepit. The city chose Highbridge, since it needed to be cleaned up.
Vitti figured that if they did Highbridge first they’d be out of leverage and unable to motivate anyone to green light the project at Cunningham, so they countered with an offer to build both projects simultaneously. He went to scout the terrain and soon found himself running through Highbridge’s ample blackberry crop, fleeing two men using sporting goods to make it clear they’d prefer Vitti stay the **** out.
He decided to make the trails mostly expert-level, he said, since advanced gravity riders have the internal fortitude to deal with stuff like that. Also, he said, they have body armor.
Construction began in 2005. Trail crews removed 1,200 hypodermic needles from Highbridge, along with car parts, sofas, garbage, and a cannonball from the battle of Fort George Hill, in November, 1776.
“I asked if the parks department wanted it,” Vitti said. “They said they have a lot of cannonballs.”
When it was finally ready in May 2007, mountain bikers stormed the trails.
Highbridge is near two subways, with dirt jumps and steeper trails built for the adrenaline set. Cunningham is bigger, with a cross-country loop and features more befitting a family man.
It didn’t change the parks overnight, but every week a ‘Dirty Thursday’ cleanup program attracted riders volunteering for manual labor and maintenance duty. Every weekend at Cunningham Park some volunteer took it upon themself to sweep any broken glass off the bridge leading across Interstate 295, which bisects the green space.
By 2009, Vitti said, Highbridge and Cunningham were passing park inspections. The trails were also ensnaring invasive plants, making them easier to remove. The Highbridge trails won all sorts of awards, including ‘Most Innovative Project’ from Green Apple Corps and an achievement award from American Trails in the Environment and Wildlife Compatibility category.
Even if vandals stole 30 of the 50 trail signs Vitti posted the first year, the parks were finally usable, and the tenor of interactions with the parks indigent population was utterly different.
One day, Vitti was replacing signs in Highbridge when a man approached. Rather than run Vitti off, however, he wanted to talk.
“Have you ever tried heroin before?” he asked.
Vitti said he hadn’t, and the man tried to describe what it feels like. Vitti listened, then suggested that maybe he should take up mountain biking.
“Are you crazy?” the guy said. “That **** looks dangerous.”
WHEN THE SANTA CRUZ Sentinel ran a series on the local heroin trade, Mark Davidson remembers making jokes about it. “A mountain-bike trail through the park would solve that problem,” he said.
The Santa Cruz mountain-biking scene is something of a paradox. The city is a mainstay of the industry and home to brands like Bell, Giro, Ibis and Santa Cruz Bicycles, but thanks to a small contingent of hardcore conservationists that tend to sue land managers upon approval of any new trails, it has almost no legal riding.
Davidson, by the way, is the president of the group, Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz.
“There’s an implicit don’t ask, don’t tell policy as far as enforcement goes,” he said. “But what’s left behind is the impression that we are lawless.”
Land managers mostly ignored mountain bikers, but when the same budget crisis that curtailed police patrols in Pogonip hit the parks department, they started looking for project partners and free labor.
With Take Back Santa Cruz hassling politicians about drugs in Pogonip, the city passed a special tax to fund increased patrols. From 2010 to 2011, police and fire swept through regularly, and by the fall of 2011, it was clear of homeless camps. But the constant professional vigilance was too expensive to be a long-term solution.
A few days after Davidson joked about building a mountain-bike trail through a heroin den, however, he found out that the city was proposing exactly that. It would be about 1.5 miles long and open to horses, hikers, runners and bikes, in hopes that more eyes and ears would mean fewer guns and drugs.
Davidson immediately offered MBOSC’s help and expertise. From his perspective, the project was perfect. The multi-use trail would serve as a bridge between trails near UC Santa Cruz and the city, creating an all-dirt loop where before, bikers had been riding along railroad tracks or on the shoulder of Highway 9.
“This trail is the keystone,” Davidson said. “It basically unlocks mountain biking in Santa Cruz.” It also put the opposition in the difficult position of defending the heroin trade.
“There is literally no better trail that can be proposed,” Davidson said.
But if you thought a little bit of dope would change the prevailing wind against mountain biking, you haven’t spent much time in Santa Cruz.
In December 2011, when it became clear that the usual suspects would oppose the trail, I called Analicia Cube, who had been attending the city council meetings. She summed up the opposition like this: “They’re going to lose,” she said. “And then they’re going to sue.”
IN SEATTLE, NO ONE HAD the audacity to take on Colonnade Park.
Mountain bike opposition is fairly entrenched, Glenn Glover, president of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, told me. “But none of that transferred to a blighted park in the city,” he said.
Located underneath Interstate 5, Colonnade Park is a two-acre plot between Capitol Hill and Eastlake and the only pedestrian walkway linking the neighborhoods. Concrete pylons thick as old growths elevate the freeway and freeride features grow off the embankment, linked by trails built into the rain-starved moondust covering the hill.
Ten years ago, Colonnade Park was covered in trash—you may be noticing a theme—and home to the homeless. Foot traffic between Capitol Hill and Eastlake had to walk through the encampments. The city wanted options.
A group called Urban Sparks came up with the idea of building a bike park, and the Backcountry Bicycle Trails Club—now the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance—stepped up to help.
“Things happen sort of slowly in Seattle so it had to percolate for a bit,” Glover said. “It’s not just a question of scratching some trails into a piece of land.”
There were concerns about funding, but the Department of Neighborhoods had a grant that matched any money raised by the public. There were concerns about liability, but the group developed trail guidelines based on similar freeride parks at Whistler, in British Columbia, and Black Rock, in Oregon. There were also concerns, according to Seattle Parks Department senior planner David Graves, that the space would become a terrorist target.
Instead, it became a popular winter riding spot. Volunteers, led by former Hewlett Packard engineer Mike Westra, spent 2003 and 2004 building out the space. Graves managed the project on the city’s end, mostly encouraging, but sometimes reining in the builders.
“At one point I had to say no to a big hamster-wheel feature,” he said. “It was like a treadmill for bikes.”
Earlier this year, I asked number-cruncher nonpareil and economics Ph.D. candidate Jonathan Eyer to look at Colonnade in hopes that we could determine the park’s quantifiable impact on the city.
We were unsuccessful, but the process was enlightening.
Eyer looked at assessed values on surrounding properties within a quarter-mile of the Colonnade and compared that to similar neighborhoods without bike parks. I won’t pretend to understand the equations, but at one point he sent me some preliminary data showing a 2-percent spike in assessed values. Later, however, he wrote back that he’d been wrong, that the data didn’t show any effect.
After explaining some complicated math stuff he wrote: “The data doesn’t show anything other than the broad changes in price... I have a hard time believing that the bike path would drive values that much. It’s much more reasonable to think that there’s unobserved stuff that I didn’t control for in my regressions.”
Lois Maag at the Seattle Department of Neighborhoods explained that a mountain-bike park’s impact is not really measurable via property values because core riders are spread throughout a city rather than paying higher rent to live close by.
There is some value in cleaning up a blighted space and improving walkability, but larger factors like the quality of schools, restaurants and transit wash out the effect.
Also, the people closest to a park like this probably don’t use bike stunts as much as they would a patch of grass.
But while a versatile green space may appeal to more people, fewer of them feel compelled to help if it falls into disrepair. The lesson of Colonnade and Highbridge Park is that mountain bikers are good stewards of urban bike parks because if they go to ****, there’s no more mountain biking.
This isn’t exactly blowing the lid off of urban renewal theory, but about the time construction finished at Colonnade, Graves’ phone started ringing. In a down economy, city planners from around the country were starting to look at their own leftover spaces and they wanted to talk about bike parks.
THE SANTA CRUZ CITY
Council decided the fate of the Pogonip multi-use trail on March 27, 2012.
Three weeks prior, the Parks and Recreation Commission had voted 6 to 0 to recommend approving the trail. Unless the city council vote was similarly lopsided, however, there would likely be a lawsuit suing the city for more environmental review, increasing the cost of the project and upping the needed political capital.
“The opponents of this trail are smart, politically savvy and well connected,” wrote MBOSC trails officer Drew Perkins in an email to the club. “They have been working very hard to kill or delay this project and it is by no means guaranteed that it will pass.”
The mountain bikers needed to win every category—council vote, meeting turnout, petition signatures—by such a huge margin that their opposition decided the game wasn’t fun anymore, took their ball and went home.
Both sides had 15 minutes to present at the meeting, and then the city council would vote.
Celia Scott, co-founder of opposition group Friends of the Pogonip, went first, arguing that mountain bikes did not solve homelessness any more than they cured drug addiction. Besides, the park had been cleaned up.
“Why does this trail continue to be a priority when the claimed public safety need is no longer urgent...?” she said. “Is it simply because mountain bikers have offered to pay for the trail? What if other groups offered to pay for no trail? I think we all know what that would be called.”
Scott proposed an alternative trail, built outside the park, along the railroad line leading toward UC Santa Cruz. She had 460 signatures in support.
Mark Davidson spoke on behalf of MBOSC and immediately asked the crowd to stand up if they were there in support of the trail.
“Thank you very much for participating in democracy,” he told them.
His presentation focused on the fact that mountain biking grew substantially over the last two decades and trail access had not kept up.
“We’re seeing an increasing number of riders on too few legal trails,” he said.
Also, thanks in part to a Nomad donated by Santa Cruz Bicycles that raised $11,000 when raffled off by MBOSC, they did in fact have money to pay for the trail. They also had a track record of turning out volunteers to work days and fostering community involvement: 1,786 people had signed Davidson’s petition supporting the trail.
When the council finally voted, it approved the trail 6 to 1, a score just one-sided enough to prevent a lawsuit.
In her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban activist Jane Jacobs discusses the myth of urban playgrounds and parks. She writes:
“Too much is expected of city parks. Far from transforming any essential quality in their surroundings, far from automatically uplifting their neighborhoods, neighborhood parks themselves are directly and drastically affected by the way the neighborhood acts upon them.”
In other words, parks do not revitalize a blighted neighborhood. But it is possible for a neighborhood to revitalize a park.
Come the first inkling of summer, the MBOSC launched an ambitious schedule of trail building. They built twice during the workweek and asked for volunteers on the even numbered day each weekend to haul rocks and move dirt and flag the trail to maintain flow.
By late June, they had cut over 5,000 feet of trail and put in 1,146 volunteer hours. They were building at a furious pace, an urgent pace. It was the kind of pace you get when the people holding the shovels buy-in to the project—the kind of pace you get when there’s something at stake.
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