In the late 1800s, revelers from San Francisco traveled north to dance, eat, drink, even play baseball or bowl at Starke's Park, a small amusement park nestled between the railroad tracks and the Petaluma River.
Today, that land, now called Cedar Grove Park, is an unhealthy squatters' paradise of abandoned, graffiti-covered buildings, overgrown trees, discarded bedding, clothes and appliances. There are 50-gallon drums full of unknown substances, junked computer monitors, human waste, years of accumulated garbage and broken windows.
In the middle of it all are two historic structures. And underneath it all is a potential archeological trove of Native American relics.
Now, after several years of complaints about the deterioration of the property, Petaluma officials said there finally may be progress in cleaning it up.
That comes in part thanks to neighbors on nearby Rocca Drive, who have grumbled for years about fires, noise and crime in the 8-acre parcel behind their homes.
"It finally looks like it will be cleaned up," said Joe Garcia, the city's code enforcement officer. "It's a beautiful site and we'd love to see it developed, but there are just so many problems with it."
Petaluma police and code enforcement officials said the property has been a problem for years, rising to a priority when neighbors complained.
A decade ago, developers Work Force Housing Associates planned a housing development of more than five dozen single-family homes. After the firm lost the land to foreclosure a few years later, it was bought by an investment group called Cedar Grove Park LLC that included John Barella, former owner of North Bay Construction. Cedar Grove had plans to develop the property.
But those haven't materialized, and according to Garcia, the investors bailed out, leaving Barella responsible.
The property has been a magnet for trouble for years, Police Lt. Tim Lyons said. In the 1990s, Holmberg Roofing owned part of the land and narrowly escaped being shut down by the city after neighbors' complaints.
Neighbors rebelled against the business, saying it illegally dumped fill dirt in the flood plain and violated its permit by expanding outside storage, working with noisy equipment after hours, constructing buildings without permits and allowing debris to be strewn about the property.
In the past three or four years, the condition of the property has deteriorated markedly, Garcia said. There have been several suspicious fires in the past decade.
Police and fire calls are common, among them a grass fire last summer that burned to the edge of the Bloom-Tunstall house, a historic two-story Carpenter Gothic house believed to have been built around 1860.
In the past six months, a carport roof has begun caving in on a huge mound of junk, Garcia said. Most of the exposed entries to the houses are rotted out.
In December 2012, the city issued a notice of violation to clean it up. Nothing was done for more than a year, Garcia said.
Recently, Barella has complied with condemnation orders to board up all the windows of the many structures on the sprawling land.
Barella said it's not his fault the property has languished and deteriorated. He blamed it on the city not acting on his request for a demolition permit, which he said he sought last summer.
Garcia said Barella wanted to raze every structure on the property, though, which can't be done because of the historic structures the city wants to preserve.