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Parks of Petaluma: Westridge Parks a ‘slice of Heaven’

THE PARKS OF PETALUMA

This is part 6 of a multi-part series, taking an in-depth look at every single park and park-related facility in the town of Petaluma, from its 46 Parks & Recreation-maintained public parks and seven recreation facilities, to its 10 distinct, County-maintained open space areas. Are you part of a community group that cares for, supports or looks after a particular park within city limits? Willing to give us a little tour and tell us what makes that particular slice-of-Petaluma-Heaven special? Drop a line to Community Editor David Templeton and let us know. You can reach him at

david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

“If! You’re happy! And you Know it! Clap! Your! Hands!”

A small boy, standing at the bottom of a shiny, brown, plastic slide at Westridge Park (200 Eckman Place), is gleefully shouting the words to the well-known children’s song on a slightly overcast Thursday morning. His high, happy voice carries across the playground and down the pathway, where a pair of dogs, being walked on leashes by a short gentleman in an Oakland A’s baseball cap, perk up their ears in curiosity as they approach the park. In the sand surrounding various climbing contraptions, a group of kids and their caregivers are digging, clambering, sliding, swinging and exploring in the playground area, as the harsh-to-sweet sounds of crows and songbirds adds a soundtrack to all the cheerfully youthful activity.

Westridge Park - known to many as the Westridge Parks (note the plural ‘parks’) - includes the small playground area and the Westridge Open Space area. To newcomers, the long ribbon-like refuge might resemble a random series of tree-dotted, half-wild odds-and-ends of land, all lined up end-to-end across two residential neighborhoods - Westridge and Westridge Knolls - linked together by the riparian habitat of Thompson Creek. The area is part of the Petaluma Green Lane, marked as such by signs with the recognizable green circular emblem denoting one of the town’s many biking, walking and running paths. From the playground, the trails runs in either direction, crossing the creek here and there to give access to another path on the other side of the slender waterway.

“This is a much better little park than it was, the playground area and all,” says Christine Cohen, resident of the Westridge neighborhood since 1985. According to Cohen, the playground, in its spiffy current form, is an expansion and upgrade of the original one put in when the original development went in the 1970s.

Westridge Park is one of those magical places that you wouldn’t know about unless you lived in the neighborhood, or chanced upon it while out exploring on a bicycle. Cohen is fond of calling it her “slice of heaven.” The place is popular among nearby dog-walkers, and though one large grassy area is often used as a place for dog-owners to play catch, leash-free canines are technically prohibited, except on the East side of the creek, where a city sign declares the path to be a Designated Dog Run Area from 6-9 a.m. daily, between Sunnyslope and Westridge Ave.

“Lots of people like to walk their dogs here,” Cohen says, noting that almost everyone she encounters has two dogs. “I suppose that’s so the dogs have company,” she smiles. Along the creek are little nooks and crannies favored by egrets, Great Blue Herons, kingfishers, mallards and other ducks, while the canopy over the creek is often the home to warblers, White Crowned and Golden Crowned sparrows, wrens, nuthatches, woodpeckers, juncos, and robins. A tree stump right out of Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” guards a small pond Cohen says is often filled with frogs and small birds.

As is often the case with a beloved community park like this, Westridge Park is not defined only by its trees and trails, its playgrounds and benches, or its various visiting birds and beasts. To Cohen, it’s the people who made the park happen, and those who continue to care for it that actually make this park a park.

“It’s so important for people to know what went into creating this, and all the parks we all enjoy,” says Cohen. “This one is 20 years in the making, more or less. After 20 years or so, people forget. New folks move in, and they don’t know anything about the people who made the parks possible, who raised the money, planted and watered the trees, went to meetings and all those kinds of things. This place is the result of an enormous amount of work by many, many people. Parks don’t just appear. People make them happen.”

Cohen, leading a short walk, has stopped about 15 yards past the playground, pointing across Thompson Creek to where she says cows once grazed.

“Thompson Creek was just a ditch once, but during the winters the water could move pretty fast down through here,” she says. “Try to imagine the water rising up and coming to some people’s doorsteps. A couple of cows drowned one year. A horse drowned in the creek further down, toward I Street. It’s so much better now because of what the people here created.”

Above and beyond the neighborhood rise a series of hills, tree-dotted and rocky, overseen by the Sonoma Land Trust. According to Cohen, a great slab of property here was once nothing but treeless pastureland. At the time that she and her husband moved in, Thompson Creek had recently been straightened out by the construction company Condiotti, which built the homes in the two adjoining neighborhoods. It was after Westridge was completed, with Condiotti discussing plans to build the adjoining Westridge Knolls, that many residents joined together, formed an action group called Friends of Westridge, and set out to protect the open space from development, while looking for ways to prevent flooding in the neighborhood during those winters when Thompson Creek overflowed.

THE PARKS OF PETALUMA

This is part 6 of a multi-part series, taking an in-depth look at every single park and park-related facility in the town of Petaluma, from its 46 Parks & Recreation-maintained public parks and seven recreation facilities, to its 10 distinct, County-maintained open space areas. Are you part of a community group that cares for, supports or looks after a particular park within city limits? Willing to give us a little tour and tell us what makes that particular slice-of-Petaluma-Heaven special? Drop a line to Community Editor David Templeton and let us know. You can reach him at

david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

The heart of the plan was to establish a riparian habitat along the winding Westridge Parks. A holding pond was already in the works for the Westridge Knolls area, which fit into the action group’s dreams of planting trees along the creek to enhance bird habitat and absorb the sometimes-heavy rainfall. By 1992, money was actively being raised to fund plantings along Thompson Creek, with the idea being a canopy of trees stretching the creek, to offer shade and inhibit evaporation during the summer heat.

Cohen credits a committed team of neighbors, and strong support from Jim Carr, who was then Petaluma’s Park and Recreation Director, along with Parks and Recreation’s Dorothy Morris, Parks Commissioner Donna Curtis and Kurt Yeiter of the Petaluma Planning Dept.

“The idea was to reduce evaporation, to keep the cattails and blackberry bushes from taking over and clogging up the stream,” says Cohen. “It took a lot of labor to make this what it is. During the winters, for a while, the creeks would flood and wash away the new trees and grasses. We’d come back and plant again the following year. We started off with a small section and worked our way along the creek a little at a time each year.”

Cohen recalls collaborating with the city to run long hoses from Petaluma water sources out to the creek to water the young trees during hot summer months.

“I remember, one August when it was 100 degrees, and it was my job to water the trees. I was out there in the heat, trying to keep the trees alive. It worked, as you can see. I do feel a bit of gladness when I see how well the trees are doing. It’s just another example of a community working together to make something happen.”

Cohen approaches an area on the West side of the creek where a community garden stands surrounded by chain-link fences. Inside are small areas where locals grow their own fruits and vegetables. A charming sitting area has been created just outside the garden at the far end, where Cohen says neighbors often gather when the weather is good.

“Gloria McAllister started this garden, working with the city to make it a community resource that is still being used by the people of Petaluma today,” Cohen says. McCallister’s father, Cohen points out, was one of the neighbors who participated in removing star thistle from the area, including the large, grassy play area where neighbors have set up soccer nets and benches to watch afternoon games.

“Jose singlehandedly got rid of all these rocks that were here, and all of that star thistle,” she gives credit. “That was heroic. It really made a difference.”

Among the many other neighbors who were involved in the creation of Westridge Park is Hugh Stevenson, who was instrumental, Cohen says, in securing grants for replanting, and in supporting the development of the Thompson Creek Revegetation Plan that was created by the North Bay Watershed Association in cooperation with the Sonoma County Water Agency and the City of Petaluma.

According to Stevenson, Westridge Parks, for all the work done 20-plus years ago, is an ongoing project.

“I don’t think anything is ever truly finished there,” he says. “We’re happy with the canopy growth as it is. We’ve begin doing some in-planting of small plants along the creek, working with the Sonoma County Water agency on that. As for the future of the park, that has a lot has to do with people coming along and looking for new projects to do. I think we’ll still do more planting in the future, but there’s not current plan for that.”

For the moment, Stevenson’s focus is looking at ways to improve and support the Community garden.

“It’s the first community garden in Petaluma,” he says. “That makes it something special, I think.”

As for the Westridge Parks area in general, Stevenson agrees with Cohen that many have no idea what it took to make the area what it is today.

“I think most people who use it don’t know the history of the park,” he allows, adding that there are plenty of folks eager to share that information with anyone who asks. “Most people are unaware that this was a natural setting that was once laid bare, and was replanted by the people who moved in early on. The spot where people the walking by are most likely to get information today is the garden, actually. It’s not uncommon for people to walk by, when someone’s working there, and ask questions about the garden, the creek, the whole area. That’s probably where the story gets passed along most often.”

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