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