Penry Park: Petaluma’s original ‘plaza’ still a gem
“Just look at this view!” says Kevin Hays, Recreation Coordinator for the Petaluma Parks and Recreation Department. “This is? a spectacular view!”
Hays is standing near a bench at Penry Park, in downtown Petaluma. It is just after 1 p.m., on a cold January afternoon, roughly halfway through a break in the overcast sky, currently bright blue with spectacular visibility. Hays is gazing East toward the Sonoma Mountains, and the sunlight is illuminating a number of historic mills and towers that stick up like whimsical paper constructs in an antique pop-up book between Penry Park and the distant mountains.
“You really cannot beat the view from this park,” says Hays. “It’s a nice little spot. But even though it’s right in the heart of downtown Petaluma, you wouldn’t believe how many people - people who shop down here all the time, or even walk right past the park on the Boulevard - don’t even know this park exists. Or they know it exists, but they somehow don’t realize it’s an actual park.”
Penry Park - formerly known as Hill Park, and before that Hill Plaza - is Petaluma’s very first public park. It was already a recognized landmark when the town became incorporated in 1858. Bordered by Petaluma Boulevard and Kentucky Street on the East and West, and tucked between the short, short Martha and Mary Streets on the North and South, its most recognizable features are its towering palm trees and a pair of old military guns embedded in stone. They are part of a war memorial installed near the Boulevard edge of the park, the guns and engravings often obscured by an envelopment of trees.
“You almost have to know that’s there to see it,” says Hays. “You kind of have to go looking for it intentionally. This whole park really has become a kind of memorial to our veterans, but a lot of people don’t know that.”
The park, in fact - after more than 140 years as Hill Park and/or Plaza - was officially renamed Penry Park to honor the late Richard Penry, of Petaluma, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism during the Vietnam War. The park was official rededicated in his name on Memorial Day, 2001. According to numerous published reports over the years, where those twin guns are now, there was once a large WWI-era cannon and two trench mortars, part of a still-?existing American Legion memorial to those lost during that war. During WWII, when scrap metal became vital to the new war effort, the cannon and mortars were removed and ceremoniously presented to the government to be melted down and transformed into something new. Though many hoped that another large cannon would be found to replace the original, the park eventually ended up with two small guns that remain in place to this day.
Hays himself selected Penry Park for this afternoon’s conversation, it being the kickoff to the Argus-Courier’s new series exploring all of the parks in Petaluma. Here’s a logical question then, for someone whose job is, in part, to oversee activities in in the town’s numerous recreation areas: What is it, exactly, that makes a park a park?
“A park is a park when it’s an area that someone regards as a place they can go and enjoy some kind of leisure time,” says Hays. “That leisure time can be physical, it can be emotional, it can be mental - it can be anything. I don’t think it’s the physical features of the place that makes a park a park. What makes that place a park is that someone goes there and uses it as a place of recreation or rest-and-relaxation or mediation or pleasure, either alone by themselves or with a group of others.”
Petaluma, for the record, currently has 46 public parks. They range in size from tiny “pocket parks” measuring less than a tenth of an acre - with nothing but a bench and a view to identify it as a park - to the 34-acre Lucchesi Park - crammed with playing fields, playgrounds, duck pond and picnic areas and the 220-acre Shollenberger Park, with plenty of trails, picnic tables, restrooms, parking lots, interpretative displays, and, of course, benches.
“When you are trying to determine what a Petaluma City park is,” observes Hays, “one definition could be that it has at least one bench, and that the City maintains it. That’s really all it takes. Some parks don’t have any green space at all. Center Park, in front of the Mystic Theatre. That’s a park. It’s one of Petaluma’s original parks, actually, and it has no green space, but it has benches. A lot of our parks are very small, and some are attached to open space. But the thing is, large or small, green or not green, Petaluma has an amazing number of parks.”
Admitting that some people are not as fond of parks, as a use of community space, as others are, Hays allows that there were times when Penry Park itself came close to be turned into a school, retail buildings and even a parking lot. Whenever that has happened, local groups and vocal citizens have stepped up to protect Penry as a landmark of historical value and a jewel of the downtown area - even if, as Hays has suggested, there are many who’ve yet to take a stroll through Penry themselves.
“Petaluma Parks are in an interesting place right now,” Hays says, “because, to be honest, a lot of our parks are on the old side, and some of them need upgrades really badly. And now, with the promise of some Measure M funds coming to us, we are actually going to be getting some money to spend on our parks and make long overdue improvements.”
That, he says is as good for those who care about historic preservation as those looking for a place to throw a Frisbee with their kids.
“The thing about Petaluma parks,” Hays says, “is that large or small, old or new, this town cares about its parks. The people of Petaluma love their parks. And even if some get used more than others, our parks really do get used a lot. That’s a pretty nice thing.”