Petaluma Parks: Raymond Heights ‘park’ a neighborhood treasure
To the residents of Raymond Heights, a petite, one-block-long, hilltop neighborhood on the West Side of Petaluma, the tiny, oblong strip of grass that divides the street is very definitely a park. It’s got a bench, two trees, a street lamp at either end, and is frequently used by dog walkers and children. It has views of the city and the Sonoma Mountains that dare pedestrians not to stop and take it all in for a moment.
The little space even hosts social gatherings of nearby neighbors from time to time.
“I’ve been to a couple of parties here over the years, so it’s definitely a park in every way but the name,” says Leif Ortegren, noting that the city of Petaluma views the scrap of lawn as more of a median than a park. The 20-foot-wide, 200-foot-long strip is certainly not named among the city’s current list of 44 parks and “pocket parks,” regardless of how neighbors view it on the sweetly situated, flagpole dotted street that runs just parallel to I Street, with 6th Street to the east and Olive Street to the west.
“Oh, to us, it’s a park,” says Ann Jones, a retired schoolteacher who’s lived on Raymond Heights for decades. “It’s a really nice neighborhood, and we do enjoy our little park.”
“It’s not very good for a Frisbee, but perhaps a gentle ball toss for a child or dog,” notes Allie Andrews, who grew up on Raymond Heights. “But if they miss, you have to chase the ball down the hill.”
According to neighbor Nancy Wilson, it was around 1926 that the prominent Petaluma merchant I.B. Raymond bought and subdivided what had been a rock quarry just south of I Street.
“He called the subdivision Raymond Heights, and the street that now bears that name was designated Raymond Avenue,” Wilson says. “Two large trees, an oak and a California bay laurel, stood in the middle of the land and Raymond Avenue divided around them.”
On May 1, 1939, Raymond “sold” the property to the city for the price of one dollar, she says, with the understanding that it would be maintained as a park.
“Old man Raymond, he developed this whole hill, and to him, this was a park,” says Lois VanBebber Roberts, who lives directly across the street and is widely viewed as the matriarch of Raymond Heights, and the devoted caretaker of the little park that isn’t a park. “My mother, when she came to town in 1919, she and her little girlfriends lived down on the Boulevard.” From the middle of the grassy lawn, she points down the hill to a spot in the distance. “My mom said she and her friends would walk up here, when there was a great big oak tree right there,” she continues, pointing out the location of the now-gone oak, “and it was really just a field then. But she’d walk up here and do whatever they did. But when Raymond turned this area into a subdivision the retaining wall went in around this, and he started to think of it as more of a park. My father used to swear up and down that the oak tree was 300 years old, but I don’t know if that was true. People say a lot of things.”
The tree fell down a long time ago, she recalls.
“One day,” she tells Ortegren, as they make their way along the little strip, “my husband said to me, ‘You know, I’m worried that that oak tree is going to come down on top of our house some day,’ and I said, ‘You don’t have to worry about that. It just fell over, and it didn’t hit our house, but it’s lying in our front yard.’ It missed my house by a few feet, and it put a dent in the curb when it came down.”
According to Roberts, when she was small, most of the trees rising up around the neighborhood were not there, and one could see a great distance in all directions.
“I could see the baseball games at McNear Park, that’s how far you could see then,” she says. “I could go and get my binoculars, stand right here and tell you who was on first base. The trees are all too high for that now. But it’s a nice little place, and it’s very popular on the Fourth of July. People come with their chairs and sit here and you can see the fireworks better than anywhere.”
According to Ortegren, Roberts has been caring for the park for years, watering and mowing the grass, raking the leaves in the fall, and fighting the ever-encroaching dandelions.
“I get out here with my power mower every two or three weeks,” she says. “I like to keep it nice.” She mentions a baby shower that took place in the park a few years ago, and her own 80th birthday party six years ago. “When you have something like this, something that everyone enjoys and appreciates, you just want to take care of it. My husband used to say I was the only nut in the neighborhood, coming out here to mow it and rake it. But I don’t mind.”
In 2015, a group of neighbors worked with the city to install a metal plaque on the west end of the oblong, stating, “Placed in recognition and appreciation of Lois Roberts, for her decades of tireless effort at maintaining and beautifying this important neighborhood space. The City of Petaluma and the Raymond Heights neighbors extend their collective and heartfelt gratitude.”
“I think Lois must have saved the city a hundred thousand dollars over the years,” estimates Ortegren, proudly.
“A lot of things have happened up here over the years,” notes Roberts. “Kids falling out of the trees, cars rolling down the hill, all kinds of excitement. There were bushes once, now they’re gone. Trees that fall down and make way for new trees. Neighbors come, neighbors go. And this little park is right in the middle of it.”