A used condom rests twisted and mangled in the dusty parking area along Bolivar Drive near the south entrance of Berkeley's Aquatic Park. Men sit alone inside their parked cars hoping to make eye contact with passersby and initiate an erotic encounter. Meanwhile, a five-minute walk north, a dozen screaming toddlers are running around the castle-themed watchtowers of the park's new Dreamland for Kids tot lot, a popular play-spot ever since it opened more than eighteen months ago. Visible in the distance is the $5.3 million bicycle and pedestrian overpass crossing Interstate 80. Construction of the overpass, which will link Aquatic Park with the marina, is scheduled to end next month. The new bridge, the opening of Dreamland, and a recently approved habitat restoration plan are all elements of what many park watchers consider a long-overdue revival of one of Berkeley's most underutilized open spaces.
"This has been the unpolished jewel of the system for many years," said the city's parks director Lisa Coronna, and indeed, for decades, Aquatic Park has been the ugly stepchild of Berkeley's proud park system. Inconveniently nestled between the railroad tracks and Interstate 80 just north of industrial Emeryville, the park's relative inaccessibility has long been a deterrent to more active use. It is this isolation, of course, that has made the park a favorite cruising spot, and for the most part, police officers and park managers have turned a blind eye. But now, as Aquatic Park promises to become a favorite place for kids, cyclists, and dog-walkers, city parks officials are cautiously talking about curtailing the park's older, more lascivious recreational tradition.
For more than five years, Claudia Kawczynska, a member of the Waterfront Commission since 1996, has jogged at dawn with her three dogs through the south end of Aquatic Park. "You see all sorts of things," she said. The other day she ran past a guy sitting in his car, door ajar, wearing no pants. Or underwear. "There was nothing on the bottom half of his body except his white hairy legs," she recently recalled. "Who wants to go to a park and be subjected to that?" Probably not most people, and definitely not Kawczynska who has been on a crusade for the last few months to stop public sex at her favorite city park. "I just thought it's about time Berkeley does something about this," she explained.
It's not just the gross-out factor that bugs Kawczynska, who points out that the southern end of the park too often suffers from poor shrub maintenance and spotty weed removal because city gardeners and maintenance crew workers fear getting hit on or running across something they'd rather not see or touch, like a used condom. "The gardeners," said Coronna, "are concerned about anything that's potentially hazardous from hypodermic needles to feces to used condoms, yes."
At its December meeting, the Berkeley Waterfront Commission, at Kawczynska's urging, considered a series of modest suggestions floated by park managers to curb "unlawful activity" at Aquatic Park. They ranged from the prudishly comical (posting a sign warning, "This park is for the enjoyment of children, youth, families, and gentle persons and animals. Please respect the environment and use appropriate public behavior") to the practical (increasing police enforcement and posting signs saying parking is prohibited between sunset and sunrise). Ultimately the commission instructed its staff to come back with an implementation plan to boost lighting and cop presence, trimming back notorious bushes, and in true Berkeley fashion, involve public health workers in the process.
Despite the cautious sympathy she's received from her waterfront commission colleagues, Kawczynska's cleanup mission has yet to win much support elsewhere in the city's political and bureaucratic hierarchy, and gay-rights activists are watching closely. "It's a very sensitive issue," explained Michael Caplan, the West Berkeley neighborhood services liaison for the city. "No one wants to approach this in a punitive way."
Nonetheless, word has been spreading in certain circles that the city is getting tough on cruisers at Aquatic Park. "The police seem to be using an 'if he's gay-looking, he's guilty' policy in citing alleged offenders." reported Berkeley resident Thomas Kelem, who said he doesn't go to the park, though friends of his do."
The gay Web site, CrusingForSex.com, posted an anonymous warning on October 8 informing its readers that, "Berkeley cops out in force this weekend going through the bushes. Everyone was being questioned if going into the park. Don't know if there were arrests." Berkeley police Lt. Cynthia Harris, the department's spokesperson, confirmed that Berkeley cops have been regularly enforcing park curfew hours over the past year but said that as far as she knows few if any arrests for public sex have occurred.
For their part city, officials say they have used a delicate hand in discouraging "unlawful activity" (like sex in the bushes or parked cars) in the park. "We've been trying to make the environment not comfortable to have sex in the park," conceded parks director Lisa Coronna, but, like other Berkeley officials, she is quick to stress that the city's recent efforts aren't designed to target gays, but rather to eliminate illegal behavior that alienates other park users. "My sense," she said, "is that there's going to be people using the park now that didn't use the park before. It's becoming much more public, much more known."
The city employee who probably knows the most about the park's cruising scene is LeRoy Blea, Berkeley's AIDS coordinator. Since March 2000, Blea has been in charge of a state-funded outreach project aimed at limiting the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases among cruisers. As part of that project, city health workers have been planting condom packets -- 200 at a time -- in the bushes at the park. Blea said that while he and other health workers know that people are using the city-provided condoms, it's impossible to determine how many people are actually screwing in the park because sometimes guys will just pocket the condoms and take them home for later use.
Though one aspect of Blea's job is to identify and counsel those he suspects may be engaging in high-risk sexual behavior, he stresses that most cruisers are not sex addicts; many are gay men in the closet who want to keep their secret. "This is anonymous sex," Blea explained. "It's a place where you can go and declare yourself as someone who has sex with men." Bleas said in the first year of the grant health workers identified and contacted 300 repeat cruisers. This year he predicts he and his staff will contact 600 people.
Meanwhile, even as city officials like Kawczynska push for changes, others like Carol Thornton, the chair of the Parks Commission, question if the bad behavior at the Aquatic Park is as overt or common as some people suggest. "How many people are actually being affected by this?" she wondered. Thornton, who has met with a waterfront commission subcommittee on the issue, said she still wanted to see more solid evidence -- such as the number of complaints to police or arrests made -- before taking further action. "It's not the most urgent issue of the year," agreed progressive City Council member Kriss Worthington.
Comments like that make Kawczynska doubt if anything further will come of her efforts. "I'm not sure there's the political will to do anything," she said, "and that's disturbing."
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