THE BLOG
09/26/2013 01:26 pm ET | Updated Nov 26, 2013

Let's Rename Dolores Park for a True Supporter of the Neighborhood's Kids

As a city kid who grew up in Dolores Park playing hours under the gaze of Hidalgo's statue on the fields and the asphalt courts, I want to welcome Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to my old San Francisco neighborhood.

Of course, I lived mostly in the working class flats contiguous to the park. Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan are reportedly moving up the hill, to a 5,542 square foot, $10 million home in Dolores Heights.

But like everyone else within walking distance, they'll probably spend a lot of time in the city's most decorative neighborhood playground, Dolores Park, a bonafide "Like."

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photo: Emil Guillermo

Now, I really thought the first time I'd write anything mentioning Zuckerberg might have been how I remember when Facebook, was actually "The Facebook," all in hardbound crimson and must reading for certain hard-up freshmen.

But no, our point of connection would not be Harvard Yard (Weld for me, Strauss for him), but the place that helped me get from the Mission district to college -- my beloved Dolores Park.

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photo: courtesy Emil Guillermo

I was a Filipino kid who grew up on the free lunch program, and my immigrant parents were like the rest of my friends' parents. Too busy working to show up to games, or to pay too much attention to us like parents today. No over-parenting for us. We were kids from different races, but mostly Hispanic, Asian and African American. And mostly on our own. Kids like me (first Athlete of the Year), Ramon Bustos (our "Lou Gehrig" who played nearly 200 official games as a Dolores Park player), Arnold Shaver, a member of that first team, and Winston Ganoza, my oldest friend who had his way on the tennis court. We were street smart boys, book smart even, sons of immigrants, who grew up fiercely independent and who for the most part, were darn good ball players.

But we were luckiest to have as our park director Richard Barry Goldberg.

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photo: courtesy Richard Barry Goldberg

While park directors in the past saw Dolores Park as the cushiest job in the Park and Rec, a place where most were satisfied just to open and close the lavatories, and then disappear in the club house, Rich was different.

As playground director, he was our coach, our mentor. For a few of us he was like a big brother, or even a surrogate dad.

And he wanted us to be the best we could be on and off the field.

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photo: courtesy Richard Barry Goldberg

On his first day at the park in 1967, I was the first kid to greet him at the clubhouse steps as he walked down the hill from the "J" street car stop. He was a 21-year-old from Brooklyn, a graduate from Brooklyn College, who came to San Francisco to study TV production at San Francisco State. His dream was to go to Hollywood and work on network shows. This was supposed to be just a part-time job for Rich.

But then he met me and the rest of us kids at the park.

Today, the park may seem more like everyone's backyard, a place to chat or sunbathe. (Rich always had disdain for sunbathers, mostly because his skin was so fair, he had to use buckets of sunscreen, SPF 2,000. This was always amusing for us kids of color). Some may even note the park is best known as a place for drugsters and dogsters. There probably was a lot of both at the park when I was a kid, but when Rich was there, it wasn't a concern. For us, the park was where we learned to play ball as a team and become champions.

On a recent day at the park, it's hard to believe such a decorative spot was ever the home of a comprehensive athletic program in baseball, football, basketball and soccer. But by the end of his time there, Rich was coaching youth athletes who came from all over the city to be part of the winning tradition of Dolores Park.

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photo: courtesy Ramon Bustos

His basketball teams in the green uniforms (like his other favorite team, the Boston Celtics) would routinely go undefeated throughout the city. In later years, teams would win national youth tournaments around the country. And in soccer, our teams were perennial undefeated city champs.

But Rich's best sport was baseball, a game he played at Brooklyn College. The very first park team, an 11 and under baseball team, became division champions. The team sponsor, the CWA local, celebrated by taking us all out for dinner at Sabella's in Fisherman's Wharf. For many of us it was our first time in a restaurant with table cloths; the first time we saw steaks more than three inches thick; fish without heads. We ate like champions, and our uniforms were blue just like Rich's beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.

It was hard not to learn about hardcore New York Jewish culture from Rich. Teammate Ramon Bustos, a self-proclaimed tortilla guy, said he never had a bagel and cream cheese let alone one with "fish on it," until Rich introduced us all to bagels and lox.

He'd take us to a deli on Geary Street. His treat. The cultural exchange didn't stop there. He told us tales about Flatbush and the candy stores where kids would get egg creams, seltzer and U-Bet syrup, and buy pinky balls for stickball. He shared his love for '50s music, specifically Gary U.S. Bonds. And he even shared some choice Yiddish words with us.

How else would I know that Emil rhymed with schlemiel, though the goal in life was to be a good person, a mensch?

MORE THAN JUST A PARK

In many ways, the clubhouse where we hung out was our Facebook, a social place where we showed up exchanged stories and learned about our different cultures and similar values.
From playing ball, Rich instilled in us a work ethic that went from the fields to the classroom. Often the clubhouse was a place to do homework. And not just ordinary stuff. He helped us with essays and presentations.

The guy made us smarter. Bustos said, "Rich taught me how to use a thesaurus."

Bustos went on get an MBA, and have a successful career in telecommunications. Ganoza graduated from Cal and became a nuclear engineer for GE. Me? I became as a national journalist, the first Asian American to host NPR's All Things Considered.

Rich moved to Los Angeles, got married, started a family. But instead of TV, he continued running athletic camps and basketball tournaments. In Southern California, he's coached nearly 40 players who've made it to the NBA, guys like UCLA leading scorer Don MacLean, Byron Scott, and Trevor Wilson.

But he says none of them can ever compare to the first group of kids he ever coached, the gang from Dolores Park from 1967-1974.

"We had a special group of guys, who were smart and good people," he said. "And we didn't have parents getting in the way of things. I never met your parents or anyone's parents."

He was right. We didn't have the problems of modern over-competitive parents getting in the way, spoiling it for kids who just wanted to play on great teams and have fun.

Of course, most of our parents were immigrants, and probably saw Rich as just an older kid. In some ways he was. He was like our Peter Pan, and we were the Lost Boys, although not all that lost.

We had found a home away from home at Dolores Park.

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photo: Emil Guillermo

This weekend at Delancey Street Restaurant, after more than 45 years, a group of us "kids" will thank Rich for giving their lives direction. But somehow the plaque we'll give him doesn't seem adequate.

I figure If they can name a bridge that isn't brown for a former mayor named Brown, SF Park and Rec should be able to name a field, a court, the clubhouse, if not the whole darn park for the director who put Dolores Park on the youth sports map.

Richard Barry Goldberg Park? Why not? Before the city bought the park in 1906, it was a Jewish cemetery until 1894.

The park has Jewish roots. Just like Rich.

Leave Hidalgo's statue and the independence bell up. Renaming the park would honor a time when the city was about families and kids, not like the present where, as the San Francisco Chronicle reports, the Census shows that of the more than 800,000 residents in the city, just 13.4 percent are younger than 18, a smaller percentage than any other major city including Manhattan.

With the Zuckerbergs' move into the neighborhood, the potential of young families emerges, as well as a change in the city, and the park.

Renaming Dolores Park? What better way to honor a man who made the park, and the city, a great place for kids.