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What about parking meters?

“If they wanted to have parking meters,” Tracy says, crinkling her face behind her sunglasses, “and it was only a couple bucks to park, then I wouldn’t mind. But if they’re going to charge us like downtown, where it’s, like, ten bucks, then forget it.”

Tracy rates the park an “A-plus,” saying, “I feel safe here. It’s clean. It’s beautiful. I can’t think of a problem. I can’t think of anything that I see when I come here that makes me think, ‘Oh, that’s an eyesore’ or ‘Oh, that sticks out to me.’ There’s nothing like that.”

Another Tracy, who is 18 years old and lives in North Park, is sitting on a bench near the botanical garden with her dog Bob on her lap. She’s rubbing Bob’s sides vigorously, and his white fur flies off onto Tracy’s clothes and into the sun.

“I come to the park about once a week,” Tracy says. She does her schoolwork here, brings Bob for walks, and also goes to the museums.

Tracy says firmly that she has no problems with the park.

But then she thinks a moment, continuing to pet Bob, albeit less enthusiastically. “Actually, I’ve been here at night before,” she says, “and there’s a lot of homeless people that, they’re not all necessarily dangerous, but… Once, there was a man near the fountain who was cursing to himself, and he kind of scared my friend and me, but nothing really happened. I guess I feel safe. You just have to be on your guard.”

Paul Strahm, 47, of La Jolla, is a member of the San Diego Art Institute, which is located on the park grounds. Today, he’s painting. So far, he’s blocked in some of the Spanish buildings along the Prado and outlined the lily pond in front of the botanical garden.

“I come to the park about once a month,” Strahm says, continuing to mix colors on his palette. “Usually I’m dropping off or picking up paintings. And I’ll also go to the museums.”

Strahm’s one issue with his park visits is the parking.

“I think the parking’s terrible,” he says. “I had a lady threaten me in the parking lot a couple weeks ago. When it’s really bad, I don’t even bother coming here. But I wouldn’t want them to start charging for it.”

Lou, 60, from Spokane, Washington, and his wife Sue are visiting San Diego for the first time. They’ve come to Balboa Park twice, for about three hours each trip.

“We came back hoping to catch the botanical garden,” Lou says, “but they’re closed again today.”

Sue’s in the gift shop, browsing, while Lou waits for her in the courtyard of the House of Hospitality.

The two have gone to three or four of the museums and toured the park grounds.

“We came down here to meet up with our grandkids,” Lou says, “and to go to SeaWorld. Balboa Park is really the one place that my wife and I wanted to see.”

Lou shakes his head slowly when asked what he thinks of the park.

“It’s wonderful,” he says, “just wonderful. I can’t think of much they could do differently. It’s pretty much perfect. It’s so large, with so much to do, and yet it’s so user-friendly and so well maintained. And everyone’s really courteous and helpful.”

Charlie’s wearing the official beige uniform of a House of Hospitality maintenance worker and touching up the paint around a window near the Prado Restaurant.

“If you can get employment in the park,” Charlie says, “it’s such a beautiful place to work. Such a relaxing place to work. We don’t really have the same turnover ratio like other businesses do.”

Charlie spends his days fixing light fixtures and windows and overseeing setup for functions and weddings. He says one of the perks of his job is getting to meet people from all over the world.

“In my three years of working here,” Charlie says, raising his eyebrows, “I like it a lot. I can’t complain.”

More than Meets the Eye
It’s hard to believe, from walking through Balboa Park, that the place needs money or help of any kind. It all looks so idyllic. But it’s like that famous frog experiment: If you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out and save itself, but if you put it in cool water and heat things up slowly, the frog might die before it realizes the water is too hot.

Balboa Park is heating up gradually, but why wait until the problems boil over? San Diego doesn’t want a situation on its hands like the one with the Interstate 35W bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis last year.

“We have to recognize what might be on the horizon and deal with it before anything actually goes wrong,” said Peter Harnik at the public forum on March 8. Harnik runs the Center for City Park Excellence, a division of the Trust for Public Land in Washington, D.C.

Harnik is also the principal author of the Balboa Park study.

“Many cities have great parks,” Harnik said in front of an auditorium full of about 100 park-concerned citizens. “And what you’re facing here in San Diego is not a unique situation. New York City has Central Park and Prospect Park; Atlanta has Piedmont Park; Houston has Hermann Park; St. Louis has Forest Park; Chicago has Grant Park and Millennium Park; Boston has the Boston Common; and the list goes on and on. And, frankly, many of those parks have gone through periods of decline and been resuscitated by people putting in long hours and deep thought and sometimes also deep pockets.”

Without directly mentioning Balboa Park — which has its own problem with homeless residents — Harnik, during his opening statement, told a story to illustrate the importance of dealing with urban issues, of not being so ambivalent that we “let a great park go down the tubes.”

“There was a tremendous homeless problem in Golden Gate Park for many years,” Harnik said, “and people had mixed feelings about coming down hard on the homeless. They tried various things but sort of halfheartedly. And then one night, one of the homeless people, either accidentally or purposefully, set a fire which became basically a forest fire inside Golden Gate Park…and at that point, the next morning, surveying that wreckage, people said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to do something.’ ”

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