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Balboa Park brims with ghosts. The urban park’s hundreds of acres boast the footprints of generations of designers and gardeners and good neighbors who’ve kept it alive, even as it bears the scars of incursions large and small.
Some larger-than-life presences, like horticulturist Kate Sessions and city father George Marston, have their likenesses molded permanently into the landscape. Other names hang over park lore, like Gertrude Gilbert, the woman who essentially chained herself to the temporary 1915 buildings to thwart their demise.
Marlene Williams lives among these ghosts, in her house in Balboa Park.
Williams volunteers as archivist for the Girl Scouts’ local chapter and lives onsite at the group’s camp with her husband, who runs the property, and her youngest daughter, who’s 18. That makes the sprawling park, with its millions of visitors and dozens of landmarks and gardens, her neighborhood. She marks her blink-and-it’s-over commute to work as volunteer coordinator for the nonprofit Friends of Balboa Park with a punch line: “I have at least three stoplights.”
The park has, as long as it’s been around, been a place where people live — usually quite improvised existences. But only a few of them live there under roofs, with the knowledge and blessing of the city. The historical preservation group that operates the Marston House hired a caretaker to ward off vandals and drug dealers — elements that proved too much for the first person who took the job. The second one found the 7th Avenue corner of the park too quiet. But the caretaker there now has stayed for more than three years. The Williams family has been in its digs for a few years now, too.
And the park owes no small debt to volunteers like Williams. The Friends group honored five at a luncheon last month, including a perennial Santa and a tarantula handler.
Indeed, at first blush Williams resembles any 40-something mom who found a volunteering niche in her neighborhood. But there’s something beguiling about her connection to the park and what she makes happen here. Perhaps it’s her earnest attempt to embody the nickname her husband gave her: First Lady of Balboa Park. Or maybe it’s her background of hard work and duty in the Coast Guard.
But Williams has sunk her toes deep into the park, her backyard. Sometimes she tromps through projects in steel-toed boots, directing a troupe of Marine engineers here and there to renovate and clear out cabins. Other times she navigates the canyon trails in running shoes, mobilizing brush-clearers.
She tries to steer clear of the park’s politics and controversies.
“As somebody who has a unique opportunity, I just try to enjoy the beauty,” she said.
‘It’s Like Her Other Backyard’
A few mornings ago, Williams pushed open the wooden front door to her house and delivered the “w” message to her eager Golden Retrievers, the Royal Duke of Molson — named for the beer of Williams’ northern homeland — and the Baron of Balboa. They bounded over to don their leashes for a walk.
Like the oft-bothered dwellers of a parsonage, living right in the park can sometimes feel a bit like the zoo animals down the road, ogled daily in their habitats. A fence Williams erected to mark a bit of a personal boundary got complaints from neighbors. Through her windows, she can nearly always see people and dogs streaming past to enter the park’s trail system, sometimes after one too many cups of coffee.
“People have just knocked on the door and asked to go to the bathroom,” she says.
But it’s not hard to get some air.
Williams, Molson and the Baron make quite a boisterous trio. The dogs led the way down to the end of Upas and down the hill to the edge of State Route 163. They tugged Williams, in a tennis skirt and running shoes, across a footbridge and up the winding paths on the other side. This is part of Balboa Park’s vast trail system, a feature unknown to lots of people, even people who love the park.
Williams is helping to change that. She’s working with Peg Reiter, the widow of San Diego’s pre-eminent hiking guide, Jerry Schad, trailblazer and author of “Afoot and Afield in San Diego County.” When Schad died of cancer last year, people donated in his memory to create a good trail map and maintain the trails. Williams and Reiter worked together to plan the first maintenance event earlier this month, on Schad’s birthday.
The other morning, Williams and her dogs emerged on the west side of the park on Sixth Avenue. Molson and Baron showed no signs of flagging. Williams wasn’t slowing down, either, pointing out landmarks: a playground the Friends sponsored. Routes for the various charity walks, some of which Molson and Baron have participated in. A plot where high school students will work on a landscape project.
“It’s kind of like for me, for us, Balboa Park is a little village I live in,” she said. “My daughter swings on the swings. It’s like her other backyard.”
After a quick pit stop in the Nate’s Point off-leash area, the dogs pulled Williams into the heart of the park. Down there, near the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, is a tree she and her family donated.
Oh, and over here at the lily pond, Williams is working as liaison between the city and a hardware store to contract the new planter boxes that will replace the old ones in the pond. Oh, and did you see the fountain near the Botanical Building has water flowing from it again?
Williams, who studied history in college, is like a lot of park lovers — she can only venture about three steps without letting loose a historical tidbit or two. She delivers them with a sense of duty. The people she talks about, like Sessions and Marston and scores of others, did something great to preserve these acres, to build these buildings.
“We’re all just here for a short period of time,” she said. “Hopefully somebody will say someday, ‘Hey, they did something here.’”
Photos by Sam Hodgson
I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0531.
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Disclosure: Voice of San Diego members and supporters may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover. For a complete list of our contributors, click here.