No Man Is Lonely While Eating Spaghetti

Amici Park's secret life

Corner of Columbia and Date Streets. “Have you been here in the evening? I have recently, and I noticed all the foreign-language students who hang out there, and a lot of college students will play soccer."
  • Corner of Columbia and Date Streets. “Have you been here in the evening? I have recently, and I noticed all the foreign-language students who hang out there, and a lot of college students will play soccer."
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

I have watched the sun set from my perch in Amici Park many times. Hardly considered San Diego’s premier spot for this activity that is really a nonactivity, the park has a fine sunset among the urban sunsets of memory on file. The sun going down on New Jersey through a chemical cloud and witnessed rom a Riverside Drive rooftop in Manhattan is memorable, with the crepuscular colors of electric and poisonous acids mirrored from the sky onto the back of the seemingly motionless glass snake that is the Hudson River.

Westward view from Amici Park. Galasso mentions the lack of bathroom facilities in the park. “That discourages young mothers who have children that have to go every half hour.”

Westward view from Amici Park. Galasso mentions the lack of bathroom facilities in the park. “That discourages young mothers who have children that have to go every half hour.”

But the sun poised over Point Loma turning the bay — The Silver Gate— to molten copper studded with boats at anchor like skewered insects on a great bronze-and-pewter background plaque, the genuflection of Date Street, downhill from Our Lady of the Rosary toward the embarcadero with palm trees and telephone poles laced over the foreground respectively upholding communities of pigeons and shunting electronic conversations and cable TV through Little Italy amid flights of seagulls and/or banks of fog— can be a sight of more than European charm: a fantasy setting. The imagery combined with the smells of fresh-baked bread shot through with those of simmering garlic conspired for an effect of quaint reassurance for the year I lived a block from that park. Those sights and smells easily co-opted my senses surrounding that region of associations in my mind where my thoughts of home reside. In some ways, they linger there.

Catty-corner across from Amici Park (next to our Lady of the Rosary).

Catty-corner across from Amici Park (next to our Lady of the Rosary).

It was suggested that I write about the park, and my response was, “Write what about the park?” The reply I received was mysterious but left some inviting room for creativity: “The secret life of the park.” This, I supposed, could include anything from an epic poem to a searing expose of urban-planning corruption by the Mafia. And while the park has been and continues to be something of a minor political football, zoning and architectural analysis are certainly not the only aspects of interest. City politics, architecture, these things are not among the subjects that hold my attention, and chasing down an imaginary connection with the chimera of organized crime simply because the park is in Little Italy strikes me as a quixotic pursuit. The secret life of the park for the most part is a very subjective thing. It is something I bring with me, or you might bring, to expose for a while to the sunlight and whimsical aesthetics that make up the environment and turn it over in the retina of your mind’s eye to see its various reflections.

In the introduction to Jane Jacobs’s 1961 book on city planning and sociology, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs announces her intent as “an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women’s magazines.”

She goes on to say, “I shall mainly be writing about common, ordinary things: for instance, what kinds of city streets are safe and what kinds are not; why some city parks are marvelous and others are vice traps and death traps....”

Amici Park is hardly either of the latter, but as to whether it is marvelous, that, I suppose, is in the eye of the beholder. It strikes me as unlikely that it would come up in conversations concerning great city parks (Central, Golden Gate, Hyde and, yes, Balboa), but while it may never have been intended as a “great” urban recreational site, it seems unarguable to me that it is unique and imaginative and has distinct charm. The only controversy surrounding the grounds is a bit of sniping back and forth between the Little Italy Association and the Centre City Development Corporation, and very little of that. The potshots involve accusations that the park is underused and it is one or the other’s fault, or that it is not underused at all.

I spent months in the park reading, writing on a laptop, staring into space or at the bay or at the row of 15 Italian cypress trees in a semicircle forming an area I kept thinking would be a good spot for a band to perform at small outdoor concerts. The semicircle has power outlets hidden in foliage and faces a kind of miniature slice of amphitheater punctuated by ten abbreviated classical columns. The columns look like concrete and are of the Roman variety, as opposed to, say, the Corinthian — if I remember that sort of thing correctly from Western Civ. They are functional and aesthetic, supporting a redwood crossbeam structure that provides a comfortable combination of both sun and shade for the rising concrete staggered seating area in a matched, facing semicircle to the cypress. Before I begin to sound like a chamber of commerce brochure, I should note that much of the time I spent there was by necessity, waiting for the #16 bus. As a bus stop, it’s a pretty one, but (and this should be posted) the application of sunscreen is required unless, like the foreign-language students who live across State Street, you hang out on the steps a few yards behind the stop, risking a kind of crosshatched sunburn, I suppose.

The architectural author of the park is Marian Marum, according to the Little Italy Association, but certainly others collaborated and made creative contributions, like the San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and sculptress Nina Karavasiles.

My exposure to and subsequent interest in the park was a by-product of waiting inordinate lengths of time for the # 16. I began to refer to it as “the bus that never comes,” though it is due, according to the schedule, every 30 minutes. The reality of its seeming scarcity of appearance, or quite possibly the impatience-born illusion of its constant delinquency, gave rise to my theory that bus drivers simply do not read the free handout schedules. After a time, I let buses go by and remained in the park, reading or working, for the atmosphere alone. Fairly quiet, it is safe to say. Certainly not overused.

I was living in the Villa Caterina hotel down the street for 11 months. A hotel I liked very much: clean, tasteful, well-maintained, fine-looking exterior, and comfortably sized rooms at very reasonable rates (or I wouldn’t have been there) with rigorous security and administration by a man named Adam: simultaneously friendly, efficient, thoughtful, tough, and fair. He became something of I a friend. If I’m waxing promotional again it is mostly, I suppose, an attempt to ameliorate something printed in these pages not long ago when I was the subject of an interview involving the publication of a novel I’d written set along the San Diego/Mexican border. The interviewer described my room as “one Smirnoff bottle away from Contemporary American Skid Row.” I suppose I was to be a Charles Bukowski-type figure, but the hotel should not have had to suffer.

This leads me back to flagged pages of the 1961 Jane Jacobs book.

But we can hardly count on polite Skid Rows to save all the unpopular parks of our cities. A generalized neighborhood park that is not headquarters for the leisured indigent can become populated naturally and casually only by being situated very dose indeed to where active and different currents of life and function come to a focus. If downtown, it must get shoppers, visitors ad strollers as well as downturn workers. If not downturn, it must still be where tit swirls — where there is work, cultural, residential and commercial activity—as much as possible of everything different that cities can offer. The main problem of neighborhood park planning boils down b the problem of nurturing diversified neighborhoods capable of using and supporting parks.

However, many city districts do already possess preach such ignored focal points of life which cry out for dose-neighborhood parks or public squares. It is easy to identify such centers of district life and activity, because icy are where people with leaflets to hand out choose to work (if permitted by the police).

I saw no one dispensing leaflets, but I was slightly surprised to see young men, on occasion, playing bocce. The men I spoke with were e their 30s,and by no means were all of them Italian. I had always associated the game with old men in strawhats drinking red wine from small water glasses, speaking Italian with garlic-eroded hoarseness.

One such young player was a man named Brian Gizzi, 30, who used to play the game in his hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, with the Italian Club. “I grew up with it with family and friends. I live in Pacific Beach now.” Gizzi’s friend Eric Kovaks was raised in Youngstown with Gizzi. He says he is of German descent but grew up with the game. “A lot of Greeks too, back there. It’s pretty serious. They have bocce courts in bars.” Kovaks is 27 years old and a deft player. He lives in Ocean Beach. They are both architectural apprentices of sorts at a firm nearby. A third member of their party is Berns Shultz. Shultz, 34, grew up with a Sicilian family. “This is actually our first time here. We used to play in Presidio Park, but our office moved down here, and we spotted this park. There should be four on a team: a boccer is a thrower... ” and he goes on to try to explain the game to me, but I will crib from a more official sourcebook later on. The point is, they were there, and so were two young mothers (possibly babysitters) pushing strollers with infants and accompanied by active, say, four-to six-year-olds who ran up and down the amphitheater steps and climbed into the concrete planters that support medium-sized and fragrant jacaranda trees near the sidewalk along Date. Ergo, here is a snapshot of the small park being utilized moderately.

When I close my eyes and think of Amici Park, I see young mothers and children, bocce players of various ages. (I met a couple, the man in his 60s, the woman in her 40s, who drove from La Jolla to dine down the street. But first on the evening’s agenda was to play on Amici’s sand court with a set of unscratched chromium-silver balls given to them as a wedding gift and as yet unused.) I see the foreign-language students, eating, smoking, while incongruously playing handheld video games and a golden retriever or two in the background. The colors on the canvas behind my eyelids, in the background, are forest green, two khaki stripes (the sand courts), redwood, red-and-white checked tablecloths never to flutter in a breeze (I’ll get to that), and jacaranda-blossom lavender touches like gentle paintbrush dabs to the right of the rendering, which at times, but by no means consistently, can be a still life.

“I was associate project manager on Amici Park,” says Jerry Selby of the Centre City Development Corporation. “Part of our agreement was with the San Diego Unified School District and Washington Elementary. Back in ’94, they [Washington Elementary] were looking to redo the school, and they wanted to expand their facilities. They had a certain amount of money that was going to come to them, and we entered into a partnership where we would, through the power of eminent domain, acquire property alongside of them. Now the property that was alongside and was surrounding it was very problematic. Some of the businesses on it were incompatible with the school.”

“Problematic? Incompatible?”

“Ill explain. Right next to the place was a motel that rented by the hour or 15 minutes. This was as late as 1993. It had a reputation among European travelers who wanted a funky experience. It was well known for vice problems and drugs. It had a restaurant in it. I always say that there are very few neighborhoods in San Diego where this place would have been tolerated as long as it was there. The gentleman there at the time claimed he was running a legitimate business, but he was renting rooms in 15-minute increments. It was pretty disgusting for being right next door to a school.

“As far as incompatibility goes, the business right next to that was the Sheffield Plating site, a metal-plating business. A lot of hotels in the area would have their silverware plated there — so it was light industry, you would say—but in enough quantities that they could be considered lethal heavy metals. So the park began as a great collaboration between the school system and CCDC.”

The park came together as a result of several dovetailing interests, but Selby does not identify any single mover/shaker to whom one might point and say, “Amici Park is his baby.” “It would help Washington Elementary, and it would help us do away with some blighting interests, and we could also have a neighborhood park that could be controlled. At that time, downtown was a little tougher place, and it would be special if we could put out nice grassy areas.

“So the city [and the police department] does maintain the park, but the school district does have some control over it during he daylight hours. So that was basically the idea. We got the property and put some money forward, and that’s how the park came tout"

I told Selby that during a phone conversation with Marco Li Mandri, head of New City America and both president of and hired by the Little Italy Association that I gathered Li Mandri felt that the park was underutilized and that that was the result of faulty planning on the part of CCDC..

Selby’s eyes went toward the ceiling. “Have you been here in the evening? I have recently, and I noticed all the foreign-language students who hang out there, and a lot of college students will play soccer in the park. During the day, of course, he school kids get to run around on this flat grassy area, and a lot of those kids might not usually get to do hat too much.

“As far as I’m concerned, the park gets used quite a lot. I think what Marco’s PO’ed about was that Marco wasn’t even involved when this came about The park came about just at the time the San Diego Bocce Association jot involved and wanted a bocce ball court installed and designed it, and we put in exactly what they wanted. We went to great lengths to get a storage facility for hem. You know those shipping containers out there? And they don’t use them. The guys that play bocce in the neighborhood? They play on the grass. Some of them grew up playing on grass, so that’s where they play, in the grassy part of the park.

“I think that park is being used as much as a little park like that can be, when it’s a couple of blocks off the main drag there, and there are not a lot of offices around. Marco can moan and groan, but I think the kids in the neighborhood use the park. I see kids at the other end, where they have stuff where kids can play jungle gym-type installations near the school), and people eating lunch in the park in the seating area. Maybe it’s not perfect. Maybe its not what he [Li Mandri] wants. But I would disagree and say that it is utilized by the people that actually live there. Marco doesn’t live there. He spends a lot of time there, but he’s not there 24-7.”

Approaching Amici Park, most likely the way tourists or those out for an Italian lunch or dinner might walk off a plate of pasta — that is, slightly uphill, in an easterly direction on Date Street — one notices in the sidewalk circles of a bronze-like metal with raised lettering on them. These occur every 30 paces or so on Date and are reminiscent of, or a kind of version of, Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame. But instead of movie stars’ handprints and signatures, you will find aphorisms or, in one case, a recipe for cappuccino. This one courtesy of Steve Galasso, owner of Caffe Italia, a popular restaurant and coffee shop at India and Date:

2 oz. of fine Italian espresso

2 oz. of steamed milk

Top off with froth. Sprinkle with chocolate and cinnamon if desired.

Enjoy your cappuccino with a pizzelle!

I don’t know, personally, what a pizzelle is, but I am disappointingly lacking in all sorts of Italiana that seems expected of me. I’d never heard of pesto, for example, until I was maybe 30.

The next plaque inlaid into the sidewalk is a quote from Christopher Morley and reads, “No man is lonely while eating spaghetti, it requires so much attention.” Some truth there, I find, when given a moment to think on it, and one has that moment before the next installment appears, like a disjointed, pedestrian-oriented Burma Shave sign. “Ideas should be clear and chocolate thick. — Spanish Proverb.” And why isn’t there an Italian proverb? One of my old favorites, for example: “Down with the State, the State of yesterday, today, and tomorrow, the Bourgeois State and the Socialist State. There remains nothing for me now, nothing but the consoling religion of Anarchism.” — Benito Mussolini. That old saw has brought me comfort on many an election night.

As you make the easy ascent toward the park, you will find one more bit of inlaid whimsy that subliminally suggests it was Woody Allen making these selections. This one reads, “A nickel will get you on the subway, but garlic will get you a seat. — Old New York Proverb.”

Another distinguishing characteristic of the park—and among the first things one might notice—are the tables that are not tables. More sculptures meant to look like intimate tables for two in an Italian restaurant where red-and-white checkered tablecloths are de rigueur, they have no seating, nor would it be of much use. The tops of the faux tables have three-dimensional metallic meals: tacos and artichokes, etc. So even if seated at the table, one couldn’t really balance anything, not even a book, much less a meal, on the surface. My guess is that the idea is to discourage vagrancy and yet put you in mind of dining. These are the work of sculptress Nina Karavasiles, with whom I did not speak to ask what she had in mind, because, in my opinion, the artist is not required to answer for or explain anything.

But I suspect I’m right about evoking a sense of hunger. How else to explain a super-realistic though metallic plate of ravioli with a recipe for marinara sauce opposite the plate. The recipe is courtesy of Lisa and Joe Busalacchi. As an Italian kid growing up, often overseeing the work of my Aunt Louise with her acres of trays of ravioli dough and marinara sauce constantly in some state of preparation — all of it in turn, supervised by my grandmother, Rosa Baccagalupe (I swear) — I can pass this recipe on to you here and now with approval.

1 cup olive oil

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1/2 carrot, finely chopped

7 cups tomato sauce

4 cups water

1 tsp pepper

1 tsp salt

2 tsp dried basil

1 tsp butter

1 tsp oregano

2 tsp fresh or granulated garlic

Put onion into oil, stirring until soft and yellow in color. Add carrots and continue to sauté for about 7 minutes. Take out the large pieces of carrots and onions. Stir in tomato sauce and water. Add pepper, salt, basil, butter, oregano and garlic. Cook until carrots can no longer be seen, about 1 or 2 hours on low heat. This marinara sauce can be used with any type of cooked pasta.

If any recipe deserves etching in bronze (or whatever it is), this must be counted as one of them.

I cannot vouch for the stuffed artichoke recipe from Rose Cresci nor for that of blackened fish tacos from Deborah Scott. I do, however, look askance upon the Italian pedigree of this last recipe (a lot of prepping the fish with tropical fruit and sherry), but the Italian-American heritage is a capacious one, embracing tacos and Spanish proverbs alike if they sound or taste good.

I have probably spent as many hours as dollars eating gelato and reading at the Caffe Italia near the corner of India and Date. All of that time, I had, of course, noted the extraordinary tallness of the man who could only be the proprietor of the café. This I gleaned from his administrative demeanor, energy, and white apron bearing food-stained evidence of his involvement in the kitchen as much as from his involvement with the cash register and customers, many of whom are local business or political figures of note. Also from his polite familiarity with lunch patrons from the County Administration Building as well as neighborhood retail clerks and local office personnel. Steve Galasso, author of the cappuccino recipe in the sidewalk a half block away, is not only the owner of Caffe Italia but chairman of the board of the Little Italy Association.

I spoke with him on an early September morning when he had just come from the association’s own “Focus Plan” meeting, and much of the subject of that meeting was Amici Park. “All of downtown is redoing its focus plan,” he told me. “And we would like to see the park utilized much more than it is. Yes, I think it is underutilized as it is. You don’t see a lot of people having lunch there, for example, but on the other hand, as far as being utilized, what’s a lot? What’s a little?” Galasso’s attitude toward the park includes a bit of head-scratching, not unlike the reaction of park visitors to the presence of the amphitheater facing a crescent of trees as if something was about to happen but hadn’t been organized yet, or the interesting and pleasant presence of the red-checkered tableclothed tables at which no one can sit: inviting and curious but without real function. Some see the entire question of the park that way.

“We hope to incorporate more amenities to accommodate increased usage of the park as more tenants move into the area,” Galasso told me. Certainly the boom of construction, the ubiquitous hard hats and I-beams reaching multiple stories, the incessant riveting and pneumatic drilling, the towering cranes like Wellsian alien occupiers of the neighborhood testify to the imminent influx of “tenants.” They are due any day now; in fact, have been filling newly created housing seemingly overnight within the past year, and the promise of a more peopled Little Italy looms with the great, tall cranes as banners. The incoming population will be of a homogenous and reasonably “well-off class.” It strikes me that there will be little room for the middle and lower-middle classes, which, ironically, the Italians are so good at producing.

The café proprietor and chairman of the board put forth another theory, that because the park “is attached to school grounds, some people might think it is off limits to the public.”

Galasso becomes specific about “amenities” by mentioning the lack of bathroom facilities in the park.

“That discourages young mothers who have children that have to go every half hour.”

Another stroke of misfortune for the park was the loss of direct entry from the Front Street exit off of I-5. “You could see and access the park,” he said “Now you go by it so fast, you don’t even know it’s there [behind the trees in the grassy area], and you have to go out of your way to get there from the freeway.” Indeed, Amici Park forms a kind of crotch (not to disparage the park with that choice of word) between I-5 and India Street, Italian Restaurant Row.

Galasso also mentioned the subject of showing movies in the amphitheater area. “But the guy who was going to spearhead that had a falling-out with the association.” Likely not as ominous as it sounds. “Why they put in the amphitheater, exactly, I don’t know.

I think it’s only been used for some function or another twice since the park was dedicated But I don’t know how committees go about designing parks.”

What was and is in the wind out the window of my former hotel room or at the corner bus stop where I waited for glimpses of the rare #16, is the scent of more golden retrievers to come. That breed is the favored dog of many young, urban, and white professionals. I mean, of course, to signify a growing population of a certain homogeneity in income and lifestyle. If you hear behind those phrases the obscurantist grousings of an aging Italian hippie priced out of the neighborhood and aspirating, “Die, yuppie scum” under his breath, I assure you I have no such death wish for anyone of any class, and some of my best friends have MBAs. But it would indicate you are reading closely enough if that’s what you’re picking up.

On the contrary, it is life I meant to look at, and if the secret life of the park is pretty much something I carry with me when I go there, it is lively enough for me—though I would welcome bathrooms.

Short of writing a book about the park, which I suppose you could do, the above are just some passing observations. Another one, written 42 years ago, long before Amici (which means friends in Italian, by the way), is again from the above-quoted book, and I would encourage players involved, from CCDC to the Little Italy Association and New City America, to give it a close read.

You can neither lie to a neighborhood park, nor reason with it. “Artist’s conceptions” and persuasive renderings can put pictures of life into proposed neighborhood parks or park malls, and verbal rationalizations can conjure up users who ought to appreciate them, but in real life only diverse surroundings have the practical power of inducing a natural, continuing flow of life and use. Superficial architectural variety may look like diversity, but only a genuine content of economic and social diversity, resulting in people with different schedules, has meaning to the park and the power to confer the boon of life upon it.

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