After clearing the city’s largest homeless camp around Columbus Park, San Jose is moving ahead with plans to revitalize the location and change its name.
The 70-year-old park currently bares the name of the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, whose legacy is criticized due to his exploitation of Native Americans. After two rounds of public voting this year, San Jose opted for a new name to honor a local legend: former San Jose Mayor Janet Gray Hayes.
The city’s Parks and Recreation Commission voted in October to recommend the name of the former mayor, who was a trailblazer as San Jose’s first female leader from 1974 to 1982. The city council will consider renaming the park in the spring, and redevelopment is scheduled to start next fall.
Councilmember Dev Davis, who represents District 6 where the park is located, said she hopes the renaming and redevelopment efforts will bring new opportunities to the area.
“I want the park to be a functional and beneficial space for the community,” Davis told San José Spotlight. “It’s also nice to name our local landmarks after local figures.”
Hayes’ name was among five options, including A.P. Giannini Park, Muwekma Ohlone Park, Walnut Street Park and Taylor Street Park. Giannini, founder of Bank of America, was a San Jose native. The Muwekma Ohlone are the Indigenous people who lived on the land of modern-day Santa Clara Valley. Walnut and Taylor streets are adjacent roads to the park.
San Jose has spent the last few years planning to revitalize the 12.5 acre site located at Asbury and Irene streets. The new park design will feature synthetic softball and soccer fields, horseshoe and pickleball courts, multi-use sports courts for basketball, a play area for children—and a new sign bearing the park’s new name.
Columbus Park once served as a neighborhood recreational area until it fell into disrepair. Surrounding residents also stopped frequenting the park after unhoused people moved into the area. During the pandemic, several hundred homeless people lived on the sprawling land near the park and in the flight path of the city’s airport. San Jose has spent the past year clearing the area after the Federal Aviation Administration threatened to withhold millions in funding from the city. The land will also be turned into a prototype park.
A September sweep prompted dozens of people to move into Columbus Park, where more than 140 vehicles squeezed into the baseball field at the corner of Asbury and Irene streets. The city finished clearing out that area this week.
Kelly Snider, a Parks and Recreation commissioner, said the vote to change Columbus Park’s name was an easy decision, citing its namesake’s horrific legacy.
This isn’t the first time San Jose has given the Italian explorer the boot. In 2017, city leaders voted to remove a controversial Columbus statue inside City Hall that was vandalized numerous times. The statue was moved to the hall of the Italian American Heritage Foundation. San Jose also replaced the holiday’s name on its website with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as many other cities have done.
But Snider she’d rather see the city spend more effort and resources helping those with nowhere to go since the sweep.
“(The renaming) is a small step in the right direction, but it’s not making a big difference in people’s lives,” Snider told San José Spotlight. “I hope (the renaming) doesn’t become a distraction to the much more important and much more critical work that government should be doing.”
Scott Largent, a former unhoused person who lived around Columbus Park for several years, questions whether the most recent sweep has pushed some into dangerous situations as the weather turns cold. He points to two homeless people found dead this week in Japantown—just down the street from Columbus Park.
“The city should have addressed the humanitarian crisis before planning to put up a new sign with a new (park) name,” Largent told San José Spotlight. “It’s just brutal seeing people being pushed around and into the freezing rain.”
Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.