Janesville67.3°

Group works to restore shine to gem of a park

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
October 29, 2007
— Pam VanBrocklin grew up when Riverside Park was king.

VanBrocklin was born in 1960. The artesian well, the wading pool, the tennis courts, Lilac Circle, the concession stand, the upper road all were jewels in its shining crown.


“It was a very busy place all the time,” VanBrocklin said. “All the amenities they put into the park just drew people.”


But little by little, the park’s brilliance dimmed.


The artesian well dried up. The tennis and shuffleboard courts deteriorated.


The upper road was closed, and its famed Lilac Circle overgrew.


The wading pool was drained, and the concession stand shuttered.


“Every time you went down there, nothing was being put into it as far as infrastructure,” VanBrocklin said.


In contrast, VanBrocklin saw other parks in Janesville developed. Camden and Peace parks were built, for instance, and the new playgrounds easily drew children from Riverside’s rusting equipment.


As the crowds diminished, an anti-social element moved in. Police in 2004, for example, arrested several men for soliciting gay sex in the park.


VanBrocklin learned from the director of parks that other residents had expressed concern about the city’s oldest regional park.


“I think we’ve always maintained that (Riverside) is very vital and important to the community,” Presny said.


But parks, leisure services and the city’s infrastructure all compete for limited dollars.


“There was no voice for the park,” VanBrocklin said.


Presny urged the residents to form a friends group.


Today, the Friends of Riverside Park is breathing new life into the 87-acre loop of green bordering the Rock River. It is among the most active of park groups.


“For an organization that’s been in existence for perhaps a year and half, they have taken great strides in … finding out the needs and succeeding and completing many of their goals,” said Tom Presny, parks director.


About 100 people belong to the group, with 12 to 20 active members. They live all over the city but are united in their love for Riverside.


They cite the park’s diversity, including the Devil’s Staircase hiking trail among rock cliffs and wildflowers; the panoramic views from the upper road; the charm of the buildings and more than a mile of shoreline. The park’s ball diamond continues to host high school, American legion and semi-pro teams.


VanBrocklin, past Friends president, is one of the park’s most passionate supporters.


“For decades, it flourished,” she said. “This was the premier park of southern Wisconsin. I always sensed greatness.”


But even she was astonished by its rich history and the magnet it had once been for Janesville residents.


The park became the vision of former city managers Henry Traxler and Joe Lustig, she said.


“Those people who did the ski hill,” she said. “Oh, my gosh. They couldn’t cut a branch without Joe Lustig’s approval.”


Yes, a ski hill. And midget car races, dancing barges and a mini train.


But different administrations have different visions, she said, such as the current emphasis on biking trails and the purchase of more land along the river.


The Friends goal is to bring people back to Riverside.


The park, for instance, recently hosted a Partners in Prevention event that attracted 1,000. The group had met in Palmer Park but will return to Riverside next year because Riverside had so much more room.


In spring, the Friends will celebrate the park’s 85th birthday.


The Devil’s Staircase recently got a makeover as it was connected to the Ice Age Trail, and members of the Friends also joined that group.


The project, completed last week, took up large chunks of the groups’ time and resources.


Two major goals include reopening the upper road and reopening the wading pool.


The road was closed in 1996 when teens hung out in the park and used it as a driving circuit.


VanBrocklin calls the road an “extraordinary” feature of the park. She recalls that families used to take Sunday drives through the park and take in its panoramic views.


The city’s leisure services committee has so far supported opening the road, and the group now is working with the golf course advisory committee. The upper road skirts Riverside Golf Course.


Members also wants to reopen the wading pool, closed in 2002.


“To me, we already have the best,” VanBrocklin said.


“It’s so big. It’s so beautiful. It’s not to be forgotten.


“It’s an incredible asset for so many years … Let’s not forget what we have,” VanBrocklin said. “We don’t always have to be grasping for something new.”


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Anyone is welcome to join the Friends of Riverside Park.


The group meets at 6 p.m. the first Wednesday of every month. In fall and winter, the group meets at the Commercial Bank, 1400 Black Bridge Road.


For more information, call Pam VanBrocklin at 563-4454.



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