Craig Gilbert never ran for public office, but he reigns as the undisputed, if unofficial, mayor of Ortega Park. In person, Gilbert is soft-spoken, gracious, and quietly charismatic. But that charisma, police say, is just the problem. That’s because Gilbert has emerged as the functional nucleus for a group of loud and rowdy drunks who have taken over Ortega Park, intimidate passersby, and agitate neighbors with their incessant bickering, f-bombs, and catcalls.
Police officials, city parks employees, neighborhood activists, and even one of Gilbert’s relatives are trying to persuade Gilbert to take his act somewhere else in hopes that his crew will follow. According to Gilbert, Santa Barbara Police Chief Lori Luhnow herself asked him to start spending more time enjoying the city’s beaches. He said he told her he was not so inclined. Don’t they have rules at the beach, he asked, against the consumption of alcohol?
Gilbert said he’s been coming to Ortega Park since he was in 4th grade in 1968. He grew up right around the corner on Bond Avenue. He acknowledged some of the homeless people who hang out at Ortega Park can get loud and obscene, but he tries to quiet them down. It’s been a very long time, he said, since anyone’s been shot or stabbed at Ortega Park, and he takes credit for reducing drug dealing there by what he estimates is 90 percent.
Community nuisance — like beauty — lies in the eye of the beholder. City Councilmember Jason Dominguez, who represents the district, said that on a scale of 1 to 10, he would rank the problems at Ortega Park a nine. Assistant Parks czar Rich Hanna said he’d rank it a seven. One nearby resident called the police 60 times in four months. In the past week, AMR ambulances were called to the park twice, first for a heroin overdose and then for apparent alcohol poisoning. Gilbert placed that second call, explaining he could see the “body function” of a park regular “shut down.” The ambulance ride apparently did the trick. By two o’clock the next day, the rider was back at the park, passed out on the grass.
Gilbert is a celebrity in the area sports scene. By 8th grade, he was good enough to play with college players and professionals in Los Angeles’ summer basketball pro leagues. His ball-handling skills were superb, and he played monster defense. When the score was close, Gilbert said, he could take over a game. He could have been a contender, but after getting caught up in the middle of an academic eligibility scandal that made the front page of Sports Illustrated in 1979, Gilbert caught a one-way ticket to Palookaville. While playing for the University of New Mexico Lobos, it came out that Gilbert’s collegiate record had been forged; he had credits for classes he’d never heard of. Gilbert may have been just another athlete caught up in the gears of collegiate sports, but among his detractors, he went from Lobo to hobo.
Gilbert continued to play basketball and softball. He moved to Ventura, worked in food services for a large medical center, and moved back to Santa Barbara around seven years ago to care for a mother who’s since died. Now, he spends his days in Ortega Park. Gilbert admits there’s a problem, but he contends efforts to “clean up” the park have backfired badly. For decades, Ortega Park was defined by large groups of older Hispanic men who hung out by the barbecue pits located near the swimming pool by Cota and Salsipuedes streets, where they’d play cards, drink, and hang out.
To deal with that, the barbecue pits were removed, and then the picnic benches and tables. The older card-playing Hispanics disappeared. But Gilbert and his drinking companions didn’t leave. They just moved to a new spot in the park, closer to the basketball courts and baseball diamond. According to police, they brought their own chairs. They positioned themselves outside the sightlines of security cameras. And they drank. But much worse, they drank and yelled and hollered much closer to homes and businesses than ever before. They moved to the one bench left in the whole park. It happened to be located near the basketball court and baseball diamond. It is also located closest to the residences and business that abut the park on Ortega Street.
Police have responded by showing up regularly. Once or twice a week, about 18 officers convene for briefing meetings. Park hours have been curtailed from 10 at night to half an hour after sunset. Bathrooms are shut down after 5 p.m. The bleachers have been removed. Along the way, Gilbert has gotten more than a few open-container citations — seven are current — but he claims four involved someone else’s bottles. He’s been kicked out of the park and then threatened with arrest. But the reality is there’s no room in the jail. Some of the cops Gilbert knows and likes, having played ball with their fathers. Others, he says, are prone to get a little “rowdy.”
Hanna says the solution is to program the park more aggressively. Pony League. Special Olympics soccer. In the meantime, the Mayor of Ortega Park says he’ll try to “talk sense” to people when they get loud. “It makes us look bad,” Gilbert said. “But if they want to fix the problem, they should just let us go back where we were.”