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Q&A with Tracy Wood, Part 2: Finding the Right Records to Tell Orange County's Park Story

Q&A with Tracy Wood, Part 2: Finding the Right Records to Tell Orange County's Park Story

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Tracy Wood, William Heisel, Antidote, Reporting on Health

I kicked off my conversation on Wednesday with Tracy Wood, who launched a three-part series at the Voice of OC about the lack of parks in some Southern California cities. The second part of our interview is below. It has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: What about the impact of the lack of parks you documented? I imagine a lot of thought had to go into how you were going to show that the absence of parks made a tangible difference in people's lives. What factors did you consider when deciding how to show that impact?

A: I think that question sums up the importance of the second part of the series and the video. Within the context of the series, Part 2 makes it personal and shows exactly what happens to real kids when adults can't or won't provide safe outside play areas.

Q: What sort of public records did you pursue and did you run into any hurdles gaining access to them?

A: I love public records. They're journalism bedrock. In this case, the history was so old, it predated some of the public records laws of today. For example, I tried to get memos or any other records about early park formation but most of what was there were just dates or notes that a decision was made, but no memos or letters to shed light on the decisions. And a big part of the history was that Mile Square Park was created in secrecy, which also limited the number of available public records. Our story was the first to report Mile Square Park's secret history.

At some point, I'd like to do a far more extensive records search of other departments because I think more records exist, but county government reorganizations may mean they're sidelined in other agencies. The county archives, however, were hugely helpful, especially providing great photos. And initially I started my own city-by-city database of existing parkland in northern and southern Orange County. Fortunately, I hadn't spent too much time on it when I interviewed a former parks director who just coincidentally had heard that the Center for Demographic Research at Cal State Fullerton recently put together a database for the entire county. That saved me a huge amount of work.

Also, while we were working on the project, Latino Health Access came out with a countywide assessment of Latino health issues. It included lack of exercise space for children, which helped with some of the research.

Q: You decided to make the first part of the series all about the history of Orange County parks. History lessons are usually limited to short sidebars or timelines. What made you think that this would work as a lengthy story?

A: The more we got into the north Orange County parks shortage, the more obvious it became to us that we really needed to do a full story on the past for readers to understand the present. Much of what is going on today is a continuation of policies established during the housing boom of the 1950s and never updated to meet modern needs. Daily stories that we have done about park decisions being made now, are grounded in that history. And we also came across the story of how Mile Square Park was created in secrecy, a story that hadn't been told before.

Q: One of the chief figures in making north OC a park desert was R.C. Hoiles, the founder of the Orange County Register. You and I both used to work at the Register. Did you try to interview any members of the Hoiles family or anyone at the paper for that piece of the story?

A: Interviews with knowledgeable players was a major challenge for this project. Because so much of the important history happened in the 1950s and early 1960s, many of those with direct knowledge were dead. Others were in their 80s and 90s and not always easy to find. I spent a huge-and I mean huge-amount of time trying to track down those with direct knowledge of what we were reporting.

And I think it paid off. Ray Watson, former president of the Irvine Company and Richard Ramella, the national planning expert who began his career in Orange County, were incredibly helpful. I also managed to find several other people who worked directly on portions of the history and they gave me context and verification for what I was reporting. It wasn't easy, but I was able to report everything based on those with firsthand knowledge.

Q: The series did not do much more than touch on the Great Park in Irvine, a project that has been quite controversial and remains well behind schedule. Why did you avoid that topic?

A: We didn't avoid it so much as just give it basic attention in the package because it has been and will continue to be the subject of many, many of its own daily stories. The Great Park may be an impressive asset to Orange County one day and it continues to get tremendous coverage. With limited space, I felt it was important to include information the public didn't know in the series.

Q: There are several mentions in the series about turning abandoned buildings or vacant lots into parks. Why did you decide not to provide any analysis around this idea, such as how many vacant lots exist in north OC or even a map of their locations?

A: That's a great idea for a follow-up story, but we simply didn't have the resources to create that kind of database. Maybe we can find someone to work with us on it.

Q: What has been the reaction to the series?

A: Hah. As you might expect, the reaction depends in part on whether or not you use parks and where you stand politically. At the time the series was published, two north Orange County cities, Orange and Fullerton, were in the process of deciding whether to let developers build on some of their last open space. In both cases, community groups were urging the councils to keep the land as parks or other open space. Council members in both towns who sided with the developers used arguments almost identical to those 60 years ago-owners of private land should be allowed to do whatever they want with it. But unlike in the 1950s, those who wanted the lands kept open have launched referendums to give voters a chance to weigh in.

And then there is the reaction from parks and rec departments and other planners who are trying to figure out how to fix the problem. They've said-very privately-that they're using the series to try to convince planning commissioners and council members to stop thinking as they did in the 1950s and look for ways to increase local open space.  Their big obstacle, right now, they're telling me, is the economy and what's happened financially throughout the state. Meanwhile, the follow-up stories will keep coming.

Related Posts:

Q&A with the Voice of OC's Tracy Wood: Finding a Hot Investigation in Local Park History

Home page photo credit: SunCiti_Sundaram via Flickr

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