By Rachael Rifkin
What’s in a name? Well, for Somerset Park (or is it Chrissy Strong-Marshall Park?) it’s hard to say because no one really seems to know anything about the origins of the name.
We do know who Chrissy Strong-Marshall was. A well-respected Community Recreation Services bureau manager, Marshall started her career at Somerset Park, first as a recreation leader and then as a community services supervisor. In her later years, she continued to work as much as she could even after she grew ill. She recently passed away after a long battle with cancer.
Inspired by her years of dedication to the community, city officials began to discuss renaming Somerset Park after her at the July 16 Parks and Recreation Commission meeting. On August 4, the Long Beach City Council decided to vote in favor (8–1) of the renaming. According to the city council meeting minutes, the one abstaining vote was cast by Councilmember Rae Gabelich.
Just prior to the vote, Councilmember Gabelich had raised a substitute motion (seconded by Councilmember Gary Delong) to delay the vote pending more community input. She wanted “to return the item to the Housing and Neighborhoods Committee to receive community input on how to honor Ms. Marshall at the highest level with the aim of raising funds for park improvements, with a report back to City Council within 90 days.” The motion was defeated by a vote of 4–5.
Then, on August 20, at a meeting at Somerset Park to discuss a recent park shooting and the name change, a group of Bixby Heights area residents showed up to protest the renaming. The people against the change wanted the park to retain the name it has had since the park opened in 1950 because they felt it was an important part of its identity. On September 17, residents gathered at the Miller Family Health Center on Cherry Avenue to further discuss the matter.
So can the story behind the Somerset name even compare? Well, probably not. Most likely, Somerset wasn’t even a person. At the Long Beach Historical Society, the most substantial bit of background information came from Sarah Bixby Smith’s book Adobe Days.
Not only did my father’s immediate family come to this state but also many of his friends and cousins. I am told that at the presidential election in 1860 all of the men in Paso Robles who voted for Lincoln came from Somerset County, Maine.
So, before the Bixbys made the trek out to California, they resided in Somerset County, Maine. It seems most likely that the park name was chosen in honor of their hometown (and their hometown’s name was chosen in honor of Somerset, England).
In search of more information, I was off to the land of microfilm, aka the library, because it is truly a great place to research all things Long Beach. They have local newspapers on microfilm going back at least 80 years.
I found three short Press-Telegram articles– one from 1946, when they started working on the park, and two from 1950, the year the park officially opened. None of the articles refers to the origins of the name.
In the first article (“Work will start on Somerset Park [sw corner of Carson & Walnut],” May 3, 1946, section B, page 1, column 4), I learned that $20,000 had been allocated for the development of Somerset Park, and that they were planning to “include two tennis courts, a picnic shelter, a children’s playground, and badminton and roque courts.” (If you’re wondering, according to Wikipedia, a roque court is “an American variant of croquet played on a hard, smooth surface.”)
On February 2, 1950, the Press-Telegram declared (in section B, page 1, column 8) “Somerset Park (s. of Carson between Gundry & Walnut) opens this week.” Four years and an additional $26,093 later, Somerset Park finally opened with two tennis courts, three small buildings, sewers and curbing.
By May 5, 1950, the Press-Telegram concluded (section B, page 1, column 2) “Somerset Park booms, newest play area in L.B. (at Carson & Gundry) draws many.” Weekly attendance was in excess of 1,000 people, even with the park only open on a part-time basis (weekdays 2-5pm, Saturday 9:30am-5:30pm). By this time, the popular park had a picnic area, two tennis courts, a softball diamond, and climbing bars and ladders for kids.
Since I’d run out of options at the library, the librarian suggested I try the city clerk’s office. They have records of city council meeting minutes going all the way back to the 1940s. The people at the city clerk’s office were very helpful and nice. They set me up on a microfiche (aka microfilm’s evil cousin) machine and I learned even more about the history of the park.
On April 6, 1943, the Cerritos Park Association donated approximately four acres of land in the vicinity of Carson Street and Walnut Avenue to the city of Long Beach. Prior to the donation, the Cerritos Park Association had been maintaining the unnamed park, without any expense to the city, over a period of years “for the benefit of the people.” The city goes on to say that they planned to develop “said park as a beauty spot and recreational area for the benefit for all of the community.” Notice the land is being referred to as a park, not Somerset Park. So, prior to the ownership change, the park had no name.
The city council meeting minutes don’t refer to the park again until July 10, 1945. Apparently, the park hadn’t really transformed into a “beauty spot.” Quite the opposite, in fact.
“A petition signed by R.K. Fairfield, and others, being residents and property owners of the area adjacent to Somerset Park (Carson and Walnut), calling attention to the neglected condition of this park, and requesting that the City Council order, through the proper channels, work be done as outlined, in view of the extreme need for the park and playground facilities in this area.” During the following week’s meeting (July 17, 1945), the city council agreed to develop the park, and their first course of business was to burn the weeds in the park.
The park is now being referred to as Somerset Park. Somewhere between April 6, 1943 and July 10, 1945 the park acquired a name, and by May 5, 1950 the park was deemed a success.
If the name was not discussed at a city council meeting, it was most likely a topic at a Long Beach Parks, Recreation and Marine meeting. Their records, however, only go back about 10 years. A Parks, Recreation and Marine representative did suggest that I could make a formal request with the city attorney to look into the matter in more detail. When I asked who the city attorney would contact for more information, she said that he would probably contact them.
So what is better, having a park (most likely) named after a founding family’s hometown or a dedicated Community Recreation Services bureau manager? The answer probably varies depending on where you live (i.e., close to the park) or who you knew (i.e. Chrissy Strong-Marshall).
To learn more about the decision to rename Somerset Park, refer to the July 16 Parks and Recreation Commission meeting minutes and the August 4 Long Beach City Council meeting minutes.
To get the full July 16, 2009 Parks and Recreation Commission meeting minutes, go to www.longbeach.gov/park/commissions/parks_rec.asp. You will find the PDF file under “Archived Minutes.” Discussion of the name change is on pages 2–4.
To get the full August 4, 2009 Long Beach City Council meeting minutes, visit http://longbeach.legistar.com/MeetingDetail.aspx?ID=77007&GUID=734585C8-428B-44F4-B59F-790D9CFE454C&Options=&Search=. Then click on the PDF file labeled “minutes” near the top of the page. The Somerset Park vote is on pages 3 and 4.
If anyone is interested in contacting the city attorney for more information on Somerset Park (the turn-around time is usually about three weeks), make a request in writing to: City Attorney’s Office, 333 West Ocean Boulevard, Long Beach, CA 90802.