The Fairfield-Suisun Army Air Base, now Travis Air Force Base, was activated May 11, 1943, and housing both for workers during the war and military families afterwards, was a problem. Waterman Park federal housing project, named after Fairfield founder Capt. Robert Waterman, opened in November 1943 and was located on the 33-acres that is now the Fairfield Civic Center complex.
Waterman Park was a community within a community with its own theater, library and beauty shop. In 1944, the Solano Republican (the Daily Republic’s predecessor) began devoting two of its pages to the community’s newspaper called The Waterman Clipper. The old Fairfield-Suisun Adult School on Civic Center Drive used to be Waterman Park Elementary School.
Tom Hannigan: “There was a small multipurpose room that was used for a variety of community activities. The City Council moved into it and when I first got elected, we were still holding meetings at the old Waterman Park community hall.”
Al Cacioppo: “My wife’s grandmother, Ruby Bickel, lived there until the late 1960s. I vividly remember the smell of fried chicken on a Sunday afternoon wafting through the summer air – kinda like a Johnny Cash song. Some of us young people thought Waterman Park was a ‘ghetto,’ but Granny Bickel was quite happy with the little community and its largely older inhabitants.”
Donna Scholl Cooley: “We lived at 16c and used to play on the railroad tracks across from the prune dehydrator. I know it sounds silly, but there were not many trains.”
Johnnie Laird: “One of our favorite play places was the ditch that ran along Union that was full of tadpoles, frogs and fish. And I remember well the smell of prunes on hot summer nights.”
Nanciann Gregg: “I lived at 19A and 22 A in 1958-59. 19A was a studio apartment. We had no refrigerator. At night I’d put a cardboard box on the window ledge with milk and bologna for my husband’s lunch the next day. We moved to one bedroom 22A a few weeks before the baby came. I thought we lived in a palace. It was ours and the cockroaches.”
Keith Hayes: “The city used to go up and down each street spraying huge clouds of (the later banned insecticide) DDT. We would follow along, going in and out of the clouds on our bikes. Ignorance was bliss. Waterman Park was also a great place to go trick-or-treating. The units were so close together we could fill a pillow case with goodies in no time.”
With the plan to one day build a new civic center on the land, the city bought Waterman Park from the federal government in 1954 for $25,000 and began renting to low-income families. By the late ’60s, the city had netted more than $500,000 for the civic center building fund.
On New Year’s Day 1968, with Mayor Shirley Smith and City Manager B. Gale Wilson wearing hard hats and wielding ceremonial sledgehammers, Waterman Park was bulldozed and the splintered remains set afire.
An account from the Jan. 2, 1968, Daily Republic: “It looked like the London Blitz. Walls were splintered with a crash, windows popped like Champagne corks and fire that sent black smoke hundreds of feet in the air finished the job begun by a city bulldozer.”
Debra Merritt Bruflat: “I lived directly across the street from Waterman Park on Jefferson Street. There was always a huge amount of people moving in and out from all over the U.S. and the world. There were many young airmen with wives from Europe, Vietnam and other Asian countries.
I really grew up in Fairfield’s melting pot! I was 14 or so before I even realized there was such a thing as prejudice. I remember corner baseball games, skateboarding, and always having kids to play with. I remember hot nights sitting on the cool back of my dad’s car, hearing the sounds of people’s TVs and screen doors slamming over in Waterman Park.
The night they burned the houses down was surreal. People were happy to see the ‘cracker box’ houses burn, but to me it was sad. A big part of my childhood was gone.”
Reach Fairfield writer Tony Wade at email@example.com.