Vandals damage Japanese Shinzen Garden in Woodward Park

FRESNO, Calif.

The Shinzen Garden is close to the park entrance at Friant and Shepherd and it's considered a treasure by hundreds of Valley residents. But others are treating it like trash.

The city is in charge of security at the garden, but volunteers say nobody's ever watching over the place. Just inside the fences of Fresno's Shinzen Japanese Garden sits its most valuable centerpiece. The thatched roof teahouse is one of only two like it in the continental U.S. But the house has recently become home to some of Fresno's homeless -- a discovery volunteers made at a very inopportune time.

"I was the first one that caught them," said Art Munger, who is on the board of directors for the garden. "I escorted them out of the garden. Within a week or two they were taking a bunch of school kids on a tour and they were in there again."

The fence surrounding the teahouse was also broken. Volunteers paid to rebuild it -- just one of several projects they've funded this year to erase the damage done by vandals. A $900 granite lantern is the latest casualty.

"They just pushed it over," said Richard Kassabian, the president of the garden's board. "They just pushed it over and it broke when it went into the lake."

Kassabian said he's also caught vandals fishing in their koi pond, and firefighters say transients were the only people around when a nearby gazebo caught fire last week. But there's not much the board of directors can do.

As a piece of Woodward Park, the city of Fresno is responsible for upkeep and security. But the city's parks budget is less than half of what it was just four years ago -- $11.1 million now compared to $23 million in fiscal year 2008-09 -- and the park lost its dedicated gardener to budget cuts two years ago.

Kassabian is hoping the city will be able to afford better fencing and security cameras soon. Until then, it seems volunteers and vandals will be in a constant duel.

"It's battling something that we don't have any control over and here we're in here putting our hearts and souls into the garden, and trying to maintain it, and we have these continuous setbacks," said Kassabian.

The garden hosts volunteer days every third Saturday of the month to get a little help keeping the place looking its best. The next one is on Jan. 19 if you want to go out and help.

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