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Jack Smith

MacArthur Park is melting in the dark . . . but hopes are high that restoration will give it a new image

May 20, 1986|JACK SMITH

I walked through Westlake Park the other morning with Al Nodal, who was carrying a can of cleaning spray and a felt cloth to wipe out graffiti.

I know it is called MacArthur Park now, for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, but it will always be Westlake Park to me.

Nodal is director of exhibitions for the Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, and director of Otis/Parsons' program of rehabilitation for the park.

In 1934 I walked through the park almost every day. The neighborhood was clean and prosperous, the park was clean, beautiful and much enjoyed by families and couples old and young.

It is still beautiful, but it has become a swamp of crime and degeneracy, frequented by winos, homosexual hustlers, drug dealers, muggers, opportunistic loiterers and unsavory types of every kind. Old people living in the neighborhood are afraid to use it. Law-abiding citizens avoid it at night.

And yet on weekends it bursts with vitality. Seventy percent of the neighborhood's residents are from Central or South America, and 50% of those are probably illegals. They live at the edge of poverty, crammed into single rooms in the decaying hotels and apartment houses that surround the park.

"There's nothing for the kids to do but get in trouble," Nodal said. "But they're here. They have to be made to feel a part of the neighborhood."

He stopped to spray a word of graffiti on a bench and wipe it out. "You have to keep hitting it," he said. "I carry this every day."

The word he had erased was puto , the Spanish word for male prostitute.

"Lots of them here at night," he said. "Young Salvadoran kids hustling. It's terrible."

Otis/Parsons has been trying to upgrade the park for three years, joining in with a Community Council and the responsible city departments to clean it up and give it a new image with public art.

We passed by the old bandstand. The shell had been covered with a brilliantly executed mural illustrating the cultural diversity of the neighborhood.

"We got the graffiti artists to work with the artists on that," Nodal said. "It took two months. They loved it. It's never been graffitied over."

We climbed a grassy knoll to an outcropping of stone walls and benches. The benches had built-in speakers here and there. "This will be the poetry garden," Nodal said. "You can sit here and listen to Salvadoran poetry. We want it to look like an ancient ruin."

Nobody wants to impose his ideas of art on the people, he said. They just want to try things, see how they work. "We can't come in from the West Side and tell them what's good for them. Nothing is going to be permanent."

In the picnic area near the children's playground we saw two step-faced pyramids of brightly colored ceramic tile. Each had a speaker connected to the other by an underground pipe. "On weekends children crawl all over these things," Nodal said. "They love to talk to each other over the pipe."

We came to an inset in which a formally dressed couple danced on a pink terrazzo background. An inscription read: "Crazy as a pair of waltzing mice."

"That's a quote from Raymond Chandler," Nodal said.

From that spot, he pointed out, we could see the great sign "WESTLAKE" on top of the Westlake Theater.

Up on a knoll, from which we could see the "OLYMPIC" sign on the Olympic Hotel, was another "mini-monument" showing one prizefighter knocking down another; the inscription read: "Mine was the better punch, but it didn't win the wristwatch." That was Chandler, too. The two Chandler monuments had been done by artist Alexis Smith, and there would be others.

June 20 will be a big night. Part of the project has been to restore the great signs around the park that have been dark since World War II. On that night "WESTLAKE," "ASBURY," "ANSONIA," "OLYMPIC" and "WILSHIRE" will blaze again, along with the park's new lighting system.

The old Victorian boathouse was long gone. There was nothing but a wooden deck with ice cream and tamale stands and a herd of machine-shaped plastic boats drawn up below. "We want to rebuild the boathouse," Nodal said, "and make it into a restaurant. A good restaurant, but not expensive."

The lake looked clean. Pigeons moved about in flocks. The ducks were clustered on their little island.

At the southwest corner men slept in the abandoned senior citizen shed or gambled at the card tables. "This is a scary place at night," Nodal said.

The police department had committed two patrolmen to walk the park in the daytime, which was a big help.

Nodal spoke of things to come: a sculpture of an immigrant carrying a woman on his shoulders across the border, a tower made of junk with a clock on top, a lighted water spout that "will make the whole lake sparkle."

We came to the MacArthur monument. The general stood stiffly in his uniform above a pool dotted by the islands he had conquered in World War II. The pool was dry, as it had been for years. The hero had suffered many indignities, including a bath of red paint.

"He's long suffering," Nodal said. "We're going to redo the monument."

When they redo the monument, showing a proper respect for the general, he confided, it might be a good time to push for restoration of the park's original name--Westlake.

No offense to the general, but I'm for that.

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