On a nearly bare stretch of earth next to trash dumpsters in MacArthur Park, George Herms staked out the foundation for his "clock tower" sculpture--five old ocean buoys and a rusted chute.
Al Nodal stood nearby, watching. "This piece, for me, is a symbol of time changing," he said dramatically, and the "drastic changes" coming to the Westlake community surrounding the park.
The 16-foot tower will rise in one of the most unattractive areas of the 100-year-old park, amid a patch of scraggly bushes sticking out of the dirt, which Nodal calls the park's rose garden.
Nodal is that way about MacArthur Park. The director of exhibitions at the nearby Otis Art Institute of the Parsons School of Design, Nodal is the eternal optimist on the subject. In the 3 1/2 years since he joined the school, he has become the park's most relentless advocate.
Hired in part to head an Otis/Parsons program to install public art in MacArthur Park as a means of revitalizing it, he has turned the job into a personal mission.
He lives across the street from the 32-acre facility two miles from City Hall, in an apartment overlooking its lake, playground and trees. He keeps watch over the park with binoculars from his balcony.
Today, MacArthur Park is no longer the dilapidated, high-crime area that it was when Nodal came here in 1983. It is an interesting study in how one small project snowballed into positive change, and Nodal, many say, was the catalyst for that change.
"He made people believe in MacArthur Park, and the community responded," said Tom LaBonge, a deputy for John Ferraro, the city councilman who represented the area for 20 years. (It is now part of the newly formed First District, represented by Gloria Molina.)
Once the art program started, help began pouring in. A local electrical union installed a new lighting system, the Los Angeles Police Department assigned a daily foot patrol, and within the next few months the city Parks and Recreation Department will put in new playground equipment.
Crime has dropped dramatically. According to statistics from the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division, robberies in the reporting district encompassing the park fell from 134 in 1983 to 28 in 1986, aggravated assaults fell from 70 to 32, and burglaries and thefts from vehicles from 220 to 64.
The park not only seems to have a new lease on life, but the neighborhood--through a MacArthur Park Community Council that Nodal persuaded local groups to start--now has the grass-roots leadership that has been missing for many years.
The design school had not anticipated so much change when it initiated the arts project, said Roger Workman, dean of Otis/Parsons.
Their effort began as the institution sought ways to cope with the downhill slide of its surrounding community, he noted. Other art schools in the area had long since gone. In the last decade, the population had swelled with an influx of Central American immigrants, combined with a hard-core transient group that traditionally hung around the park.
"When you try to change an area there are a couple of ways," Workman said. "Either you lobby the city to get more police and put up fences, or you do it another way, which is what we were trying to do. We didn't know what the outcome would be. We were taking a very big chance."
Otis/Parsons hired Nodal, 37, a former artist who previously ran the Washington Project for the Arts in Washington. The school then raised $250,000 to finance a public art program for the park and committed another $150,000 in staff and support services.
Nodal's job was to make it all work: Use art as the tool to focus interest on the park, and the park as a tool to focus attention on the community.
He first organized the artists--mostly Californians, picked by a national panel of art experts--so that their resulting works would reflect the area.
The new Herms piece, for example, "is in some ways a tribute to the senior citizens" in the area, the sculptor said. Herms reuses materials that have been discarded in a "throwaway culture." In this case, he said, "one of the treasures our culture throws away is the experience of senior citizens."
The clock tower is the eighth artwork, out of 10 planned, to be installed in the park, bringing the program nearly to a close.
Early on, Nodal said, he realized that the art project couldn't function in a vacuum. So he organized local businessmen, most of whom didn't know each other, and contacted representatives of the parks department, Police Department and a councilman.
The group decided to form a "community council" to address their major concerns, which at first had more to do with crime and trash than public art.
"Several different times in the past we'd tried to get people organized, for neighborhood watch meetings, anything, but we all fizzled," said Peter Daniels, president of the community council and owner of H.G. Daniels, an art materials supplier bordering the park.