Three dozen terrified children ran into the Ross Snyder Recreation Center on East 41st Street one afternoon in late July, screaming that men with Uzi submachine guns were in the park.
Arby Fields, a recreation director on the job eight months, went outside and saw about 20 men with clothing draped over guns. "I shut the doors and called the cops--three times," he said.
Almost three hours later four police squad cars arrived. By then, the armed men were long gone, and the police, who later said Fields had called the police gang unit number, not 911, left without making a report.
"We get shots fired in the park three or four times a week," says Field, echoing a concern voiced by many of his co-workers. Others complain of slow response by police and of inadequate funding.
In scores of city parks across Los Angeles--mostly cramped sites in poor neighborhoods--fear is high. So pervasive are gangs, drug dealers and drunks, so limited are the programs and facilities, that the sites are known to parents and even some recreation directors as "dead parks."
Hector Hernandez, head of security for the city's 300 parks, playgrounds and pools, agrees that there is, indeed, a problem. But he disagrees on what to call it. "I wouldn't call them dead parks," Hernandez said. "I'd call them terrorized parks."
The Los Angeles Police Department, in a report Oct. 6, called them "problem parks" and listed 75 in need of extra police attention.
What the Public Perceives
James E. Haddaway, general manager of the city Recreation and Parks Department, said there is a general public perception that many of the city's parks are unsafe. Forty-nine percent of Los Angeles residents, questioned by the city two years ago at shopping centers, reported they are afraid to enter their neighborhood parks, he said.
"They feel the parks are unsafe," he said, adding that "I believe them."
Scattered across Los Angeles, from the Valley to the beach to the harbor, the "dead parks" have generated little official attention. But residents of the neighborhoods, the parents and children who cannot picnic and play safely in their local parks, are intimately aware of the dangers.
Alejandro Salazar, 10, was playing with friends July 19 on the sidewalk abutting Pacoima Park when he was hit by a fatal bullet in the back of his head. A 17-year-old gang member, shooting at rival gang members over an incident that grew out of a boy wearing the wrong gang colors, couldn't shoot straight, the police found.
At Hubert H. Humphrey Memorial Park, also in Pacoima, child care director Valerie Moody told of frightening encounters with gang members.
"I've had guns put to my head. I've had to go out by myself and tell the drug dealers to quit dealing in the park and get out," Moody said. Her boss, Rufus Wade, echoed her remarks, as did two dozen recreation workers across the city.
At Norwood Elementary School, just southwest of the Harbor-Santa Monica Freeway interchange, principal Angie Kasza said her 1,500 students are "caught between the Hoover Rec Center and Toberman (Park), which is where the 18th Street Gang formed. There are fewer problems at Hoover because it's on a main street, but Toberman is sort of tucked away and it's a real bad scene."
Sengiak Yeoh, a Norwood fourth-grader, said: "You can't play in the parks, they're dangerous." His friend Danny Orzuna added that "bad people" hang out in parks so he stays away.
At Toberman Park, wedged into the crook where the southbound Harbor Freeway ramps lead into the westbound Santa Monica Freeway, evening often brings out men who stand idly until others approach. Little folds of wadded paper are exchanged, sometimes openly, for little bags of emotional escape.
At Ardmore Recreation Center near Koreatown, morning brings out the gamblers. Rosa Manriquez, who runs Ardmore, said she has called the police again and again, hoping they will drive by in patrol cars to scatter the gamblers. But she said the police never came until she called the vice squad, which quickly sent in officers to break up the dice game.
On Tuesday afternoon Manriquez again called the police three times to report men fighting outside the recreation center. Three hours later, she said, the police finally called back to ask if the fight was still in progress.
At Pecan Park and Pool, next to the Aliso-Pico Housing project on East First Street, the homeless sometimes break in at night to bathe in the pool. In the daytime, wandering drunks relieve themselves on the basketball courts.
At Pecan and some other pools, the problem is frequently not that there are too few people but that people come at the wrong times. "At some pools we have more swimming after-hours than when the pools are open," said Haddaway.
After-hours swimmers, he added, are generally not teen-agers but families, often groups of families. Most city pools close at 7 p.m., before many working-class parents get home.