There was a time, Jon Dibene says, when you could watch kids boldly selling illegal drugs as they rode around Sun Valley Park on their bicycles.
There also was a time, says the Rev. Anthony M. Yim, when you could watch colonies of scruffy transients build large bonfires at night in North Hollywood Park. Some men slept in equally scruffy cars that lined Tujunga Avenue, the park's western boundary.
But these days, say Yim and Dibene, many of the drug dealers and transients are gone.
"You see families," said Dibene of the park near his barber shop. "You see kids again."
Yim, a minister at the First Methodist Church on Tujunga Avenue, said that except for a few hangers-on, the transient population has dispersed.
To be sure, some problems persist. But, overall, the atmosphere at Sun Valley and North Hollywood parks has improved since the Los Angeles Police Department's North Hollywood Division stepped up patrols at both parks eight months ago, according to merchants, neighbors and city workers. As Tom Hutchison, director of the Sun Valley Recreation Center, put it: "The good people are coming back because they see it's safe."
Although both parks long held bad reputations, the problems at each park differed and required different solutions, said Sgt. Tom Toutant, parks coordinator for the North Hollywood division. Locals, for example, sparked most of Sun Valley's troubles, Toutant said, while interlopers plagued North Hollywood. Regardless of their cause, the troubles scared off families and made park workers anxious.
Sun Valley Park is a 27-acre rectangle in a largely Hispanic neighborhood. Many of the nearby houses and the Iglesia Aposento Alto, a small white church across the street, have iron bars on their windows and doors.
Day and night, residents said, drug dealers sat in the baseball bleachers and waited for buyers to drive up. Some pushers would run up to their customers like carhops, drugs in hand, while others, more circumspect, would sit on the grass with buyers, lift up a chunk of sod and reach into a buried tin can filled with narcotics.
Prostitutes cruised the baseball diamond, drinkers shared booze and gamblers played cards. "They were having outdoor casinos," Dibene said.
"That park was bad news," said Joe Chavez, a nearby resident. "It got to the point where people were actually afraid to cross the park."
And then last Feb. 11, a drug deal gone sour ended in two deaths. Dennis R. Hensley, 34, of North Hollywood killed John M. Sell, 22, of Burbank, with a shotgun blast before police shot Hensley in a parking lot opposite the park.
A month later, the North Hollywood division opened a police substation across the street from the park in office space donated by the Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce. The office had been in the planning stages for some time, but the killing speeded up its opening, Officer Ruben Derma said.
During their first four months on foot patrol, Derma and his partner, Officer Louis Vargas, made 60 to 80 arrests a month, mostly related to drugs or alcohol.
The suspects ranged from a 14-year-old boy to a 60-year-old man accused of selling syringes to heroin addicts. The drug dealers were brazen, Derma said, and, at times, even stared at him during a deal, apparently assuming that he did not have time to police the park.
As arrests rose, however, the dealers learned to work elsewhere or to carry only enough drugs to be charged with possession, not sales, Derma said. Police also cracked down on drug buyers, often Anglo high school students or young adults from Burbank or Glendale whose newer cars were conspicuously out of place in Sun Valley, he said.
As a result of the increased patrols, Derma and Vargas made fewer than 20 arrests in October.
Drug purchasers may have come from outside Sun Valley, but the drunks and gamblers and sellers were mostly locals. Their neighbors, however, felt powerless to complain because many are illegal immigrants from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, the officers said.
"The Latinos don't like that garbage, but a lot of them can't do anything about it because they don't have papers," Dibene said, adding that he doubts that non-Latino officers would have made such an impact in the area.
Derma and Vargas agreed their fluent Spanish and cultural skills have helped convince many residents they don't work for immigration or la migra . "They're still a little hesitant, but they're coming around," Derma said.
He recalled one woman who walked up to tell him that she had purchased a home in Sun Valley eight years ago because she loved its little park. For years, the pushers and drunks scared her away. "This is the first time," she told him, "I have used the park in four years."
North Hollywood Park