Bixby Park can be a busy place at night.
Sitting under the glow of yellow street lights on a recent Sunday, a pair of vagrants chatted amiably on a bench. Nearby, a man slept in a wheelchair, a bare foot protruding from the green Army blanket covering him. And rolling gently through the shadows, a line of automobiles, each occupied by a lone male, paraded continuously up and down the two streets running through the Long Beach park.
It is the latter activity that has nearby residents up in arms.
For at least three years, they say, the park--located near the ocean and bounded by Cherry and Junipero avenues and Broadway and Ocean Boulevard--has been a favorite cruising ground for male homosexuals. Tucked comfortably in their vehicles, or on foot, the men rendezvous with potential sex partners, pick up male prostitutes and occasionally have sex in their cars, the neighbors say.
As a result, residents complain their sleep is interrupted by noise, their property littered with everything from used condoms to lewd notes and their peace-of-mind shattered by fears of an increased presence of drugs and growing number of burglaries.
Complaints to the police, they say, have too often resulted in rousting innocent homosexuals--an estimated 20% to 30% of the neighborhood's residents are gay--who are using the park for legitimate purposes.
Police deny that such incidents take place. Nonetheless, officials of the Lambda Democratic Club, a gay-oriented political action group, say they have received complaints of police harassment of homosexuals.
Now, organized groups representing homosexuals and residents have combined efforts to clean up the park. Earlier this week at a meeting in the park's clubhouse attended by about 150 people, representatives of both groups presented a series of proposals aimed at achieving that goal. The proposals were approved overwhelmingly at the meeting.
"The sexual activity makes our lives miserable," said Lynne Severns, a board member of Beach Area Concerned Citizens, a neighborhood homeowners' group. "We don't want Bixby Park to be known as a pickup place. We want it to be a community park where everyone can go."
"We want the same thing," said Rick Rosen, chairman of Lambda's police relations committee. "What we need is a (police) response that is appropriate instead of just being crude."
Among other things, the groups are calling for a uniformed detail of foot patrol officers--trained to deal sensitively with the problem--to be assigned to the neighborhood. Relying on regular uniformed police patrols rather than plainclothes officers, Rosen said, would emphasize deterrence rather than apprehension. And the regular presence of the same officers, he said, would better enable police to differentiate between those in the park for legal purposes and those who are creating the problems.
In addition, the groups are calling for the creation of a local police substation in the park to enhance police visibility, temporary barricades to redirect traffic and break up cruising patterns, improved lighting in the area and passing an ordinance that would define and prohibit cruising in Bixby Park.
The absence of such an ordinance, police say, is one of the main barriers to controlling the problem.
'In a Gray Area'
"We are operating in a very gray area," Police Sgt. David Bauer, field supervisor for the area that includes Bixby Park, told the gathering. "How am I to pick out a guy who is cruising, versus someone who is just driving by? I'm between a rock and a hard place. I am as concerned as you are, but I can only enforce laws that exist."
In an interview before the meeting, Bauer denied that police officers had harassed homosexuals in the park. He acknowledged that the park had attracted large numbers of homosexual cruisers, male prostitutes and others who engage in lewd activities, but said the neighborhood's rate of violent crimes or theft does not appear to be significantly higher than that of other park neighborhoods in the city.
"You're dealing (primarily) with victimless crimes and, in essence, a social problem," he said. "This is a very precariously balanced area of rights. What's harassment and what's enforcement? I think it's a matter of semantics and it's a fine line that we cross."
Councilman Wallace Edgerton, whose district includes the park, will be asked to place the proposals on a future City Council agenda.
Edgerton, who was out of town and did not attend the meeting, said in an interview afterward that he generally supports the proposals, had already set up some meetings to discuss them with various city officials and was glad to see such seemingly diverse elements of the community working together to solve a common problem.
"I'm very optimistic that we can accomplish something and my greatest optimism comes from the community getting organized," Edgerton said. "That speaks well for them and creates a better probability of success."
Despite some moments of tension between the two groups, most of those in attendance seemed to agree with Edgerton's assessment.
The cruising "has been going on for years and years," said Lambda member Gary Wagner. "It has finally grown to the extent that the homeowners are sick of it and the gay community is sick of it, too."
Said long-time resident Larry Goodhue: "This is a start. It's a beginning."