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The Sad Decline and Fall of Urban Parks

March 19, 1989|SAM HALL KAPLAN

Even though it opposes the police facilities bond issue that goes before Los Angeles voters next month, the Citizens' Committee to Save Elysian Park recognizes the need for modernized stations and a new and expanded Police Academy.

Indeed, Echo Park and Chinatown, where most of the committee members live, and the rambling 576-acre park itself are beset by gangs, and residents welcome all the patrolmen they can get. But the committee fears that if the $176-million bond issue is approved April 11, the present Police Academy in Elysian Park would be substantially expanded, consuming considerably more than the 25-plus acres it already embraces. The measure allocates $40 million to the renovation and expansion of the training facility.

The committee also wants the academy complex moved, preferably to an urban setting where it would have more of an impact, and the land it now sits on returned to recreational use.

The citizens feels that parks are a valued public resource for people to enjoy, not a municipal land bank for select projects, and resents having to fight City Hall to preserve it.

"They should be protecting it, not giving it away," says Sally Neubauer, of the citizens' committee.

Neubauer notes that for years Elysian Park, the city's first, having been officially "forever dedicated" as such in 1886, has been nibbled away to become less than Elysian.

Encroachments, besides the police academy, have included new and widened roadways to serve Dodger Stadium, Department of Water and Power facilities and garbage dumps. Through the years, proposals for an airport and a convention center have been defeated.

Because of its size and history--among other things, it was the site of the first botanical gardens in Southern California--Elysian Park is one of the more egregious examples of the second-class state into which many of the region's parks have slipped.

Viewing the Fire Department training area in MacArthur Park, the impromptu campgrounds for the homeless in Santa Monica's Lincoln and Douglas parks, the vandalism spilling over the edges of Runyon Canyon Park into neighbors' back yards and the forlorn condition of most parks and playgrounds in South-Central, among others, one wonders if local governments think of parks if not as land banks, then simply as liabilities.

The nonprofit Center for Law in the Public Interest recently rallied various community groups and civic associations, ranging from the neighborhood-rooted citizens' committee to the citywide Los Angeles Beautiful, to form an alliance called People For Parks.

Among the group's many goals is to dramatize and elevate the issue of parks on the current local political agenda.

According to the Center for Law, in the last decade since the passage of Proposition 13, the number of employees in the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department staff has been reduced from about 4,000 to 2,000.

As a result, security and maintenance have been severely cut back, recreation centers closed and parks that cannot raise their own operating funds have generally deteriorated.

An estimated 70 are described as "dead parks," overrun by gangs, derelicts and the hapless homeless.

While the homeless should not be kept out, the parks shouldn't be a substitute for shelters or, better yet, homes. The harsh reality is that letting the more menacing homeless congregate in parks, as they do in Santa Monica, has had the effect of intimidating others who might use the parks, particularly children and the elderly. They have civil rights, too, just as the homeless.

It seems unfair that because of the homeless situation there, my 6-month-old and 4-year-old sons do not have full reign of Douglas Park, or my 86-year-old mother no longer feels comfortable strolling in Palisades Park or sitting outside the senior citizens center there. They are not alone, judging from complaints by other would-be park users.

That parks should, in effect, be surrendered so readily to whomever and whatever by local governments is an indication of the level to which parks have fallen on the scale of civic values and responsibilities.

There are exceptions, usually where local residents are particularly affluent and vocal. But they are, unfortunately, exceptions. Once the pride of most neighborhoods, around which subdivisions were planned, parks appear to have become focuses of blight in many areas.

And this, when the city needs more and better maintained and operated parks, especially in lower-income neighborhoods crowded with immigrant populations in need of a place to socialize and let their children romp, consistent with their diverse uses of public space.

The fact is that Los Angeles is no longer a city where most people live in single-family houses with big back yards. Parks increasingly have become an extension of our living rooms, a place to entertain and be entertained, or simply to sit and enjoy a sylvan setting.

To have the dwindling resource of parks carved up for such special uses as a police academy is in effect, a form of vandalism, and like poor maintenance and security, an abrogation of a public trust.

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