Such is Lanark Park's unsavory reputation--cops call it the West Valley's biggest open-air drug bazaar--that any report from there about kids punching each other silly raises the obvious questions:
1) Does it involve crack?
2) Is it gang related?
3) Why aren't they using large clubs?
But the other night--in an effort to show the park's virtues--kids were fighting for sport, not turf. They were taking part in a boxing exhibition sponsored by the City of Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department and held at the Lanark Recreation Center, a small cinder-block gym inside the park just a few yards from a circular driveway, the main trouble spot.
"They buy drugs there as if it's a drive-through McDonald's," said Vicki Israel, former director at the center.
To counter the pushers, Israel started a boxing program for young neighborhood boys. It might sound contradictory--boxing as an alternative to a life of violence--"but you can't be a boxer if you're on drugs," Israel said.
Boxing also gives kids an identity and a place to hang out. "Instead of 'Let's be in a gang,' it's 'Let's go to the gym,' " says Ray Notaro, a former professional boxer who helped found the program.
The recent exhibition--the third in 15 months at the park--drew about 40 young amateur fighters from throughgout the Valley and an estimated 300 spectators, many from an adjacent Canoga Park apartment complex. The turnout was a tribute to Israel's persistence and commitment. When she started working at Lanark nearly two years ago, the community largely ignored her efforts.
"I couldn't get anyone here with cultural programs," said Israel, 35, who left Lanark earlier this month after being promoted to a similar position at North Hollywood Park. But the Lanark sports programs have been successful. On and off, she says, some 100 boys have participated in the thrice-weekly boxing classes. They're supposed to pay $3 a week, but few do, and "nobody is ever turned away," she says.
The classes are taught by Morris Reif, 60, a former professional boxer who says he had 75 knockouts and was "a murderous puncher," and Brian Miller, 34, who learned boxing at Notaro's now-defunct Canoga Park gym, the Left Hook. Miller, a North Hollywood building contractor, volunteers his time. Reif, retired, is supposed to get a small salary but he is "only paid sometimes," Israel said with a sigh.
To put on the free exhibition, Israel and her staff hung a few dozen balloons and arranged more than 200 folding chairs in the small gym. She persuaded local singer Mike (Majik) Boyd to sing the national anthem over a feedback-whining amp, got John Antonucci as the ring announcer and coerced a couple of reluctant teen-agers to parade as ring girls. ("This is embarrassing," one of them moaned as she was greeted with wolf whistles between rounds.)
Even though the exhibition wasn't on the scale of a heavyweight title bout--7-year-old pre-flyweights traded leather in the opening bout--it did cause Israel headaches. She had to deal with an official of the U.S. Amateur Boxing Federation who threatened to stop the fights unless the fighters registered with the federation ("But he cooled off," she said.) She also had to finesse a coffee machine that wouldn't percolate. And she had to worry.
"The bell?" she said to Notaro. "Is the bell here?"
Israel relied on Notaro, 58, for his expertise and his crowd appeal, playing up his job as technical adviser on "Rocky III" and association with Sylvester Stallone (legend has it that each broke the other's ribs during sparring). Notaro, who lives in West Hills with his wife of 37 years, was 20-0 as an amateur and 19-1 as a pro. He sometimes fought twice a week, under the name Rocky DeAngelo or Rocky Montano, but gave up fighting in 1958 to raise five children.
In 1973, Notaro opened the Left Hook, which he operated for 15 years. Why did it close? "I was tired of taking punches from all my little guys," he said with a smile. The real reason was money. Like Israel, Notaro let fighters train for free. "If I had a nickel for everyone who owes me 10 bucks, I'd be a millionaire," he says.
Notaro, along with another ex-boxer, Frankie Goodman, donated equipment to the Lanark program. Goodman, who owns a small gym in Van Nuys, gave Israel a regulation 18-foot-square ring, but it wouldn't fit. So rec and parks' Construction and Maintenance division built a ring on the center's stage. Specifications weren't approved by the Marquess of Queensberry: 15 feet by 25 feet.
"It's like boxing in a hallway," Notaro says.
Before the bouts, the fighters were weighed by Reif and Miller inside a 12-by-20-foot room that also served as the locker room. With dozens of boys taping hands, shadow boxing, warming up and hanging out, the room ripened quickly. Reif took a deep breath and smiled. This was the sweet smell of the fight game, part of its chemistry. Fighting isn't pretty.
"A fighter has to want to be a fighter," Reif said. "He has to eat it, sleep it and live it. He's gotta have 100% heart." Reif, who wears miniature gold gloves around his neck, looked at the kids in the room and moved into a boxer's stance, raising his hands. "I teach them balance, and little by little they learn," he says, "but I can't teach them to love it. That comes from them."
The program's goal is to teach self-defense and confidence and hope the kids use their knowledge to promote good will toward men. This does not always happen. One of Reif's pupils, 16-year-old Juan Miranda of Canoga Park, was a pushover before he took boxing lessons--"Kids on the streets would beat me up"--but now, he has had four street fights and won them all. Boxing, he said, has become "my favorite sport."