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No-Name Park : Long Beach's Roots, Problems Share Green Strip

August 13, 1989|TED JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — There is a park with no name at Pacific Avenue and 14th Street.

The only marker at the narrow, two-block-long patch of green is a plaque stating:

"William Erwin Willmore, who was in this area in 1870, visualized a town would be built here. In 1882, this materialized as Willmore City, becoming the city of Long Beach in 1888."

Today, this spot is no longer a historical site. Rather, according to neighbors and city officials, it is a gathering place for transients, the homeless, gang members and drug dealers.

Those who visit the park seldom read the words on the plaque. For some who know about it, the designation is somewhat ironic: The roots of the city of Long Beach are in the park as well as some of the city's worst problems.

"They should take the plaque back," said Charles Johnson, 35, a transient who has come to the park regularly for about two years. "Everybody who comes to this park uses drugs."

The park, a greenbelt between the eastbound and westbound lanes of 14th Street, is under the jurisdiction of the Long Beach Department of Parks and Recreation, but it has no regular staff or activities. Except for routine maintenance, it goes largely unnoticed by the agency.

On most days, the park is littered with beer and liquor bottles and food wrappers. About a dozen people are there each afternoon, lying on blankets, smoking cigarettes and marijuana and drinking.

"The park is good in the daytime," Johnson said. "You can stay and get off your feet a minute."

But at night, he said, tension builds. Most of the people who frequent the park have stories to tell: shootings in the dark, drug deals that break into fights and gang members throwing bottles and explosives at homes and pedestrians.

"The environment is a lot to absorb in life," said a park regular who gave her name as "Poo."

'This Rates the Worst'

"Gang banging, robbery, car accidents, dope selling. . . . From the places I've been before, this rates the worst," she said.

For many like Poo and Johnson, the best rule is to stay out of other people's business.

"I saw a girl getting raped the other night and I just kept going," Johnson said. "It was two guys. I guess I should have said something."

Councilman Clarence Smith, whose district includes the park, noted that many social service agencies, such as the state welfare office, rescue missions, Catholic charities and mental rehabilitation centers, are within blocks of the park.

"It's an area that has the most social service programs in the city," Smith said. "If you were down and out, the best place to be is where you can lie down and rest on the grass. You would think the best place to be is right there."

Watches the Action

Despite the crime rate there, Poo said she frequents the park because it is near such services. She said she also returns to watch the action.

"You could kick back in this park for a day and you could see so many things that happen," Poo said, sitting against a tree and drinking a beer. "The other day a woman came out of her house screaming, saying that her son was choking on something. But there was a man who knew CPR who came and saved the kid. Every day, it's something different."

Although some residents in the area offer food, money and blankets to those in the park, others view the crowd as a nuisance and a danger.

Wayne Teuerle, founder and executive director of the Long Beach Rescue Mission, which operates the nearby Samaritan and Lydia houses, said it is difficult to keep residents out of the park.

'Tough Crowd'

"It's giving us fits," Teuerle said. "You're dealing with a tough crowd of people. It's just added stress and pressure for (residents) who already have problems."

Johnson, who has stayed at the Samaritan House many times, agreed.

"All the good people come to the Samaritan House," he said. "Then they come to this park and they get caught up in this."

Teuerle, who has operated the mission for six years, said park regulars often urinate on buildings and harass volunteers.

Neighbors sometimes view the mission as the cause of the problem.

"They think that those people (transients) are there because we're here," Teuerle said. "They're not."

Councilman Smith said the city plans to expand the park, add lights and provide staff to keep up the park and conduct activities.

But Teuerle said that would only worsen the situation, because it would just mean more space for park regulars.

"They should turn the area into a parking lot," he said. "That's the only way you're going to clear it out."

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