At dawn, MacArthur Park belongs to the scavengers. First light brings hundreds of robins, gulls and blackbirds, swarming over the park grounds for scraps of sustenance.
Trudging among them are dozens of human companions. Like the birds, the humans move with their heads lowered, scouring the earth. They are crack addicts and dealers, methodically searching for packets of rock cocaine dropped hours earlier during nightly police sweeps of the park.
Their furtive transactions around the park's lake proceed on a 24-hour clock, interrupted only briefly by the presence of squad cars, beginning again as the taillights recede. By night, the park is a place of randomly dispensed terror, the most crime-ridden sector in the Rampart District, the police division with the highest murder rate in Los Angeles.
Six people have been killed by gunfire in the park area this year. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, two more were shot to death within four blocks of the park and seven others were injured in a gang turf war that left a woman paralyzed by a gunshot wound to the neck.
Nowhere in Los Angeles is there a setting at once so picturesque and so feared. MacArthur Park lost its innocence long ago, its unfenced grounds prey to a succession of invaders--first alcoholic transients, then heroin addicts, career criminals from Cuba, gang marauders and, finally, the crack generation.
Yet the cycle of crime that occurs each day is only one among many rhythms of life pulsing in MacArthur Park. The park's daily activity mirrors the vibrancy of the immigrant and elderly community just beyond its landscaped borders, offering small pleasures to visitors who have nowhere else to escape.
The MacArthur Park area is the zocalo, the main promenade for thousands of Central American refugees who live and dream in the sagging tenements of the Pico-Union area. It is, too, in its various guises, a place of worship, where elderly Koreans and evangelicals chant to their Lord; a hectic bazaar, where hawkers provide everything from jogging suits to insect poison; a cranny of competition, where a raffish band of chess hustlers and card players take on all comers, and, in its most private corners, a refuge for lovers.
"Parks are simply a reflection of the life that goes on around them," said Galen Cranz, an architectural sociologist with UC Berkeley who has studied the patterns of life in MacArthur Park and other urban recreation areas. "That can be what saves them or runs them down."
A Sort of Paradise
And despite its seemingly unending victimization by litter, vandalism, overuse and under-funding, MacArthur Park, in its 104th year, endures even as a scruffy paradise, a haven for 42 varieties of trees, nine species of birds, and, at the most unexpected moments, a regal white egret.
One recent dawn, the coastal bird appeared near the bank of the park's 12-foot deep lake, perching on a submerged fountain hose. The egret, a novel sight less than 12 blocks from downtown Los Angeles, preened in the cold sun. It uncoiled and retracted its neck, oblivious to a group of shabbily dressed men huddled nearby at a picnic table. They, too, were in their own world, pawing at plastic cigarette lighters to draw a steady flame for their morning supply of rock cocaine.
Sammy Aguilar, a hydrant-sized gardener who has for 17 years pruned the park's shrubs and manicured its landscape, took in the scene in silence. Aguilar, 64, has never been able to reconcile the natural wonder and human squalor that coexists--and sometimes clashes--each day at MacArthur Park.
On his rounds each morning, he keeps his thoughts to himself as he watches addicts stumble among the pigeons near the statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He says nothing to the men with matted hair who sprawl out in rye grass that he often has to reseed. But Aguilar takes the intrusions personally.
"I love this park," he explained. "This is my house. It hurts me to see what people do to it."
There are eight gardeners employed in the park by the city Department of Parks and Recreation. Once, there were more, but like all city recreation areas, MacArthur Park had layoffs after Proposition 13 took effect in 1978. A $207,000 annual budget pays for the gardeners and general upkeep.
Over the course of a day, the park's staff expects to confront damage caused by the elements. But they have a more difficult time adjusting to the bizarre daily toll of ruin brought on by MacArthur Park's drug-obsessed squatters.
Gardeners regularly repair sprinklers crushed by police squad cars that cruise the park. They skim the lake for trash, retrieving shopping carts and shotguns. Last year, workers sawed down a Bird of Paradise bush to give police a better view of drug deals. And when park squatters took to catching ducks from the lake, gardeners were ordered to remove barbecue pits to prevent them from being grilled.