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WESTMINSTER : Sigler Park Area Enjoys Renaissance

March 14, 1990|GREG HERNANDEZ

People who live near Sigler Park once feared the place, with its crime, vandalism and gangs. The gang problems became so severe that in 1986, the city canceled all organized recreation activities there.

Now, thanks to the efforts of the city and a group of neighbors, Sigler Park has rebounded. Police say crime is down, a once-serious graffiti problem has been nearly eradicated and the city has brought back the park's recreation program.

"Sigler Park is not as much of a concern to police as it once was," said Officer Mitch Waller, assistant to Police Chief James Cook. "The gang that once frequented the area does not congregate at the park any more. While gang crime is increasing in the city, it has decreased in the Sigler Park area."

This is a far cry from the climate of Feb. 25, 1979, when a 24-year-old man was shot to death as he walked through Sigler Park. In 1988, two former gang members from the area were later convicted of the slaying, said Westminster Police Detective Michael Proctor. That same year, the neighborhood around the park was rocked by the death of 18-year-old Frank Martinez, who was shot by police in the back yard of his home during a scuffle at a birthday party.

Most of the hostility directed toward the police in the aftermath of that shooting appears to have faded.

"What we're finding in the Sigler Park area is that in our contact with the citizens, we have a better rapport," Waller said.

Much of the transformation is being credited to a neighborhood organization called Manos Unidas, which means United Hands in Spanish. The group was originally formed to provide support to Martinez's family after his death, said Vera Palomino, who founded the group with her husband, Jay.

The group has since widened its focus and successfully lobbied the city to begin an evening recreation program for teens. Group members have coordinated cleanup drives at the park and have raised money for scholarships and excursions for local youths.

As a result of their work, the Palominos will be honored March 25 by the Orange County Human Relations Commission for "fostering mutual understanding and respect among people."

"People got tired of reading about how bad Sigler Park was with gangs," Vera Palomino said. "It had gotten to the point where the bad kids had taken over the park and no one would take a stand. It's just a very few who give the park a bad name. What we're trying to do is give the park a better name."

City Manager Jerry Kenny said the city is trying to help by repaving streets, installing a sidewalk around the park and making improvements to the restroom and barbecue areas. New playground equipment is due in about a year.

"We're trying to show the people out there that we care," Kenny said. "The people who live around there have been instrumental in making it a better area and have been working with the city to get the work done."

Now, on most weekday afternoons, the park off Olive Street near Westminster Boulevard is filled with children. Recreation leader Sandy Martinez said the program is important to them because many come from low-income families.

"A lot of these kids are waiting for us each day," she said. "They don't have many toys to play with at home."

While Martinez and co-worker Christina Hoffman organize afternoon activities such as sports and arts and crafts for children under 13, John Rey Adame operates the teen program on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.

The program has been temporarily suspended because Adame was in a car accident last month. He is scheduled to return March 21 and resume his "rap sessions" and racquetball, handball and basketball tournaments.

"The older kids were being neglected as far as having organized activities at the park," Palomino said. "From what we see and hear, John Rey has made a big difference. You don't see graffiti like you used to and you don't see the older men in their 20s drinking beer at the park and leaving behind their bottles. I think word has gotten around that Sigler Park isn't the place to do that kind of thing any more."

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