LONG BEACH — The central part of the city finally has its field of dreams. This week the City Council approved a zoning change that has transformed a weedy two-acre lot into a second ballfield for Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
Next spring the new diamond will be the home field for the area's first Little League team. Children are already playing ball--and dreaming--on the freshly seeded field.
"One day, I'm going to get me a trophy," vowed Eric Gathrite, 9.
The expansion adds badly needed space to the impoverished central part of town, which has few parks even though half of the city's children live there, according to figures provided by the school district.
School officials said many of those children live in the Anaheim Corridor, a gritty area of ethnic neighborhoods and shops that stretches from Willow Street in the north to Seventh Street in the south, and from Redondo Avenue on the east and Pacific Avenue to the west. Just three of the city's 42 parks--King, MacArthur and California Recreation Center--are in the corridor.
These parks are among the city's smallest, with parched and trash-littered grass, few large trees, no tennis courts and crime problems.
Most of the city's parkland is in the east part of town, near middle-class and well-to-do neighborhoods such as Park Estates and Los Altos. These parks have duck ponds and tennis courts and shady picnic grounds.
"They got it made over there," said Kristina Bermudez, 17, sweating under the sun last weekend at MacArthur Park.
Like many cities across California, Long Beach finds itself with a changing population whose needs no longer fit the city's design. The city runs five municipal golf courses, for example but has few soccer fields popular among Latinos, now at least a quarter of the city's population, according to city planners.
"Everybody sees a crying need for more space and activities for youngsters in that area," Kelton Reese, bureau manager for Recreation Services, a unit of the Department of Parks and Recreation, said about the corridor.
Planners have seen the need for some time. In 1986, the city's Strategic Plan called for building more parks and a sports complex. That plan, some park officials said, was forgotten as the city struggled with a 17% population rise in the last decade.
"We were not prepared for the numbers of people," one park official said. "We were in disarray."
Many of the new arrivals settled in the older parts of town, built before planners worried about open space, department director Ralph Cryder said. Now, Cryder said, there is not enough money to remedy the situation.
But some critics, including park employees, say what money there is is not being allocated fairly. A department report describes "inequities in the distribution of general fund support for recreation programs and facilities in different parts of the city."
Green space is so scarce in central Long Beach that people fight over it, said Andrew Munoz, the head of Long Beach's chapter of League of United Latin American Citizens. And many ethnic groups refuse to use parks they believe are dominated by rival ethnic groups, which in Central Long Beach include Latinos, Cambodians and blacks.
Before the second baseball field was built at King Park, a staff member there said, there were "nasty" fights over who got to use the existing field.
On a scorching Sunday earlier this month, MacArthur Park was deserted except for a couple of Cambodian children and their uncle. Von Pen, 23, said many children must play on streets in front of their homes because the parks are too "dangerous."
Where does Savoeun Pen, 6, play? "Inside the house" because of "gangsters," she said, whispering.
Pressure on central city parks has increased with the start of year-round schools and the subsequent need to extend "summer" park programs.
But a recent study requested by Councilman Clarence Smith found that parks are low on the list of where children play. Just 12.4% of 3,000 children surveyed went to parks, fewer than those who played with friends, watched TV or went to the beach.
The reason? "Probably because we're not giving them anything to do," said one park official, who added that the city has just given the three central parks $43,000 to extend recreation hours.
The concern is hard-nosed and practical, not sentimental, officials said: If parks keep kids off the streets and out of gangs, crime may go down.
"We are more concerned with treating the symptoms in this city than treating the cause of problems," said Smith, who contends that his colleagues are more concerned about bolstering police than parks.
Some park officials call for the department to take on a dramatically expanded role. "We can no longer be just about getting bats and balls," Reese said. "We have to become catalysts in getting communities organized."