Prompted by growing concerns that county and city budget cuts and other constraints are eroding urban parks, advocates are attempting to mobilize communities to take their parks' destinies into their own hands.
City and county parks directors solicit volunteers to supervise youth activities. Residents scrape together sports leagues for children. The Police Department attempts to make parks more accessible via police sweeps of transients and drug dealers--often to see them return shortly thereafter or move on to other nearby parks. Graffiti marks the sides of dilapidated swimming pools.
What has happened to the parks?
Observers say crime and blight seeped into inner-city parks shortly after the passage in 1978 of Proposition 13, which reduced property taxes that paid for public services. Parks and recreation services were casualties as money that once reached community parks in low-income areas dried up.
The lack of funding led the city of Los Angeles, which maintains 450 parks, to halve the number of parks department employees to 4,000 over the past decade and significantly scale back youth programs.
The Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation Department, which oversees 129 parks, has also suffered: Full-time employees declined from 2,200 in 1978 to 800 in 1992.
Parks in South-Central Los Angeles were among the worst hit by the cutbacks, a situation that parks advocate Jack Foley calls "recreational apartheid." Affluent areas could afford to charge user fees to maintain parks, but that is not the case with urban parks, many of which serve low-income residents.
"Sometimes government makes budget cuts in areas of least resistance," said Foley, a founder of People for Parks, a nonprofit group.
In some areas, community groups have stepped in to spruce up parks and organize activities for youths.
The Watts Sports Friendship League, for example, has created sports tournaments for South-Central children at seven parks with the help of city officials.
Tonie Marie Grooms, a Housing Authority Police Department officer and founder of the league, said it serves about 5,000 youths.
"We service a lot of kids and we'd service a lot more if we had the resources," Grooms said. "When kids are playing baseball, they don't have too much time to spray-paint walls."