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Artist, Official Launch Plan to Revitalize MacArthur Park

May 01, 1996

An odd, legendary 1960s song said MacArthur Park was melting in the dark, but in reality the place has been rotting in broad daylight for nearly 10 years.

Once, it made for a lovely postcard: grand Wilshire Boulevard cutting a sweeping, graceful arch through the palm-lined park west of downtown, its lake full of couples in paddle boats. Now the image and the reputation is of a drug-infested haven for dealers, addicts, gang members and the homeless, a place where few families venture.

But if people such as Bernie Zimmerman and Al Nodal get their way, the park will be revitalized beyond even its former glory.

Last week, Zimmerman, an artist who lives across the street from the park, met with Nodal, general manager of Los Angeles' Cultural Affairs Department. The idea: find strategies to enhance MacArthur Park so that it will once again attract families and tourists.

"The park has so much potential," said Zimmerman, who teaches sculpting at his studio. "We need to get going and turn it into a tourist area with a Latin flavor."

Zimmerman is lobbying the city to provide funding for the return of the paddle boats, which died out a decade ago. "The boats attract families, and families make the drug people uncomfortable, so they will leave," said Zimmerman, 63, a tough-talking native of the South Bronx.

At the meeting, Nodal, who ran a private arts program in the park in the 1980s before joining the city, agreed with Zimmerman's ideas.

The boats were last seen at the park in 1987, about the time the park's major decline began. They could be brought back relatively easily, Nodal said. The boathouse is still there, and if the City Council gave approval, the Recreation and Parks Department could award a concession contract by summer, he said.

"The park has bottomed out," Nodal said. "It's going to be on it's way back up real soon."

At the bottom are people like a drug-addicted woman who identified herself only as Julie, who tried to sell crack to a reporter. "There's only one thing to say," Julie said Tuesday. "MacArthur Park: sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll."

Still, like Zimmerman and Nodal, many in the park have not given up.

"I grew up in this neighborhood," said Charles Jackson, 49, who was picking up trash in the park, part of the labor he provides to the county in exchange for his general relief check. "I remember when this was a nice park where you could bring your family. I guess it could happen again, but you got to get rid of the drugs."

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