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Restoring Pride to a Park

Neighborhoods: Opening of newly renovated community center caps revitalization of formerly crime-ridden Las Palmas in San Fernando.


SAN FERNANDO — Eight years ago, a shotgun blast rang out at Las Palmas Park during a gang shootout. A mother and her three young children lay bleeding from pellet wounds.

The family survived the shooting, and a galvanized City Council approved a temporary, controversial ordinance keeping all known gang members out of Las Palmas. Since then, officials and residents have slowly cleaned and expanded the park.

Now the city is readying for the reopening Friday of the park's community center, which will have a refurbished gym, computer and tutoring rooms, and a literacy program where senior citizens will read to children.

Officials and residents will gather for the event, which will include performances by San Fernando High School's marching band, folkloric dancers and karate athletes.

"There's always been a tremendous amount of pride in this community, and [the center] is going to add to that," said Ed Montan, the city's director of recreation and community services. "Every community needs a community building--a place to meet, to socialize, to take a class or two."

Residents are looking forward to visiting the new center, which was closed early this year for a $1.3-million renovation and expansion.

Seniors will eat their meals in the center's new gym. They used to have dances in the old community center, which suffered from neglect and disrepair.

"It was a mess. There was no air conditioning, and it was 110 degrees here in the summer. Tiles were falling off the ceiling," Montan said as he walked around the new center.

"How can you tell people to have pride in their community when it looks like that?"

During the closure, senior meals have been provided by Catholic Charities at the city's Santa Rosa Community Services Center. The city agreed to pay $200 a month to the group for the service, said Michael Drake, the city's public works director.

There are plans for construction of a $2-million senior center within the recreation center, now on hold while the city applies for additional state and federal funding, Drake said.

The reopening marks another step in the revitalization of the Huntington Street park. During the past five years, two baseball diamonds, a snack bar, public restrooms and a picnic area have been added to Las Palmas.

The city has received $3 million for park projects through state bond money and the federal Community Development Block Grant program, Drake said.

A 400-foot-long mural reflecting the area's history was also painted at the park more than three years ago. The mural has never been vandalized, officials said.

Where gangs once brandished their guns, now families use the playground and kids from a nearby elementary school play soccer during physical education classes.

"Las Palmas Park is the best example of a success story that I know of turning a park that was basically a breeding ground for gang membership into how a park should look and operate," said San Fernando Police Chief Dominick J. Rivetti.

Since the 1991 gang shooting, police have assigned reserve officers to patrol the park on foot during the summer, Rivetti said.

"So when a gang presence shows up, we're quickly on it before they can get a foothold in the park," Rivetti said. "We don't let them have the misconception that they own the park."

In a city where most residents are younger than 18, park improvements are especially needed, San Fernando Mayor Jose Hernandez said. The community center will benefit a neighborhood where families live on small properties, he said.

"Kids don't have much room in those lots. The park is very vital to them," Hernandez said.

"The City Council began to recognize we have to cater to the young population."

Richard Parra said he used to play basketball at Las Palmas a decade ago. Back then, the park had graffiti and its grass was tall and untended, he said.

Now Parra, a physical education teacher at nearby Community Charter Middle School, brings his students to exercise at the park every school day.

Parra, remembering the old Las Palmas Park, said he was initially afraid to take his classes there.

When he did, though, he said he was happily surprised.

"I didn't recognize the park. [Workers] are cleaning it constantly. . . . It looks like a new park."

Reopening festivities at Las Palmas Park community center, 505 S. Huntington St., will begin at 3 p.m. Friday.

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