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Activists Maintain Guard Over Eastside's Hazard Park

Conservation: They see no immediate threat, but protectors are concerned about a 2-acre wetland.

September 13, 2000|GEORGE RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Back in the protest-laden 1960s, Hazard Park was a symbol of how local activists and environmentalists could beat City Hall. For seven years, they vigorously opposed construction of a veterans hospital in the park, and eventually won.

When the city finally threw in the towel in 1969 in the face of protesters who said the Eastside needed its parks, opponents such as environmentalist Alexander Man rejoiced. "The city thought it was a fait accompli," Man recalled recently, "but it wasn't."

The 25-acre park, east of the County-USC Medical Center complex in Boyle Heights, survived, but it fell out of the public's eye. Quietly, Hazard was overshadowed by bigger parks in the area and by growth that hemmed it in on three sides.

The Los Angeles Unified School District built a magnet high school on the park's southern boundary. USC's health sciences campus took up property on the park's northern perimeter. And the presence of an Army Reserve center and armory precluded the park's growth to the west. Soto Street borders the park on the east.

Now, Man and other veterans of the fight to save Hazard Park are readying for a new campaign. This time, they want to preserve a heretofore little-known wetland area that bisects the park.

The 2-acre section, which was once part of a railroad easement through Hazard, has some vegetation that thrives in water, such as cattails, willows and sedges. In addition, researchers have found fresh-water snails and crayfish.

Several years ago, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff members discovered a variety of birds, including the Anna's hummingbird, the northern mockingbird and the American crow, in Hazard.

"It has a tremendous potential of being developed into a nice wetlands area," said James Henrickson, a professor of botany at Cal State Los Angeles, who noted that some degradation has occurred in recent years because of neglect and use of the railroad.

Added James Campbell, a retired marine biologist who lives in Woodland Hills: "Any wetlands of an acre or more is worthy of preservation. I think this area, especially because it is in the inner city, has considerable recreational potential."

Henrickson, Campbell and others are not sure what the parcel's source of water is. One theory suggests that the old Arroyo de los Pasos, shown on maps drawn in 1894, is the source. Another hints that a section of the old Zanja Madre irrigation system, which was built shortly after the city's founding in 1781, provides the wetland's water.

Still another suggests that the Hazard water is from springs.

Whatever the source, locals have long known of the water in that part of Hazard Park. For years, children reported catching fish there. Man and others remember seeing pools in the middle of summer.

Three years ago, when Southern Pacific abandoned its right of way--granted by the city in 1904 for $1,000--Man and others began to persistently query the Army, the city, USC and the school district about their intentions.

In seeking support to preserve the wetland, the old Save Hazard Park Assn. changed its name to Friends of Hazard Park and Hazard Park Wetlands.

Members say the reason for their campaign is simple.

"I joined the Save Hazard Park committee in 1966," said retired U.S. citizenship teacher Gonzalo Molina, "and I'm still committed to the park. Right now, we're trying to save a wetlands because of its neighbors."

Kathy Farnsworth, who is the Hazard group's secretary and treasurer, reiterated the often-repeated complaint on the Eastside that it's a park-poor region in comparison with other parts of Southern California. "We need open space," she said.

Leader Has History of Activism

Most of the lobbying has been left to Man, 78, a longtime environmentalist who isn't afraid to express an opinion or to commit provocative acts. One of the founders of the activist Barrio Planners planning group in East Los Angeles, Man was arrested in 1972 after he and two others tried to stop the bulldozing of trees on an East L.A. street for a street-widening project.

Later, he became an active member of FOCUS, the Federation of Organizations for Conserving Urban Space.

Man has been known to inundate elected officials, bureaucrats and reporters with paperwork to support his point of view. Los Angeles school board member David Tokofsky has had his share of meetings with Man about the school district's role in preserving Hazard Park and the wetland.

"He is a persistent gadfly," Tokofsky acknowledged recently. "He has a well-founded passion for the issues he believes in."

In view of the 1960s fight and his other dealings with public officials, Man is quick to question anything that doesn't seem right to him.

He admitted that there is no immediate danger to the park wetland, but added that he is concerned about the following:

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