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Volunteers Give Park a Makeover

Soccer-playing kids join high-schoolers and others to clean up MacArthur Park.

September 21, 2003|Daren Briscoe | Times Staff Writer

With something less than military precision, a small army of volunteers descended Saturday on MacArthur Park to sweep, shovel, rake and paint their way from one end of the 32-acre park to the other.

The event was part of National Public Lands Day, now in its 10th year, which encourages people to expend time and sweat for one day to help preserve the nation's public parks.

Nearly 500 people gathered in the park's early morning cool, girding themselves with croissants, bear claws and fruit juice. About half were area children, some in soccer uniforms and cleats for the post-cleanup games, and 50 were students from Carson High School.

The remaining volunteers were employees of the Toyota Corp., which sponsored the event with the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, a nonprofit organization charted by Congress in 1990.

To stoke the competitive fire of the 8- to 12-year-old soccer players, a prize was offered to the team that could collect the most trash, and for much of the morning the park was a blur of young bodies carrying handfuls of leaves and debris.

In the shade of a little-used band shell, another group painted colorful abstract designs, flowers and trees on metal trash barrels that will be used in the park.

A third group patrolled the edge of the lake, skimming corn cobs, duck feathers and other flotsam with swimming-pool nets.

"This is gross," said Janell Martin, 14, as she fished a waterlogged green sock from the murky water.

As many as 30,000 people live within one square mile of the park, making it one of the city's most densely populated areas, said City Councilman Ed Reyes.

"A park that's used as much as this one gets run down quick," he said. "There's a lot of pressure put on it, and that reflects the pressures of the people who live here."

Created in a low-lying swamp in the 1890s as Westlake Park and renamed for Gen. Douglas MacArthur after World War II, the park has always been a beacon. Over the years, the neighborhood around the park has drawn vacationers, hoteliers and businesses. In recent decades, tens of thousands of immigrants from Mexico and Central America have moved to the area to live and work.

But the park, particularly the southern portion where the lake is located, also has gained a reputation as a haven for drug dealers and users.

Larry Mellon, the park's recreation director, said the area is witnessing a resurgence, with the renovation of the adjacent 1920s-era Park Plaza Hotel underway, an elementary school being built across the street and a new generation of urban dwellers filling up loft space.

For children such as the soccer players who frequent the park, Saturday's cleanup was "a good thing," said assistant coach Jorge Miranda.

"The most important thing is that the kids learn how to live better by helping keep the area clean."

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