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An L.A. Landmark Transformed

After striving to rid MacArthur Park of crime, officials plan special activities Saturday to lure law-abiding people back.

June 04, 2004|Erin Ailworth and Eric Slater | Times Staff Writers

Six months into a campaign to tame and refurbish the notoriously violent and dilapidated MacArthur Park, some of its longtime residents are downright bitter. The effort, they lament, seems to be working.

A decade ago "you could put your tent up, relax, drink beer, smoke weed and they didn't bother you," a man who identified himself facetiously as John Doe said Wednesday night as he pushed a shopping cart full of bottles, trash bags and electronic equipment out of the park just before the 10:30 p.m. curfew. These days, he said, police "are gonna give me a ticket for being in the park" after the curfew, "for my shopping cart, for the beer I've got in here, the wine."

For many Angelenos, John Doe's vision of heaven was their image of hell and the reason they stayed away from the park, a place infamous for gang shootouts, dumped bodies and used hypodermic needles.

But for months, city and community leaders have been "weeding" out crime. And on Thursday they gathered to announce a "seeding" program, designed to draw once-frightened residents back to the park west of downtown Los Angeles.

The program is scheduled to be launched Saturday, with a community walkathon, free rides for children on the lake's paddleboats and a walking tour of the park's artworks, including the statue of namesake Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

Crime in the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division, which includes the park, has fallen markedly over the last year, said Capt. Charles Beck, with homicides down by half, from 20 at this time last year to 10, and all violent crime down 20%. Crime in the park -- once the site of half a dozen homicides annually -- is down even more, Beck said.

Fifteen officers now routinely patrol the area. Seven surveillance cameras, directed by officers at Rampart, zoom in on activity such as drug dealing. And officers have placed a new emphasis on enforcing the park's 10:30 p.m. curfew.

"We have police here 24/7, we have cameras, we have bike patrols," said City Councilman Ed Reyes, who has helped steer the revitalization effort. "We have everything we need to make sure our children can take advantage of this park."

Armando Lios and a group of friends played soccer in the glow of the streetlights and the Westlake Theater's neon sign one recent night, as two undercover officers on bicycles lingered near a palm tree, guns poking from beneath their T-shirts.

"I don't see any danger," said Lios, 22. "There are a lot of police around here."

One of the officers, Hugo Ayon, said that if "you had been here about a year ago, a lot of those benches would have been filled with transients smoking dope, selling dope, drinking. Those benches are empty now."

That, of course, is one of the problems now facing the refurbishment effort: luring back would-be parkgoers.

For years, one gang had held the northwest corner, another the southwest. The northeast corner was dedicated to the sale of false immigration papers and other documents, while the southeast served as an open-air drug bazaar. The restrooms and a tunnel were the realm of prostitutes, johns and addicts. Bloated bodies have for years been fished out of the park's lake.

Built in the late 19th century and first named Westlake Park, the open space used to be in one of the city's most fashionable districts. The area remained home to mostly middle- and upper-class families through World War II. By the late 1940s, however, the park had become the domain of street alcoholics -- the first in a line of troublesome rulers. They were followed by heroin addicts, organized-crime figures from Cuba and street gangs, which fought over the turf for decades, the most vicious battles being those of the crack cocaine wars of the 1980s.

After several years of stop-and-start cleanup efforts, and now six effective months, the park is safe, said the LAPD's Beck "and a little bit empty."

Because it "is no longer what it was," he said, people can begin "thinking of MacArthur Park as a place to come for recreation."

Pupils from the nearby Esperanza Elementary School on a field trip to the park Thursday said they were not yet entirely convinced.

"I think MacArthur Park is changing," 11-year-old Ana Ortiz said. "I see it in parts, but there are other parts that scare me: too many drunks."

Ten-year-old Alexander Montoya, who has seen the park after hours, said: "I don't like it at night. I don't feel safe, because I think people are going to do something ... rob me."

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