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An Oasis in L.A.'s Core

June 19, 2004

At least five times over the last 20 years, city leaders have hailed the renaissance of MacArthur Park. They've tried everything from police patrols to public art, with good results -- until attention waned and crime waxed again along the palm-lined lake west of downtown Los Angeles, long known as a place to buy fake IDs, hire prostitutes and score drugs.

Skeptics have every reason to believe that the latest cleanup campaign, to be celebrated this afternoon with a free outdoor concert, will follow the old pattern. But thankfully, skeptics aren't the ones trying to save MacArthur Park, because to give up on it is to give up on Los Angeles.

Carved out of a marsh in the 1880s, the park originally known as Westlake was once surrounded by luxury hotels.

Its decline began slowly with the middle-class exodus to the suburbs after World War II. Left behind were the elderly on fixed incomes. Jewish immigrants moved in, gaining a foothold in the city and bequeathing the neighborhood the iconic Langer's delicatessen. They were replaced by waves of refugees fleeing civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s, making the eight square miles around the park denser than any urban area west of New York.

Meanwhile, Proposition 13 cutbacks hit the city's park system, halving the workforce and slashing recreation programs. Homeless people took up residence on the lake side of the renamed MacArthur Park, split when the city extended Wilshire Boulevard. Tunnels connecting the lake to the band shell and playing fields north of the boulevard became dens for drugs and prostitution. Early efforts to halt the slide were overwhelmed by the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and a spike in gang violence.

Given this history, the wonder is not that previous efforts to reclaim MacArthur Park petered out but that people kept trying.

Six months ago, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton became the latest to make the park a priority. Closed-circuit television cameras donated by General Electric help the short-staffed LAPD monitor the park. Shootings, robberies and assaults have dropped.

Other public and private efforts are playing a key role. City Councilman Ed Reyes is helping businesses set up an improvement district to collect fees for extra security and park maintenance. City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo is going after slumlords. The nonprofit Mama's Hot Tamales Cafe opened in 2001 to train Latino street vendors to prepare food safely and operate legally. Its Oaxacan, Honduran and Salvadoran-style tamales are to the changing neighborhood what Langer's pastrami sandwiches have been to the deli's longtime fans.

The Pasadena POPS Orchestra will lure young and old to the park at 3 p.m. today to picnic on tamales and sway to Latin jazz and American standards. It is the first of a dozen events this summer aimed at drawing families back to a park that for too long they were too scared to enter. Like other seemingly impossible causes -- the greening of the L.A. River comes to mind -- reclaiming MacArthur Park for good will require a belief in miracles. It also will demand an understanding that miracles take hard, sustained work.

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