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Intervention and reinvention in South Park

A recreation area once claimed by gangs has been turned into a bustling community park with help from City Hall and the LAPD. But it took a former heavy-hitter in the local gang to close the deal.

November 26, 2009|By Scott Gold
  • The South Park Demos go through football drills in preparation for a Saturday matchup against rival Compton. The Demos football program was brought to South Park by Parie Dedeaux, better known as Blue.
The South Park Demos go through football drills in preparation for a Saturday… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

Not so long ago, South Park looked like Club Med for gang members.

The neighbors had given up on the little park -- ceding it, almost entirely, to the 5-Trey Avalon Gangster Crips. Gangsters smoked pot in the gym and bounced their gambling dice against the concrete steps outside the rec center. There was no grass, and, in the mornings, junkies littered the dirt with syringes and tiny, colorful balloons that had been emptied of heroin. There were no youth sports teams. There was one child -- one -- enrolled in the preschool program.

"It was," said Brian Cox, the park's senior recreation director, "not a park."

Four years ago, a police crackdown and a decline in violent crime created an opening. Workers planted grass and hung nets from the rusted basketball rims. The park, tentatively, began to rebuild. But to accomplish any sort of rebirth, city officials were forced to admit that they needed help of a different sort.

They needed the gang.

They needed Blue.

His real name was Parie Dedeaux, but he'd always been known as Blue. No one ever had explained it to him. He'd grown up nearby, and he'd been a heavy hitter in the Avalons for two decades, since before he could drive a car. He commanded an inordinate amount of respect on the streets, officials said.

"Before we could get the kids to come back, we had to get those guys to allow the kids to come back," Cox said. "We could pretend otherwise. Or we could start to work with them. What are you going to do? They ain't leaving."

So Blue, instrumental in claiming the park for the gang, would now play a pivotal role in giving it back -- an unlikely partnership that would lead to a remarkable resurrection.

Deserted as youths

Blue recently sat in the empty bleachers at South Park and offered a passionate and articulate defense of the gang life, which can be an unsettling thing to hear.

He grew up just a few blocks away, near Avalon Boulevard, back when the area was known as South-Central -- before City Hall figured out that the name had become shorthand for urban decay and changed it to South Los Angeles.

He is 38 now, with a barrel chest and Popeye forearms that belie the gray hairs in his goatee. In the gang world, he and his contemporaries are of a specific age. They were the first to become men during the truly terrible years in South L.A. 20 years ago, when crack cocaine came through like a tempest and gangs were averaging a killing a day.

Everyone, he said, seemed to desert them at once. Many of their parents were lost to drugs; his own mother was murdered and his father was addicted and absent, like most of the fathers he knew at the time. The police, he said, became cruel and combative. The schools offered little hope. The factory jobs on Alameda and Slauson -- the jobs that had lured his grandparents from Louisiana, like thousands of other African American families -- were gone. Blue and his friends had hustled a little cash by offering to pump gas for customers at the local stations; soon, even that was taken away, as crackheads kicked the boys out and took over.

"We didn't have a man at home. I never had a single man walk through the door and say, 'I paid the light bill today.' None of us did," Blue said.

"So now your mom is getting high. The lights get turned off. The house is getting stinky. We all looked at each other and said: 'Well, I guess it's just us now. We ain't got no malls, no colleges, no jobs. But everybody wants to be a part of something. All we could do is claim . . . this."

He stretched his arms wide; he meant the park.

A steep decline

It became a headquarters of sorts for the Avalons, and some of them soon began selling the same drugs that had sullied their lives a few years before. The park began a precipitous and notorious decline.

"They owned the park," said Los Angeles Police Officer Cathy Emestica, a 14-year veteran who has devoted much of her career to South Park and its regulars. "You couldn't come in or out unless they let you."

Four years ago, shortly before Cox took over, an Avalon took a shot at a cop. The bullet missed, but for the LAPD, it was the last straw.

The department took the unusual step of erecting five surveillance cameras at the park. Emestica began monitoring the everyday crowd: addicts fresh from the methadone clinic; dealers; gangsters who stared up into her cameras, alternately waving or flipping her the bird. The pace was relentless; in the first year and a half, the LAPD made 1,140 arrests.

Cox, sensing a shifting tide, had begun cracking down. No more pot in the gym. No more dice outside his office. The park started filling up on weekends. It was time to talk to Blue. They sat in the bleachers one day, just the two of them, staring into the caramel-colored dirt in the empty infield on the other side of the fence.

"I'm going to be real with you: I don't condone what you do," Cox told him, carefully. "But we've got to come to common ground."

It was a tense conversation, but one that Blue was ready for.

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