Eduardo Trinidad, 9, tumbles out of a slide at one of the two new parks on either… (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles…)
For years, the two foreclosed houses near 49th Street and McKinley Avenue in South Los Angeles were dilapidated eyesores like so many others in a neighborhood hard hit by the housing crisis. The ground underneath them was even contaminated with lead and asbestos.
Then, Thursday morning, a gaggle of laughing children hurtled across two new parks where the houses used to be. They were trailed by a beaming Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other dignitaries, one carrying a giant pair of ceremonial ribbon-cutting scissors. The parks are half a block from each other on either side of 49th Street Elementary School; one boasts exercise equipment for adults, the other a playground and grassy area for children.
The mayor said they were the first of what will eventually be more than 50 new parks for Los Angeles, an investment of more than $80 million and 170 acres, much of it in park-poor South Los Angeles neighborhoods where children have little space to play. Villaraigosa said he hoped that at least 16 of the parks will be completed by the time he leaves office next summer.
More than 35 of the proposed parks are tiny — under an acre — and many will also be built on vacant properties left blighted by foreclosure. Barry Sanders, president of the city's Recreation and Parks Commission, hailed the plan as a creative and ambitious way to "make lemonade" out of the housing crisis by scooping up land cheap. He also said it was a way of "attacking an injustice" by opening parks in poor neighborhoods that have historically had less recreation space than other parts of the city.
But some questioned how the city's already understaffed parks department, which has seen its budget reduced by about 40% over the last five years, will be able to take care of the new parks when many residents complain it can't keep up with maintenance at existing green spaces.
"It's wonderful to invest $80 million in new parks. They are definitely necessary.... But we need to maintain what is in existence. We are failing to do that," said Ari Bussel, who has complained about the wide grassy median that runs along San Vicente Boulevard. "If we don't have the funds for basic maintenance, watering and trimming, what will happen in a year or two years when there isn't any money to maintain them?"
City officials pushed those concerns aside at the ribbon-cutting, touting the new parks' solar-operated, self-compacting trash cans that won't need to be emptied as often, "no-mow" grass and self-locking gates that don't need an employee to close them.
They also exhorted residents to help take care of the parks.
"It's an issue, but we've solved it already," said Jon Kirk Mukri, general manager of the parks department. He added that the city can't afford not to build parks in many of these neighborhoods, where so many children live in close quarters with nowhere to play.
The park-building boom comes at a time when the city is facing a severe budget crisis. But officials said they have already secured much of the money from city and state bond programs approved years ago. Other funds have come from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which targets areas hit hard by foreclosures. Nonprofits and corporate sponsors have also stepped up. Chase Bank, for example, donated a foreclosed home, officials said.
"There has never been a time when we have done more to green L.A.," Villaraigosa announced shortly after leading a group of third-graders from 49th Street Elementary School in a round of squats. He later said that he will turn 60 next year and keeps a trim figure by exercising daily. "Mamas, we all gotta do exercise."
Eduardo Trinidad, 9, a third-grader at 49th Street, said his family will follow that advice. He loves the play structure, and his mother, he said, is excited about working up a sweat on the new machines.
Officials said they picked the locations by identifying neighborhoods that were more than half a mile from the nearest park space. They also took into account factors such as population density and the number of residents in poverty.
Celina Flores Rodriguez, who grew up near the two new parks and still lives there, said she was thrilled. Holding her 3-month-old son Jacob, she pointed at a tree that had once towered over the foreclosed home but now shaded a small lawn behind the play structure.
One of the branches, she said, was perfect for hanging a piñata for her son's birthday party next year.