By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
In other words, Quimby can build a park, but it can’t take care of it once it’s constructed. The responsibility for that funding is left either to the appropriate bond measure, if one can be found, or to the paltry, deficit-ridden general fund, which is already struggling to keep up with its measly existing number of parks. This leaves the Recreation and Parks Department in the unenviable position of building new parks with the distinct possibility that they’ll be left to rot.
Despite hundreds of millions of bond and park-fee dollars at the city’s disposal, bureaucratic red tape makes the construction of municipally controlled public space a nightmare.
If They Smell It, Will They Come?
Ted Thomas stands at the corner of 67th Street and Eighth Avenue in the Park Mesa Heights neighborhood of South Los Angeles, indulging in a brief moment of nostalgia. “I did my bacheloring right there,” he says, pointing to the second floor of a corner three-story apartment building. “Some wild times around here.”
A soft-spoken man in his 70s, with a gentle demeanor and the lingering drawl of his Alabama youth, Thomas might come across as folksy were it not for a wireless headset permanently attached to his right ear — a high-tech-looking gadget that belies his grandfatherly air. Thomas isn’t fresh from the sticks; he’s a retired UAW organizer and has lived in and around this neighborhood since he was 17. He’s president of the Park Mesa Heights Community Council, and a force in local politics — determined to get his community more parks.
This primarily black, working-class community of 36,000 has just one functional park, Van Ness Playground, which it shares with its neighbors to the east. From where we’re standing, it’s a two-hour bus ride to Griffith Park and an hour and a half to the beach — both figures subject to the whims of traffic. Van Ness is only a mile away — not too far, but “you have to cross three different gang territories to get there,” Thomas explains. “A lot of kids are scared to do it.
“Even if there wasn’t a gang problem,” he adds, “Van Ness is already crowded by the people who live around there. Kids from this area have nothing to do after school, no place to exercise. We need more parks.”
Thomas shifts his attention across from his old pad to a fenced-in facility with spacious lawns and a large, mostly empty parking lot.
“When I lived here, this was a Lutheran school,” he says. “Now it’s a charter school for kids with learning issues. But it hardly gets any use.”
Indeed, though school is in session, there’s hardly any noise coming from inside. The empty parking lot suggests little activity.
“This is what we need,” Thomas says. “It’s got enough space for playgrounds, athletic fields, a gym, and we’d have a building to hold community meetings.”
Thomas can dream, but he knows obtaining such a facility will be an uphill battle. There’s no way the deficit-ridden general fund will have the cash to transform this kind of space, and Thomas’ neighborhood lacks enough development to tap into Los Angeles’ $130 million pool of Quimby money.
So what can Park Mesa Heights expect?
Thomas smirks: “Come on, I’ll show you.”
A little more than a mile away, he and I pull up to the site of a former media circus — a recently built pocket park that, one month ago, brought half of City Hall down to the neighborhood. Mayor Villaraigosa, days after his announcement on Charlie Rose that he’ll be running for re-election, used the occasion to take a rather large share of credit for the creation of this park, as well as to announce a bold new plan to build 45 new parks in Los Angeles by 2011.
Seeing the space gives the impression that Villaraigosa deserves all the credit he took that day. A towering and impressive playground structure rises from behind a polished silver fence that encloses the area. The park is even more remarkable, considering what came before it.
For as long as Thomas and everyone else in the neighborhood can remember, this land was an abandoned patch of dirt and a significant source of neighborhood blight — the city of Los Angeles its deadbeat owner. A center for garbage dumping, drug dealing and prostitution, it also happened to be one of the only open spaces in the neighborhood that kids could use to play.
It doesn’t take long to figure out, however, that, despite the transformation, things aren’t as great as they seem. Though school is about to let out for the day, the gates to the fence are locked. The park is closed, as it has been since the day it was built. “No one’s hopped the fence to mess with it yet,” Thomas says, “so that’s good at least.”