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Sand Dune Park: Top Athletes Vs. Locals

Overwhelmed: the daily assault on the tiny park
Dennis M. White

The Battle of Sand Dune Park is heating up this month. The little hand-built pocket-park that morphed into a crowded, world-famous workout area via the Internet has been closed since August, until Manhattan Beach figures out how to tamp down contentious conflicts between mostly black and Hispanic athletes and mostly white neighborhood residents.

Tensions boiled over in July, when residents reported as many as 300 people at once running up and down the steep but modest dune, about 10 blocks from the ocean, which has attracted world-class athletes like local resident Maria Sharapova and numerous Lakers, Clippers and Dodgers, who use it for free workouts.

After the July onslaught, in which scores of runners jockeyed for position on the thrashed dune, residents complained bitterly about being overrun by loud, sometimes physically threatening boom box–playing athletes who left behind nightly entrails of strewn garbage and dirty socks. Lots of dirty socks.

“A lot of the runners wear just socks to protect their feet, no sneakers,” says Kim Riley, a 33rd Street resident who has dwelled 50 yards from the sand dune for her entire life, and whose father with other neighbors built the dune with their bare hands decades ago. “They don’t want those socks in their cars, so they just take them off and leave them in the street.”

City officials banned the public from the dune and park in August for a two-week “maintenance” stint to clean up the mess and fix the badly mashed-down dune — the third such unscheduled shutdown in seven years. But this time neighborhood residents who have been fighting the pumped-up, sweat-soaked “duners” for a little more than a decade immediately petitioned the Manhattan Beach City Council to close the dune permanently.

Since then, the council has been deluged with stories of residents being physically threatened over parking spaces and their yards littered with vomit, feces and urine. The council agreed to close the park and discuss more workable rules before reopening it, and residents have mounted a passionate campaign to close it permanently — a Town Hall meeting set for November 16 promises to be strained.

“Look around you. Listen to the beautiful silence. We finally have our neighborhood back, we finally have our peace and quiet back,” says Faith Lyons, outside her house on leafy, tree-lined 33rd Street, on the unseasonably hot morning after Halloween. “That’s all we ask, is to have our neighborhood back for our kids to grow up in.”

Now city officials say it could be another four to six months before Sand Dune Park reopens, if ever. That decision will be made next spring. But it’s already clear the City Council is split.

“I’m open to closing the dune, because I do sympathize with the neighbors and I have a greater duty to protect the peace of one neighborhood in our city than I do to protect the right of further-away residents to exercise in that neighborhood,” Mayor Portia Cohen tells L.A. Weekly. “It would be a shame to close down this unique aspect of our city, but if that’s the best route to protect the sanctity of the neighborhood, then so be it.”

Cohen invited everybody with an interest in Sand Dune Park — outsiders, residents and professional athletes — to attend the Town Hall meeting next Monday. But Cohen is only one vote on the five-member council, and Councilman Richard Montgomery tells the Weekly he’s committed to reopening the park and giving toughened usage rules a chance to work. He believes people in Manhattan Beach should be realistic and admit that it’s no longer a little neighborhood city park.

“It’s a world-class workout area, and has been for at least the last five years,” Montgomery says. “And once the recession hit, it became that much more popular. ... Why pay for a gym membership when you can get a world-class workout right here?”

When the Daily Breeze ran a story reporting the two-week closing in mid-August, the article attracted 181 online comments. Many of the commenters mocked neighborhood residents as racist whiners and spoiled brats who don’t want to share their toys. Athletes visiting the park have used the same language when disputes have arisen.

“I’ve been called yuppie racist scum, a racist white bitch, and a selfish, flat-assed white bitch,” Riley says. “They always insist on making it about race, but it’s not ... there was an all-white soccer team that came here that was just as rude and obnoxious as the other teams, and there were plenty of minority athletes who treated us with respect.”

City officials insist racism was not involved in the disputes in Manhattan Beach, which, with an 89 percent Caucasian population, according to the last census, is among the whitest cities in Los Angeles County.

“Are we trying to be an exclusive community? I don’t think so,” Mayor Cohen says.

Riley says it’s indisputable that almost all the residents are white, while many of the runners are black and Hispanic. Cultural differences were bound to arise eventually, she says, after the Loyola Marymount University basketball team, coached by Manhattan Beach resident Paul Westhead, first showed up more than 20 years ago. As word of the unique park spread over the next decade or so, friction was minor.

But then the Internet built it up globally, not only as a workout area but also as a cool hookup place for hot, young athletes. After that, the tension grew exponentially.

One particular sore spot: The city ruled that for residents on 33rd and Bell streets, their property lines end at the beginning of the off-street concrete parking — spaces that they had used forever. They learned they have no legal claim to the parking spaces in front oftheir houses.

“One member of the USC track team came at me with her fist raised, clearly intending to punch me,” Riley says. “I told her to give it her best shot because she would never set foot on a track again. ... Her coach pulled her back just before she could hit me.”

Riley says she called USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett to complain about the threat and ugly behavior but couldn’t get through. “His secretary told me the track team would never act like that, and hung up on me.”

Riley is sensitive to charges of racism and elitism because she has lived in her family’s lovelyold cottage at the base of 33rd Street all her life, and it’s no McMansion. Her father was part of the original small band of neighborhood men who donated their time and money to cover over what had been a construction-debris landfill, turning it into the dune that Riley and her friends grew up playing on.Her own two children, now adults, also grew up playing on it.

“This is about getting back to the original intent of the park, for the kids to have fun,” she says.

Mitch Ward, who moved from Manhattan, New York, to Manhattan Beach 20 years ago, has a unique perspective on the Sand Dune wars. He was the first black man elected to the Manhattan Beach City Council, in 2003, risingquickly as a leader. He’s now running for the 53rd Assembly seat being vacated by Ted Lieu next year. Ward admitted that he’s frequently asked about Sand Dune Park wherever he campaigns.

“The park has totally outgrown the neighborhood, so closure is definitely one of the considerations that I’m looking at,” Ward says. “I sympathize with the neighbors.”

Like other city officials, he rejected charges of localism or racism.

“When people’s emotions run high, sometimes we stoop to the lowest common denominator and start calling names,” he says.“But Manhattan Beach is only 2 percent black ... I didn’t get elected and re-elected by a bunch of racists.”

Contact the writer at paulteetor@verizon.net.


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