On a gorgeous summer afternoon a group of men in their 20s and 30s are playing a lively game of pickup basketball on a newly painted court. Not far away under a shady tree, a gathering of seniors sit in rows of folding chairs on the grass, attentively listening to a lecture. The park bursts with the sounds and smells of picnics and barbecues while children laugh and play on swings and playground equipment. The jogging path bustles with people, some walking with happy dogs in tow, others sweating out a few laps around the park. A father patiently helps his toddler navigate along the pathway. On the baseball field a group of teens play an informal game of softball. Family members sit on a shady bench as two teenage girls throw a football nearby. The park’s denizens reflect the ethnic makeup of the diverse surrounding neighborhood.

Bellevue Recreation Center and Park, located near the southern fringes of Silver Lake, wasn’t always this idyllic. One June evening in 2001, a 15-year-old girl was murdered here. Drug dealing and other criminal activity were not uncommon. The area had been in need of upgrades for years, and when about $2 million in Proposition K funds became available for park improvements, community members seized the opportunity to create a safe green space for residents of the densely populated neighborhood. Surveys were distributed at park-improvement meetings, and a citizen’s committee drafted a plan for the park. Safety improvements, field lights and upgraded lawns were cited as the park’s top needs. Community meetings were held and, in an all-too-rare case of civic cooperation, the process moved forward. The more-than-seven-acre park reopened in April 2006 after a 12-month closure while improvements were completed.

It’s been a big hit with the locals, and for good reason. The changes, though modest in scale, have made a remarkable difference in people’s lives. The space is inviting and serene. A formal jogging path outlines the park’s perimeter. There are wide swaths of green space, wonderful shade-giving trees throughout and a number of barbecue and picnic areas, including a pavilion people can rent for parties. There are refurbished ball fields, playground upgrades and new play equipment.

Jimmy MacWilliams is a longtime resident of Silver Lake who played in the park growing up, and who has worked at the Bellevue Recreation Center since 1980. He now oversees all of its sports programming, which is popular among local youth, the majority of whom are from low- and moderate-income Latino families. As we walk along the jogging path, he mentions that this year, 280 kids signed up to play baseball and softball. MacWilliams proudly points out all the improvements that have helped to make the park better for children and adults. “The parents are so happy that the park is open,” MacWilliams says. “During the time of the refurbishment [when the park was closed] they found out what the park meant to them and their families.”

The reincarnated Bellevue park has attracted new patrons. A young woman named Jasmine, who was looking after some kids frolicking in the children’s playground and enjoying a cool evening, says that “the park has a combination of everything, and everyone can do their own thing. People can work out here. I used to run at Marshall High, but I actually started running here.”

Alfredo, a middle-aged man relaxing at a table in the picnic area with a friend, agrees that the park’s turnaround has been a blessing. “It’s much better now,” he says. “It’s much cooler in the park; there are a lot of trees.”

Bellevue Recreation Center 826 Lucile Ave., L.A., (323) 664-2468

LA Weekly