At a time of gung-ho city spending — city employees are reaping 23 percent pay hikes, and the budget for Los Angeles has doubled over seven years to a whopping $6.8 billion — bureaucrats have found at least one way to save a buck.

They have torpedoed one of the few wholesome activities available to poorer urban families at Echo Park and MacArthur Park lakes — the popular and historic paddleboats. “Even during the Depression they were running the boats,” cries Isa-Kae Meksin, a retired teacher and Echo Park activist who once ferried her blind students out for fun on the lake. “If they could sustain this during the Depression, why can’t they now? You have no idea how upset the community is about this.”

Boating has added a Norman Rockwell touch to the lakes since before anyone even heard of Norman Rockwell. To many children of immigrant and working-class families, the two parks, within easy view of downtown skyscrapers, are the only places to discover what it’s like to sit in a craft that floats and bobs along the water. “Not having access to the ocean, it’s a chance to have that experience,” says Ludin Chavez, director of the nonprofit community center Collective Space near MacArthur Park. “It’s something different they’ll talk about.”

Ivonna Nanette, who lives two blocks from MacArthur Park, recalls the delight in the eyes of her daughter Noemi, who was 5 the first time she rode the paddleboats last year.

“Riding the boat and feeding the ducks at the same time, that was big for her,” Nanette says. “It’s brought families together to ride the boats. Bus number 20 goes to the beach in Santa Monica, but you don’t get to ride a boat in Santa Monica.”

That feel-good childhood magic apparently matters little to bean counters at City Hall, who shuttered operations just after Labor Day, leaving only pigeons and seagulls to board the pedal-powered craft now marooned at their docks next to locked boathouses. According to Kevin Regan, assistant general manager of the Department of Recreation and Parks, the boats are required to stay afloat entirely through user fees: $10 per hour, or $7 per half hour, for a boat that holds up to four passengers. Since those revenues are not enough to pay for maintenance and staff, including lifeguards on lakes barely deeper than wading pools, the boats end up draining money from other programs in the department’s budget — which is only $163 million, Regan says.

“That program has never broken even, or even come close to it,” he says. “The department’s intent is that we’re done. We’re not going to put the boats back in the water.”

Regan was initially evasive about paddleboat costs — suggesting at one point that a reporter file a Freedom of Information Act request over what is surely one of the most benign expenditures in the entire bureaucracy. He later explained that the parks department took control of the rentals from a concessionaire 20 years ago, and always wanted the boats to be self-supporting. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s bureaucrats, including General Manager Jon Kirk Mukri, decided to slash the program — all to save $95,000 at Echo Park and $43,000 at MacArthur Park.

OUTRAGED RESIDENTS, who have organized to try to save the boats, insist the money cannot be better spent than at two parks that were infested a dozen years ago with gangsters and drug users. MacArthur Park, in particular, because of its location in a teeming, blue-collar community crowded with illegal immigrants reluctant to deal with authorities, has been difficult to clean up. Homeless men still sleep under blankets while locals sit at concrete tables and play chess, talking in Spanish. Women and children now use the park too, in a precarious balance that neighborhood leaders are trying hard to maintain.

“Is the city, as a matter of priorities, going to support these predominantly Latino and working-class neighborhoods?” asks Cindy Bendat, an attorney and photographer who remembers riding the boats as a child. “When we Google these parks, do we want to find stories about crime and drugs, or do we want to protect something uniquely beautiful in Los Angeles?”

Ultimately, it’s up to Council Members Eric Garcetti, who represents the district that includes Echo Park, and Ed Reyes, who represents MacArthur. Because of L.A.’s highly unusual governance structure, which hands each of 15 elected council members a vast, city-size district of 260,000 people and allows each to rule like a demigod over key decisions on land development and city programs inside their district’s boundaries, nothing can happen without Reyes and Garcetti.

When it comes to big-ticket items, both Garcetti and Reyes have shown themselves able spenders of public loot: Both voted for phased-in 28 percent raises for employees of the Department of Water and Power shortly after the Daily News reported that DWP workers earn an average of $77,000 per year — with 13 percent of these public employees paid more than $100,000 annually.

Furious about the disclosures, the union representing DWP workers unsuccessfully took the Daily News to court several days ago to force them to remove employee names and salaries from the paper’s Web site — even as the DWP got initial approval for steep rate hikes for L.A. residents. The DWP raises are seen as prelude to phased hikes of about 23 percent for more than 20,000 other city workers — even as Villaraigosa admits to a massive spending deficit.

Garcetti has vowed to save the modest paddleboat program. But perhaps fittingly, because of the languid beauty of the two palm-tree-encircled lakes, it’s photographers who are leading the fight on behalf of the boats.

CRUSADER MARTIN COX was the first on board. Cox was raised in Southampton, England, where the Titanic began its maiden voyage. He stood among the weeping thousands as the Queen Mary sailed from Britain for the final time. Fascinated with ships, he runs a Web site devoted to them,, and says he just finished co-writing a history of the Los Angeles Steamship Company that will be published next year.

In June, while strolling in Echo Park, his nautical sensibilities were stirred by a posted notice that the paddleboat operation was being closed down.

“This was stunning news,” Cox says. “I started taking pictures of this social activity that was sort of vanishing before our eyes — an activity that was cross-generational, a family activity that was sort of healthy, that doesn’t involve sugar or TV.

“I did a little bit of research and, as far as I could tell, there had been rental boating of some kind in Echo Park for 111 years. Canoes, rental row boats .?.?. and these paddleboats. There aren’t many things that L.A. can claim to have done for 100 years.”

Cox, Bendat and another photographer, Sara Jane Boyers, spent much of the summer lobbying Los Angeles City Council members — who intervened, but only to keep the boats going through Labor Day — and taking pictures of the boats in what might be their final months. They also arranged a pair of photo exhibitions to call attention to the fight.

Works by 11 different photographers who shot the boats are being displayed all this month at Mama’s Hot Tamales Café, at 2124 West Seventh Street, adjacent to MacArthur Park. A second exhibition, featuring the same photographers but a different selection of photos, is expected to run through November at Downbeat Café, 1202 North Alvarado Street, in Echo Park. An opening reception is planned there for November 3.

“Visually, it’s great,” Boyers says of the scene when families are out boating. She concentrated her own photographic efforts on the interactions of people in an environment of palm trees and distant office towers: elements that remind her of a Seurat pointillist landscape. “People are waving at each other on the boats,” she says. “It was wonderful to catch that energy and emotion.”

Boyers points out that a story in The New Yorker not long ago suggested a strong correlation between the number of women who visit a park and the relative safety of going to that park. While no one would mistake the crowds at MacArthur Park for a meeting of the Jane Austen Society, the point rings true with Sandy Romero, one of the community leaders who has led the restoration of that park through her nonprofit Institute for Urban Research and Development.

Romero, who is the “Mama” of Mama’s Hot Tamales, says she not only has a deep sentimental appreciation for the paddleboats — she rode them as a young girl on family trips downtown — but they are vitally important to keeping families there and in tenuous control of the park.

“They’re a positive activity,” she says of the boats. “The more positive activities we have going on in the park, the more it helps keep away the bad elements.”

“Without a Paddle” Photo Exhibit

Exhibition 1, now underway at Mama’s Hot Tamales Café, 2124 W. Seventh

St., downtown.

Exhibition 2 opens Saturday, Nov. 3, 6-8 p.m. at Downbeat Café, 1202 N.

Alvarado St., Echo Park.

Featuring the Los Angeles League of Photographers and works by Deborah

Arlook, Cindy Bendat, Sara Jane Boyers, Larry Brownstein, Martin Cox, Margery Epstein, Bianca le Mouël, Douglas McCulloh, Ann Mitchell, David Schulman and Don Schwartz.

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