Cuban patriot Jose Marti has been dead for more than 100 years, but he can still inflame passion and controversy in Echo Park.
At issue is a proposal by Los Angeles’ outgoing Cultural Affairs general manager, Al Nodal, to construct a 2,800-square-foot plaza dedicated to the memory of Marti, the great poet, journalist and freedom fighter who lost his life in 1895 battling the Spanish rule of Cuba. Nodal and supporters from the organization Patronato Jose Marti Inc. envision the plaza at the corner of Glendale Boulevard and Park Street, the most prominent entryway to Echo Park. A bust of Marti, erected on the site in 1976, would be part of the plaza. A sign now designates the corner ”Jose Marti Plaza“; it was placed there after Council Member Jackie Goldberg presented the idea to the City Council in 1996. Goldberg also supports Nodal‘s current plans.
Opponents say Nodal’s plans would reduce the park‘s green space and block views of the lake and also increase the chances for graffiti and crime.
The project, with its gray cobblestone flooring surrounded by 3-foot concrete walls ranging in height from 3 to 12 feet, was vociferously opposed by most of the 100 people who attended a community meeting on November 8.
”Mr. Nodal is giving a sense of wide support for this project. I beg to differ,“ said Marsha Perloff, who is a board member of the Echo Park Historical Society. ”In the 20 years I have lived here I have frequently worked together with Al Nodal and Cultural Affairs, and it saddens me that at the end of his tenure I cannot support him. Green space is at a premium and should be preserved at all costs.“
Opponents are concerned about losing a prime area for migratory birds, as well as an area often filled with families picnicking and children playing. Speaker Sabrina Drill, a doctoral student in the UCLA geography department, gave the panel her 1998 study, which found the park to be an important urban ecosystem, home to more than 64 plant species, 29 bird species, 26 fish species, four reptile species and two species of amphibians. During migration seasons, thousands of birds use the area in question. ”What really bothered me were the people saying we need this for an educational purpose, when it negates the fact the area is already used as an educational space for children who are learning about nature,“ said Drill.
Many speakers acknowledged that Marti does deserve a tribute, but felt it would be more appropriate to honor the man of letters at the new Echo Park Library project that has recently secured funding.
The new project is considerably smaller than the one Nodal and architect Pablo Ruiz originally proposed. That would have called for a 9,000-square-foot plaza with 20-foot-high concrete walls.
After members of the community objected, Nodal returned with a plan for a 5,200-square-foot plaza, which was also roundly criticized. The latest proposal would incorporate existing trees, add five trees and cover the clay-colored concrete walls with ivy. The walls would feature bronze plaques containing information about Marti as well as the names of plaza donors. A fund-raising pamphlet paid for by Cultural Affairs says the plaza will be ”designated as a literary venue for an ongoing series of readings and small concerts featuring the finest hispanic [sic] writers, poets and artists from Echo Park and greater Los Angeles.“
Music producer Duff Marlowe, who lives four blocks from the site, took issue with that goal: ”To say this will be a quiet space for readings is an absurdity, when Glendale Boulevard is less than 10 yards away. My other concern is that every other concrete wall in the neighborhood is filled with really contentious gang graffiti, and these walls would await the same fate.“
Spoken-word artist Vanessa Alvarez, a lifelong resident of Echo Park who lives across the street from the proposed project, echoed Marlowe’s sentiment: ”I think it‘s ridiculous — why do we need concrete to read poetry?“
Proponents of the project say the plaza would only enhance the park.
”I am a Cuban-American homeowner in Echo Park, and I am not concerned that the plaza will be too big or out of character with the rest of the park,“ said Michel Cicero. ”Jose Marti is our Martin Luther King, and I believe it will be a harmonious addition. We are a major part of the history of Echo Park, and the plaza only adds 300 square feet of hardscape.“
Enrique Alejo, chairman of the Committee Plaza Jose Marti, of which Al Nodal is the director, presented the panel with what he said were 150 signatures for the project.
Others claimed that the project would be illegal. Isa-Kae Meksin said, ”This project is a violation of City Charter Section 594, Subheading C, which reads, ’All lands . . . dedicated as a public park shall forever remain for the use of the public inviolate; but the board may authorize use of the lands for any park purpose.“ Meksin claims the proposed plaza does not fall into the definition of park purpose, and on October 12 filed a grievance with the City Ethics Commission over Nodal‘s alleged misuse of city authority and resources by using city funds to pay for the pamphlet and its first-class mailing. Meksin received a letter from the Ethics Commission saying that it is currently backlogged but would investigate.
Nodal responded to charges that there has been improper notification of meetings by saying ads were taken out in local newspapers and fliers distributed. ”We changed our design to try to address the concerns of the more than 500 people we met with over the course of six meetings. We are committed to reducing the hardscape and making it as green as possible. Our only ’special interest‘ is to provide open space for the public use that we are proposing.“
At the end of the meeting, Recreation and Parks Supervisor Ed Ferrante said residents’ concerns would be brought to the attention of Recreation and Parks General Manager Ellen Oppenheim. Ferrante added that a public hearing will be held by the Recreation and Parks Commission before it makes a decision. No date has been set. Information about the commission‘s schedule will be available on the department’s Web site at www.laparks.org, or by calling (323) 566-4651.