In the fight to reclaim Los Angeles’ public spaces, a new battlefield is about to open just west of downtown. MacArthur Park, where homeless tents are scattered among jacarandas, crape myrtles and palm trees, closes from October 15th.
The popular but reputable destination for residents of the city’s Westlake neighborhoods will join the Echo Park and Venice boardwalk as a potential hotspot between the innocents living in the park, their advocates, residents and city agencies trying to do their jobs.
Billed by the city as a “rehab,” the closure is limited to that portion of the park south of Wilshire Boulevard and will last for about 10 weeks, said LA City Councilman Gil Cedillo, whose district includes the park. The city’s Department of Recreation and Parks will use the time to catch up on maintenance that was delayed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Cedillo acts as a liaison between the community and the city and monitors efforts, believing that the controversy that has arisen over the recent relocation of homeless camps in other parts of the city will not occur in MacArthur Park.
“We have tried to learn from the experiences of our colleagues in Echo Park and Venice – and from the city together, when we figure out how to move forward,” he said.
However, residents in the neighborhood are less secure. They appreciate this rare open space located in one of the city’s most densely populated neighborhoods, where families on weekends stroll, taste watermelon or pineapple slices from a vendor and listen to an accordion player knocking out of a norteño among circling gulls.
They are concerned that the closure will be a repeat of the showdown that took place less than three kilometers away in March, when camps at Echo Park became an angry symbol of the city’s inability to balance a community’s needs with the situation of individuals have no place to live but public spaces.
“I will not stand by while another ‘Echo Park’ happens here,” wrote Tom Bellino, a board member with MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council, on Twitter.
Cedillo’s office is aware of the obvious parallel and has drawn up a “contrast chart” that separates its approach to MacArthur Park with the closure of Echo Park. First is the advance notice that the harmless residents of MacArthur Park have received.
“We’ve been working on this since January,” Cedillo said as the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and homeless agency PATH began moving individuals into shelters or homes. From January to September 29, more than 160 have moved from the park to housing, he said.
Estimating the number of harmless people at MacArthur Park is an inaccurate science given the perishability of the population, but 45 tents were counted Sept. 29 spread over the 32 acres, divided by Wilshire Boulevard, according to Jose Rodriguez, deputy district director for Cedillo.
“Twenty-five of them were on the seaside,” he said.
Outreach efforts at MacArthur Park have been complicated by the presence of MS-13, a street gang that has long considered the park-critical area, Rodriguez said. Through extortion and violence, gang members intimidate regular visitors to the park, which is among the city’s poorest and most marginalized residents. Brutal attacks in particular have targeted transgender women visiting the park.
Across Los Angeles, rising crime and rash of tent fires in camps earlier this year have brought new urgency to the tragedy of homelessness, which has only gotten worse during the pandemic. Homeless agencies estimate that just over 41,000 individuals live on city streets, a number that is expected to rise when eviction moratoriums end.
By giving homeless people living in MacArthur Park two weeks to prepare to leave the city, the city hopes to alleviate the trauma of relocation. Similar efforts over the last year have been more shocking.
For the record:
16:38 4 October 2021An earlier version of this article said that a protest against the clean-up of homeless camps in Echo Park resulted in about a dozen arrests. Authorities said 182 people were arrested.
In March, Councilman Mitch O’Farrell took the lead in an effort to clean up the city’s historic Echo Park, where nearly 200 tents and furniture had lined walkways and landscaped areas for much of the year. The effort attracted hundreds of protesters and authorities arrested 182 people.
Afterwards, Councilor Mike Bonin suggested that parks and beaches in the city should be considered “safe camping,” a program that would allow homeless people to pitch their tents in certain public spaces and receive homeless services. Homeowners and local residents objected. Some argued for Bonin’s recall.
So in June, a homeless woman was arrested after she drew a knife a few feet from City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who visited Venice to make the case that tents on sidewalks, in parks and beaches were inhuman and should be banned more severely.
The incident took place just as Bonin was launching a program to relocate more than 200 homeless people from the Venice seafront, which quickly escalated into a turf war between his office and Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who sent foot patrols to the seafront and mentioned tents should be cleared by July 4th.
Rehabilitation in MacArthur Park, according to Cedillo’s office, came after a series of community meetings and involvement. Residents cited maintenance and public safety as their top priorities.
MacArthur Park was last renovated between 1991 and 1994, spending more than $ 6 million on improvements that included draining the lake and installing a new aeration system, pump house and fountain.
At the time, Metro was building tunnels nearby to its red line, and planners had hoped to turn 12 acres around the Metro station into a residential village with 250,000 square feet of retail space, 250 housing units, medical facilities and a day care center. The development was an attempt to address a new crisis in the city: the lack of affordable housing.
The fall work at MacArthur Park, which will cost $ 1.5 million and includes upgraded lights, replanted lawns, irrigation system repairs and new park benches, is a step toward a more ambitious, long-term plan to integrate the park with the neighborhood.
“At the end of the day, we believe that everyone needs a park that is clean, safe and secure and serves the entire community,” Cedillo said.
Cedillo expects the park will be open again in January when fences and barricades are completely removed.