L.A.'s Recreation And Parks Adds Land, But Proposed Budget Creates Problem
Alejandra Gonzalez sat back on a recent warm day in Los Angeles watching her three-year-old daughter Jocelyn hike for the first time.
While hiking in Los Angeles is usually associated with the lore of Griffith Park, Gonzalez was actually in the middle of a highly urbanized area in South L.A.
The city acquired Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park in 2005 from the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority. Located on the corner of Slauson and Compton avenues, Hawkins is 8.5 acres of nature surrounded by industrial neighborhoods.
“This is the first time I’ve been to Hawkins and I like it,” said Gonzalez. “I brought my daughter here because some friends from school were talking about it. I usually take her to Roosevelt Park [in Florence-Graham] because we can walk there.”
Soon, Gonzalez and other Angelenos will be seeing much more green among the concrete as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced April 20 that part of his proposed $6.9 billion budget for 2011-12 includes providing for new parks facilities.
Jack Foley, president of People for Parks Los Angeles, is excited that the city will be converting industrial wasteland from the Department of Water and Power (DWP) into 600 acres of park land.
“Los Angeles is a city of 20,000 square miles [12.8 million acres], so adding 600 acres is fabulous and Villaraigosa should be rewarded for that,” said Foley, whose nonprofit organization was founded in 1989. “We now have to find a way to care of it and open it.”
However, Foley also pointed out that while the mayor’s proposed budget is responsible for the new land, there may not be enough money to for the Department of Recreation and Parks (DRP) to properly maintain them.
“He didn’t budget any money for taking care of those [new 600 acres of] parks,” Foley said.
Foley said that by a 1925 public charter, parks are guaranteed a certain amount of the city budget. However, it has had to pay millions of dollars from that budget to DWP, sanitation, early retirement and negotiated wage increases, among others.
“With DWP, it’s reverse Robin Hood,” said Foley, referring to DRP’s reimbursements. “DWP has all kinds of revenue streams. Two-thirds of the parks are in poor communities. What are [the parks] going to do? Increase the fee for swimmers? DRP has to find ways to take their money and spend it in better ways.”
Maintenance was one of seven categories the L.A. County Civil Grand Jury singled out as needing attention last July. The DRP responded to the recommendations, which also addressed safety and staffing, in February and agreed that maintenance equipment should be kept in working condition.
“Of course safety and the equipment are important to me when choosing a park,” said Gonzalez. “I want to enjoy coming here and not have to worry as much that my daughter could get hurt.”
Hawkins features a full-time park ranger on site as well as the Evan Frankel Discovery Center, where neighborhood schools can bring their students on educational field trips. With the new land in mind, Foley said that Hawkins is a wonderful model.
“It’s a fabulous facility and it’s bringing a little wilderness back to L.A.,” Foley said. “There’s a creek and places for kids to ride horses, it’s a great concept.”
As a former industrial wasteland site, Hawkins Park’s conversion from DWP land to park land very closely applies to the new 600 acres.
“There’s a program that Green LA is leading that aims to turn ‘brown land into green land,’” Foley said. “We have to find industrial land to turn into parks and we certainly support that and Hawkins Park would be an example.”
While the new parks are great for communities and children, Foley says that the budget cuts will likely undermine the progress that has been made in the parks and city in terms of safety and lower crime rates.
“There was a time in the late ‘80s that the parks were so poorly funded and with so few programs for the poor communities that street people and gangs took the parks over,” he said. “That situation has dramatically improved and the crime has gone down five straight years in the City of L.A. and that is also true of parks. Having said that, the cuts that are going to take place in South L.A. are going to affect safety.”
With the creation of the Summer Night Lights program, which began in 2008 and served 24 parks in 2010, gang-related crime around participating parks and recreation centers dropped an average of 40 percent and some even greater than 80 percent, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.
Lasting nine weeks between Independence Day and Labor Day, Summer Night Lights keeps 24 parks and recreation center open until midnight Wednesday through Saturday and provides these communities with organized sports leagues, arts initiatives, family programs and after school activities.
Aside from police and firefighters, a group of recreational leaders in South L.A. Foley calls the “thin green line” will likely lose funding to run programs for kids, including Summer Night Lights.
“They run the summer nights programs, keep parks open until midnight four nights a week, they run midnight basketball, they are dedicated to keeping kids out of trouble,” he said. “If you take those programs away, and that’s exactly what this proposed budget does, it will become a safety issue for the residents.”
From 2009 to 2010, six parks and recreation centers saw at least an 80 percent drop in gang-related crime in the surrounding areas, including Ramona Gardens and Cypress Park.
For residents like Gonzalez, just the potential for a reversal in crime trends is enough reason to worry.
“I remember only a couple of years it was so dangerous to come near a park because of gangs,” she said. “I feel safer when cops are around watching out for everyone. The programs are also cool to have because they’re for all ages.”