Playground or Battleground? : Gangs, Gunshots, Graffiti Frighten People Living Near MacArthur Park

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Although Donna Hawthorne lives across the street from a park, she does not like to take her grandchildren there. She says it is too dangerous.

Her Long Beach home on Warren Avenue faces MacArthur Park, a refuge of grass, trees and basketball courts. It is one of the few parks in the inner city, but its solitude has been shattered by rampant gang activity.

While the central area and west Long Beach have gang problems, a police detective said the MacArthur Park area has become so well-known for gang violence that it is now “the worst of the worst.” Recently, a 13-year-old boy was killed and four men were wounded in a drive-by shooting at the park.


‘It’s Not Safe’

Now, even some gang members say they hesitate to set foot in the park for fear that they, too, could become targets.

“You can’t walk around no more. It’s not safe,” said one teen-ager who said he belonged to the Malditos (Little Bad Ones) clique of the Eastside Longos. “Things have been going down. You can’t walk down the street without a gun these days. You have to carry some protection.”

MacArthur Park covers two city blocks north of Anaheim Street near Orange Avenue. The Eastside Longos have spray painted their logo and members’ names on park benches and throughout the neighborhood--on fences, on a small market, even private homes.

By day, the park can appear pretty normal. There is a recreation center and a few outside tables and standing barbecues. One day recently, a few men were playing basketball while others had started a sandlot soccer game. A family arrived for a picnic.

In the afternoons and evenings, the park becomes a gathering place for gangs.

Police records show there were eight assaults, two robberies and a variety of other crimes committed in the neighborhood in the last quarter of 1988. Only the neighborhood around Silverado Park in west Long Beach recorded a similar crime rate. The neighborhoods around King, Scherer, Sterns and Bixby parks had lower crime rates.

Gunshots Heard Often

But the incident that hangs heaviest in the minds of residents and gang members alike is the Jan. 31 drive-by shooting in which Hugo Casian, 13, was killed and four others were wounded as they stood together talking. Without warning, a man armed with a .22-caliber rifle fired a volley of shots from more than 200 feet away, then sped off in a brown imported car, police said. Detectives say they have been unable to identify a suspect or motive, but believe the shootings were related to gang activity.


Hawthorne, a pleasant woman who lives with her husband in a house ringed by a metal fence and hefty security door, said the sound of gunshots has become so common that she barely looks up anymore.

“It’s like it’s Vietnam, but you don’t know if the shots are up the street or down the street,” she said.

The central-area park and surrounding neighborhood is a hangout for young men who say they are members of the Eastside Longos, a prominent Latino street gang that police believe is divided into as many as 24 cliques. Their graffiti and distinctive ESL logo are evident throughout the neighborhood. Residents say city crews diligently remove the scrawls, but are fighting a losing battle. Gang members take to their spray paint cans as soon as the crews are gone.

“There has been an ongoing gang

problem in and around the park for years,” said police Detective Norm Sorenson, who works the gang detail. “Right now, it has probably reached its peak as far as violence goes. . . . It has been a meeting place for the various cliques.”

Streets Are Littered

The neighborhood surrounding MacArthur Park is mostly a mix of plain stucco houses--many with security bars over the windows--and apartment buildings. In recent years, residents say, the gang problem has gotten worse and the neighborhood has deteriorated. Candy wrappers, empty bottles and other garbage litters the gutters. Old sofas deteriorate on vacant lots.

“It’s like people don’t care,” Hawthorne said. “I like to look out the door and not see a lot of trash.”


City officials say they are trying to make headway in depressed areas such as the neighborhood near MacArthur Park.

City Planning Director Robert Paternoster said an intensified program of code enforcement has coaxed building owners to upgrade their properties. Since many of the dwellings are rented, the city is trying to encourage home ownership with subsidies and incentive programs for qualified first-time buyers with limited incomes.

City Councilman Clarence Smith said one of the biggest problems in the MacArthur Park neighborhood--”a tough area of the district”--is idle youths. Latchkey children and dropouts need recreational programs to keep them from loitering on street corners with friends, joining gangs and getting into trouble, he explained.

“It’s not going to get any better until we have increased police attention to the area and increased youth activities,” Smith said.

Police Conduct Sweeps

Sorenson said gang detail officers, sometimes in conjunction with the Police Department’s metro squad or regular patrol officers, make sweeps through the park looking for hidden guns and drugs, and questioning suspected gang members.

Officers often order suspected gang members to leave the park, partly for their personal safety.


Standing out in the open park, gang members are an easy target for armed rivals who might drive by. “It’s just like waving a red flag in a bull’s face, saying, ‘Here I am, come get me,’ ” Sorenson said.

Some neighborhood residents venture into the park during the day, but they say they are careful to keep an eye out for trouble. John Williams, who was grilling pork ribs with his girlfriend and her family last Sunday, said he has lived near the park for years, but does not visit it often now.

“It does get out of hand,” he said. “It was an all-right park but it’s got too many different kinds of people. It’s got normal people and it’s got gangsters. They don’t mix all the time.”