Drug Users Overrun MacArthur Park : Residents Seek to Win Back Area

Times Staff Writer

In a scene repeated daily at MacArthur Park, dozens of men and women boldly swap wads of cash for rocks of cocaine at the corner of 7th and Alvarado streets.

On Friday morning, they huddled together in tight knots near the park's General Douglas MacArthur Memorial, openly smoking crack in three-inch lengths of glass tubing loaded with pellets of the drug.

"This is my family," said one wild-eyed woman, referring to the shabbily dressed people milling about.

"I need a hit every 30 minutes and every hit is $5," said a man standing nearby. "I smoke about $200 a day."

This is MacArthur Park, two years after the once-elegant 32 acres underwent a $400,000 face-lift that was to give it a new lease on life.

Revitalized by new lighting systems, playground equipment and public artworks, the 100-year-old park even experienced a dramatic drop in crime, according to police statistics. For a time, community leaders used those statistics to convince residents that MacArthur Park was a safe place to visit.

All that changed about a year ago, however, when crack dealers and transients began filtering back to congregate in the park's restrooms and other aging structures.

Now, residents and community leaders are once again struggling to reclaim the park, where police say there has been a significant increase in reported crimes and arrests over the last year.

According to the most recent statistics from the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division, 322 crimes were reported in and around the park in the first quarter of 1989, compared to 218 in the same quarter last year. Similarly, there were 859 arrests in the first quarter of 1989, compared to 419 in the first quarter of 1988, on charges ranging from narcotics violations to burglary and assaults, authorities said.

On Friday night, the MacArthur Park Community Council, a coalition of local residents, merchants and city officials, planned a candlelight march around the perimeter of the park to protest the new surge in crime.

"We intend to take the park back for children and families," said Peter Daniels, who owns an art supply business bordering the park and who helped organize the march. "We did it once before and we can do it again."

Signal of Change

Carmelo Alvarez, a spokesman for Los Angeles Beautiful, a private, nonprofit group devoted to downtown improvement, agreed and pointed to recent actions that could signal a change for the better.

Last week, for instance, the Los Angeles Police Department doubled its foot patrol to four officers and began assigning as many as eight mounted police a day to the park. Sgt. Robert Freet, who is in charge of patrols at the park, said the beefed-up units have averaged 15 arrests a day since last Thursday, "mostly for possession of rock cocaine."

"You don't see many families out here anymore and that is really sad," Freet said. "This park has really slid downhill."

Responding to the growing chorus of complaints last February, the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks demolished an old concession stand and shuffle-board gaming area. The structures, which were originally built for senior citizens, had become a magnet for drug dealers and vagrants needing a place to hide.

"All these things mean we are reclaiming the park for the good people," Alvarez said. "We will continue to fight against those negative elements that have caused so much despair in recent months."

As it stands, the park has all but been abandoned in the last six months by the families, children and seniors who once came to enjoy its tree-shaded glens, playgrounds and lake.

'Getting Out of Here'

"It's a disaster here," said Cesar Flores, shortly after evading a drug peddler as he walked with his wife, Rosio, and 2-year-old daughter along the edge of the trash-filled lake. "We're getting out of here. We can't even walk in peace."

But Al Nodal, former director of exhibitions at the nearby Otis Art Institute of the Parsons School of Design, believes that the bad times can't last.

"The park is a living organism that goes through ebbs and flows," said Nodal, who was hired by the school in 1983 to install public art in the park as a catalyst for positive change. "Nobody has given up on MacArthur Park, it's just that the drug dealers have taken over.

"That drug scene will be cut out," Nodal predicted, "and the park will flourish again."

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