On a bright, hot afternoon last week, shirtless young men brazenly peddled bags of marijuana on a grassy knoll in MacArthur Park just west of downtown Los Angeles, hurrying toward buyers as they emerged from a tunnel walkway under Wilshire Boulevard.
A short distance away, at a park entrance just off 7th and Alvarado streets, scores of men and women milled about crowded park benches, opening their hands quickly so passers-by could see glass vials of what looked like tiny gray pebbles.
“How much you want, baby?” rasped a heavily made-up, very pregnant woman, whose belly jutted out oddly from a rail-thin body.
“Roca roca. Roca roca, " a man standing nearby said repeatedly. ‘Roca’ is a Spanish term for “rock,” or crack cocaine.
This scene unfolded in the sixth week of a massive police crackdown on drug dealing in the park, a square, 32-acre expanse that is the centerpiece of Los Angeles’ Westlake District and what may be the most popular open-air drug market in the city.
Since April, police and nearby residents have been trying to take MacArthur Park back from scores of drug addicts and drug sellers who all but overrun whole sections of the park almost everyday.
During the last four weeks alone, police have conducted almost daily sweeps and have reported making 750 arrests in the park or on its periphery, most of them involving narcotics.
Agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration have seized the automobiles of suspected drug buyers while officers armed with binoculars have spied on drug sales from top floors of structures overlooking the park.
The drug activity has been stemmed somewhat. Still, last Tuesday, a typical weekday at the park, the scene on its southern, lake side was so frenzied, chaotic and intimidating that most legitimate park-goers steered clear of it.
Complicating the problem were scores of homeless people, runaways and other street people who are themselves either drug addicts or merely destitute. Because of the intense use of the park, litter is a constant problem. The stench of urine is overpowering in some places.
To stroll around the park’s lake is to wade through a sea of misery and vice.
“MacArthur Park for years has been known as a place where you could buy drugs, but it’s never been this bad,” said a uniformed police officer who is assigned to park patrol.
His sentiment was echoed by a worker at a food concession who said drug dealers in the past “at least tried to hide what they were doing.”
Many agree that a major difference today is the nature of crack cocaine, a highly addictive, cheap form of the drug that often causes addicts to lose interest in all else. By far, said police, crack is the drug most easily available in the park.
“You can be standing there making an arrest and they’ll walk up to someone a hundred feet away and try to make a (crack) buy,” said Police Sgt. Mike Pattee. “It’s either they’re very stupid or they’re so strung out they don’t care.”
Neighbors said the sellers also exhibit bizarre behavior.
“I’ve had them dive on my windshield when I’ve been driving past trying to show me their vials of crack,” said Adolfo V. Nodal, a city cultural affairs officer who lives near the park’s western border. In 1983, while he was director of exhibits at Otis Art Institute of Parsons School of Design, which also borders the park, Nodal established what is now an internationally known public arts project in MacArthur Park.
Although he remains one of the park’s most vocal supporters, he no longer “hangs out” there, he said, because “its too scary.”
“It’s really weird that we worked so hard to get visitors from all (over the) world to come visit the art work,” he said. “Now if they do, they’ll probably get mugged.”
Earlier Drug Problem
Nodal said when he arrived at the institute in 1983, the park had a similar drug problem, but the situation had improved dramatically with establishment of the arts program and his concurrent founding of the MacArthur Park Community Council.
The council is a voluntary group of area residents and business people who organized a neighborhood watch program, conduct cleanup campaigns and lobby for improved services from city agencies.
Eventually, art students working with Nodal installed or painted 11 sculptures and murals in the park. During that period, said Nodal, the park consistently improved. In 1986, the park underwent a $400,000 face-lift that included badly needed lighting.
Nodal said he realized the park had deteriorated badly after he returned in November as general manager of the city’s Cultural Affairs Department after a yearlong stay outside California.
Despite his alarm, however, Nodal was optimistic that the situation will be brought under control by the police and by a renewed activism of the residents. He said that the northern section of the park remains mostly free of drug dealing. Thousands of people still go there for legitimate reasons, he said, “overwhelming the criminals” on some days.
“On a personal level, I’m appalled at what is happening,” he said. “Philosophically, I know a park is just like anything else, it ebbs and flows and changes and has its ups and downs.”
That ebb and flow as the history of MacArthur Park is recounted in “The Arts Made a Difference,” a book by Nodal about the MacArthur Park Public Art Program that was published this year.
A Swamp in 1885
According to that account, the site that eventually became the park was a swamp and neighborhood dump in 1885 when it was bought by then-Mayor Henry Workman with $500 in donations and $500 from the city treasury.
Topsoil was imported to the area, Nodal wrote, which was then “lushly” planted in a “natural and rustic” style by a “leading Victorian gardener.” Known then as Westlake Park, the site soon became a major attraction for tourists and Angelenos who were especially drawn to its large, natural lake.
In the 1920s, some of the city’s finest and best-known hotels began to spring up around the park, giving the area the genteel character that it would maintain for the next two decades.
“Neon signs, believed to be the first in the United States, proliferated on the rooftops surrounding the park” at that time, wrote Nodal.
The Wilshire Boulevard viaduct, which bisects the park diagonally--connecting the halves with two tunnels--was built in 1935. Seven years later, Mayor Fletcher Bowron, with the aid of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, renamed the park for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was Hearst’s choice for a presidential bid.
MacArthur himself showed up at the park for a belated renaming ceremony in 1954.
The park began its first major slide toward deterioration after World War II, Nodal said in an interview, when the area’s demographics changed dramatically.
As the white middle-class departed downtown for the suburbs, he said, they were replaced mainly by retirees on fixed incomes, about 5,000 of whom still live in the area.
Today, the neighborhood around the park, the most densely populated in the city, has become “the entry point” for poor immigrants from Central America.
Some narcotics officers believe that established drug traffickers recruit from this group to sell drugs in the park. To those unable to work legally, the offer might be attractive.
Capt. Robert W. Riley, commanding officer of the Rampart Division, which includes the park, said that 60% of the drug arrests at or around the park are of Central Americans. Of those, he said, 80% are undocumented aliens, chiefly Salvadorans and Nicaraguans.
The drug buyers, on the other hand, come from all over the city, he said, “from 60 miles in all directions, from Orange County, Beverly Hills, Pasadena, wherever you can think of,” a patrol officer said.
The current crackdown began shortly after Riley took over the Rampart Division two months ago and after Police Chief Daryl F. Gates toured the park.
Even before that, however, action had been taken by the community council and the MacArthur Park Foundation, a nonprofit arts promotion organization Nodal also helped organize before he left Otis/Parsons.
Last year, the groups began pressing for the demolition of five structures inside the park near Park View Avenue and 7th Street that had once housed lavatories, shuffleboard courts, a snack bar and a shed for card playing, but had literally been taken over by addicts.
At one time, said neighborhood residents, as many as 50 games of pinochle, bridge and chess would be going on in the shed, a favorite hangout of retirees.
The games ended there last year when the drug activity in the bathrooms and the nearby grounds drove the players to outdoor tables closer to Wilshire Boulevard. Since then, they have had to move twice. They now play exclusively in the northern section of the park.
Out in the Open
The demolition of the shed and lavatories earlier this year probably did more to push the worst of the drug-related activities out into the open air, everyone agrees. Even so, they say, the action was for the best.
“All of a sudden, you had 80 or 90 addicts out there in the open,” said one resident. “But at least now you can see what they are doing.”
City officials say the next step in the process is to replant the area of razed structures with grass and low-growing greenery that won’t screen drug activity.
Next summer, the southern section of the park will be closed and the lake drained for construction of a Metro Rail turnaround station underneath, a project expected to take up to three years.
By that time, officials hope, the drug activity will have been long gone.