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Faces of MacArthur Park: Quiet Refuge, Place of Fear

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At dawn, MacArthur Park belongs to the scavengers. First light brings hundreds of robins, gulls and blackbirds, swarming over the park grounds for scraps of sustenance.

Trudging among them are dozens of human companions. Like the birds, the humans move with their heads lowered, scouring the earth. They are crack addicts and dealers, methodically searching for packets of rock cocaine dropped hours earlier during nightly police sweeps of the park.

Their furtive transactions around the park’s lake proceed on a 24-hour clock, interrupted only briefly by the presence of squad cars, beginning again as the taillights recede. By night, the park is a place of randomly dispensed terror, the most crime-ridden sector in the Rampart District, the police division with the highest murder rate in Los Angeles.

Six people have been killed by gunfire in the park area this year. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, two more were shot to death within four blocks of the park and seven others were injured in a gang turf war that left a woman paralyzed by a gunshot wound to the neck.

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Nowhere in Los Angeles is there a setting at once so picturesque and so feared. MacArthur Park lost its innocence long ago, its unfenced grounds prey to a succession of invaders--first alcoholic transients, then heroin addicts, career criminals from Cuba, gang marauders and, finally, the crack generation.

Yet the cycle of crime that occurs each day is only one among many rhythms of life pulsing in MacArthur Park. The park’s daily activity mirrors the vibrancy of the immigrant and elderly community just beyond its landscaped borders, offering small pleasures to visitors who have nowhere else to escape.

The MacArthur Park area is the zocalo, the main promenade for thousands of Central American refugees who live and dream in the sagging tenements of the Pico-Union area. It is, too, in its various guises, a place of worship, where elderly Koreans and evangelicals chant to their Lord; a hectic bazaar, where hawkers provide everything from jogging suits to insect poison; a cranny of competition, where a raffish band of chess hustlers and card players take on all comers, and, in its most private corners, a refuge for lovers.

“Parks are simply a reflection of the life that goes on around them,” said Galen Cranz, an architectural sociologist with UC Berkeley who has studied the patterns of life in MacArthur Park and other urban recreation areas. “That can be what saves them or runs them down.”

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A Sort of Paradise

And despite its seemingly unending victimization by litter, vandalism, overuse and under-funding, MacArthur Park, in its 104th year, endures even as a scruffy paradise, a haven for 42 varieties of trees, nine species of birds, and, at the most unexpected moments, a regal white egret.

One recent dawn, the coastal bird appeared near the bank of the park’s 12-foot deep lake, perching on a submerged fountain hose. The egret, a novel sight less than 12 blocks from downtown Los Angeles, preened in the cold sun. It uncoiled and retracted its neck, oblivious to a group of shabbily dressed men huddled nearby at a picnic table. They, too, were in their own world, pawing at plastic cigarette lighters to draw a steady flame for their morning supply of rock cocaine.

Sammy Aguilar, a hydrant-sized gardener who has for 17 years pruned the park’s shrubs and manicured its landscape, took in the scene in silence. Aguilar, 64, has never been able to reconcile the natural wonder and human squalor that coexists--and sometimes clashes--each day at MacArthur Park.

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On his rounds each morning, he keeps his thoughts to himself as he watches addicts stumble among the pigeons near the statue of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He says nothing to the men with matted hair who sprawl out in ryegrass that he often has to reseed. But Aguilar takes the intrusions personally.

“I love this park,” he explained. “This is my house. It hurts me to see what people do to it.”

There are eight gardeners employed in the park by the city Department of Parks and Recreation. Once, there were more, but like all city recreation areas, MacArthur Park had layoffs after Proposition 13 took effect in 1978. A $207,000 annual budget pays for the gardeners and general upkeep.

Over the course of a day, the park’s staff expects to confront damage caused by the elements. But they have a more difficult time adjusting to the bizarre daily toll of ruin brought on by MacArthur Park’s drug-obsessed squatters.

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Gardeners regularly repair sprinklers crushed by police squad cars that cruise the park. They skim the lake for trash, retrieving shopping carts and shotguns. Last year, workers sawed down a Bird of Paradise bush to give police a better view of drug deals. And when park squatters took to catching ducks from the lake, gardeners were ordered to remove barbecue pits to prevent them from being grilled.

One recent morning, a crack addict began inexplicably kicking and punching at a tree near the park’s boathouse. A city park ranger who tried to fend the man off was nearly bitten before subduing him.

“It’s amazing to see the lengths these people will go to destroy the place,” said Ron Krause, a Parks and Recreation official who witnessed the incident.

1,000 Dealers, Addicts

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Police estimate that as many as 1,000 drug dealers and addicts congregate in the park each day. Yet even after the toughest sweeps, they drift back from side streets. Most cluster in the park’s southern half, a dusty, barren sector around the lake.

Drug deals are conducted anywhere--on park benches, under street tunnels, near the childrens’ playground on the north side. For privacy, some dealers and clients crowd into portable lavatories built barely large enough to accommodate solitary users.

Most addicts are awake when sunlight filters into the park at the start of the day. Many have been up all night, smoking cocaine and eluding police patrols. Sleep is reserved for later in the morning, when the park warms.

Joining the squatters just after dawn are the first of MacArthur Park’s regular patrons. At the band shell in the park’s lush northern sector, a group of elderly Korean Seventh-day Adventists gathers to pray, spreading out newspaper pages on their benches.

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As recently as five years ago, MacArthur Park was a daily haunt for hundreds of senior citizens who live in neighboring elderly oriented apartment complexes. Many have given up on the park, driven off by drugs and robberies. The Koreans are among those who still come, responding more to old habits than new fears.

“We have been here for 10 years,” said Hyeung Yul Ahn, 80. “Why should we change? We come, keep to ourselves, and then we leave.”

Their sense of safety is bolstered by the burst of activity on the park’s north side. Fire department cadets mill about for the start of the day’s training exercises inside a white stucco office. A few joggers appear, exercise briefly, then vanish.

By late morning, the park’s west side bustles. Three picnic tables are occupied by a group of pinochle players. Chuck Kinion, 63, a grizzled retiree with a bald eagle tattooed on his forearm, comes from his hotel at 9th and Alvarado streets. Winners, he explained, “have their coffee and soft drinks paid by the losers.” Other card players slyly let on that money has been known to change hands.

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On the south side of the street, a group of chess players vies for similar wagers. They argue endlessly--over moves, over money, over whether they should move to the north side of the park, where some would feel more secure.

Felipe Perez, a bony-faced man with a brush mustache, plays speed chess like a dervish. “Your move, fool! Play already!” he yells at an opponent, then interrupts to describe an encounter with police. ". . . They had a sweep the other day and I nearly got arrested, can you believe it? . . . Move, chicken, move! Mate! I am the King of Chess!”

Senior citizens once played shuffleboard nearby, holding court at a small concession stand and restroom. But the buildings were invaded by drug dealers, then torn down. City parks officials believe such facilities are essential to renew the park. Ron Krause, the Parks Department analyst, expects the city to eventually build a full-sized recreation building and hire a director.

That may become reality after a Metro Rail station near the park is built. Two years of construction will start in 1990 on a subway tunnel under the lake. The park’s southern half will be shut down--and the city expects to be compensated handsomely by the Rapid Transit District for the inconvenience. City officials hope that the funds--now under negotiation--will pay for more staff and a complete park overhaul, including a recreation building.

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But park expert Galen Cranz cautioned that MacArthur Park once contained many of the facilities it now lacks. They did little to halt its decline, Cranz noted.

“I don’t know of any urban park that has climbed out of a bad situation by just spending more money,” Cranz said. “There are too many other factors at work . . . Parks only change when people change.”

Immigrant Center

Some officials say MacArthur Park’s greatest hope lies in the poor immigrant community that has grown around it. In recent years, thousands of Central Americans have moved into the warren of old apartments that run north, south and east of the park. Officials estimate that at least 5,500 people live in the 20-block area that envelopes the park. According to census figures, at least 77% of those residents are Latino, most immigrants from El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Honduras.

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By noon each day, the park and its surrounding streets take on a distinctly Latin cast. During the week, immigrant families straggle in to use the playground and lounge on the grass. On weekends, their numbers swell into the thousands as they reenact promenade rituals of their homelands.

Across 7th street, facing the southern edge of the park, nostalgic Guatemalans line up at the door of the Guatelinda Restaurant to listen to cumbias , Caribbean dance music played by a trio of musicians on a piano-sized marimba. At Angela’s Market, customers find imported Guatemalan herbs, Salvadoran produce and Batman pinatas .

Inside a green shed on the sidewalk, Olga Leal, a Nicaraguan emigre, sells Mexican skin magazines and racks of comic books with tales of romantic couples, vampires and wrestlers. By noon, other street vendors have taken over the sidewalk, unfurling sheets with cassettes, toy trucks and musical Christmas cards that play “Feliz Navidad.” “Good for cockroaches!” yells a woman hawking packages of insect poisoning.

In the park, crowds flock to the band shell, where accordion bands play awkwardly and entertainer Memo Flores puts on shows to defray burial costs for poor families. Children spin, screaming delightedly, on the playground’s carousel. Their mothers eye cocaine dealers who roam nearby, whistling softly to customers.

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Julio Mogica, 30, and his girlfriend, Veronica, 24, avoid the crowds. Several days each week, they find secluded picnic tables to pursue amorous trysts. Interrupted in mid-embrace, Mogica sheepishly explained the allure of MacArthur Park.

“Hey, man,” he said, “it’s the grass, the trees. If we could come here at night, we could have the stars. But . . .”

But the nights belong to the armed.

Most MacArthur Park visitors are gone by dusk, leaving dealers and addicts. The addicts protect themselves with knives and crude clubs. Many dealers carry handguns, police say.

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Some addicts are wary enough to avoid the park at night. Monique, 39, a haggard Salvadoran woman who claims to have been raised in Paris, comes to the park three times a week from Silver Lake to buy rock cocaine. She leaves by nightfall. “I am not an idiot like these others,” she said, pausing to draw deeply from her makeshift pipe. “By the way, do you know what day is today?”

A Task for Police

Police gird for violence at night. Late Thursday, a rash of shootings began east of the park that culminated Friday with the wounding of four youths identified by police as members of the Crazy Riders, a Central American gang. The four had clashed with members of 18th Street, an older gang based nearby. And the week before, a man was left in critical condition on a respirator after he was shot after approaching a car during a drug deal that apparently went sour.

“They like to settle their scores in the dark,” said Lt. Marlin (Doc) Warkentin, chief of detectives in the Rampart Division.

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Even the days have their killings. The most recent park fatality, Luis Hinojoso, 28, was shot in the head just after noon on Oct. 31. He fought briefly with a suspect who left, then returned with a .25-caliber automatic. The two men had argued over a cigarette lighter.

Trade in the Night

The park’s six murder victims in 1989 stand out even in a police district where the homicide rate is up 70% over last year’s figures. Sgt. Bob Freet, who has patrolled the park for nearly two decades, attributes much of the violence to jockeying among Central American groups that control the crack trade in the park.

“Anybody who comes here after dark is taking their life in their hands,” Freet said.

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Yet even in MacArthur Park, there are those who do it willingly. One night, just after 10 p.m., more than 30 people gathered at the band shell. They were from the Divine Pentecostal Church, dispossessed from a building at Westmoreland and 9th streets.

Bathed in the weak glow of portable lights, the congregation sang, “My Soul Will Bless the Lord” to the gentle accompaniment of electric guitar. Nearby, evangelist Melvin Bonilla whispered that with nowhere else to go, the worshipers were grateful to at least find a place to join hands.

It was not their choice to be there, Bonilla said. But, peering out toward where a group of addicts watched in disbelief, Bonilla said that the congregation had found inspiration and even a little courage in the darkness.

“Perhaps this is a test?” he asked. “If we can stay, maybe others? Maybe there is some good in this place?”

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