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‘Narc Park’ Cleaned Up, but Many Still Wary : Crime: Police and city officials offer holiday party and other activities to coax residents back to the Canoga Park recreation area.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The drug dealers are gone, but fear still lingers around Lanark Park.

After an intense two-year crackdown on the pushers who turned the park into the largest open-air drug market in the west San Fernando Valley, residents acknowledge that their streets are no longer lined by dealers hawking their wares. The parade of users driving by in search of a fix has been replaced by Los Angeles police patrols. And used syringes no longer litter the alleyways.

Yet many are afraid just the same.

Residents still stay inside after dark, wary of venturing into the 13-acre park after the sun sets. Only slowly are they reclaiming their neighborhood park, once one of the most popular in Canoga Park, but in recent years known to police and residents as “Narc Park.”

“We see that it’s not as bad,” said one resident who asked not to be identified. “But drug dealing is like dealing with cockroaches. You turn on the light and they disappear. But they aren’t dead. They’ll come back as soon as it’s dark again.”

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To coax residents out of their homes and back into the park, Los Angeles police and city officials on Thursday night threw a neighborhood Christmas party, paid for by the owners of several of the area’s apartment buildings.

“It’s been a long time since we had a party here at Lanark Park,” recreation director John Perez said. Not that long ago, residents took evening walks through the park or gathered for activities at the recreation center. “This allows our community people to come out and enjoy the holidays with a sense of security.”

“We want to show them that the park is theirs again,” Officer George Aguilar said.

It certainly seemed that way Thursday night. About 300 people attended the Christmas party, which included mariachis, folklorico dancers and a bilingual Santa Claus.

“There used to be a lot of activity with drugs,” said 12-year-old David Ohayon, one of the many children at the party. “At night it was really dangerous. The people who came here at night were scary. It feels much better now.”

In recent months, Perez, Aguilar and others have helped initiate two programs to attract residents to the park. A youth soccer league began in October. And last month, classes in traditional Mexican folklorico dancing were offered.

The community activities are the latest component in a far-reaching program launched two years ago by police, city officials, landlords and residents to rid the park and its environs of drug dealers. Police stepped up patrols. They cordoned off streets with checkpoints to prevent drive-by drug deals. And apartment owners installed security gates to prevent dealers from using their labyrinthine complexes as escape routes from police.

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According to statistics compiled by police for the crime reporting district that includes the park, there were 406 narcotics arrests in the area in 1990. “Lanark Park takes up 10% of the district for area. But the area around Lanark Park is responsible for 80% to 90% of the crime,” Capt. Ronald Bergmann said.

But for the first three quarters of this year, there were 342 narcotics arrests. There were 168 in the first quarter, 119 in the second and then a noticeable drop to 55 in the third, Bergmann said. It’s an indication, police say, that the drug dealers are moving elsewhere.

Several residents agreed this week that the program has been effective and that their neighborhood is considerably safer than it was two years ago.

“You don’t see any of the activity that was constant, say, six months ago,” said Georges DeGiorgio, who manages an apartment building on Lanark Street. “They were at it at all hours of the day and night. There is a tremendous change.”

DeGiorgio’s wife, Blanca, added: “Before, I was afraid to go shopping at night. Now it’s fine.”

Others, however, said problems persist.

One man who asked not to be identified said he was walking his dog through the park one day last week when a man threatened him with a gun because his dog was barking. “You still hear shots all the time,” he said. “That doesn’t seem to have changed much.”

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Aguilar acknowledged that problems still exist in the neighborhood but said police knew from the start that they would never disappear entirely. Some dealers simply moved their operations a few blocks to the east, but others were arrested or dispersed to other areas, he said. Gang graffiti still appears but not as frequently, he said.

“We’re not saying the problem is completely gone,” he said, “but it’s manageable.”

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