Perched on a picnic bench beneath a shade tree, community activist Charles Rachal told a group of listeners about what his park used to be: a common ground for neighbors to gather in harmony.
"I used to be here at 9:30 in the morning to go to the pool," the former gang member said, pointing at a dried-out, grave-like pool at South Park. "It's a real frustrating situation . . . this park symbolized a safe ground."
Rachal's audience Aug. 5 was a group of park advocates brought together by People for Parks, a nonprofit outfit dedicated to revitalizing urban parks and recreation centers. The group, which included city officials and community activists, was taken on a tour of five city and county parks in South Los Angeles.
Besides giving participants a firsthand look at the deterioration of underfunded parks, the four-hour tour served as a prelude to a conference titled "Reinventing Urban Recreation," which took place the next day in West Hollywood.
"We want to develop partnerships with different agencies to increase the life chances of poor children," said tour organizer Jack Foley, a founder of People for Parks and a professor of recreation and leisure studies at Cal State Northridge.
The common denominator at each park on the Aug. 5 tour was a lack of funds to provide services for children using the facilities, Foley said.
"There's clearly a problem of 'recreational apartheid,' " Foley said. "There's two separate and unequal public parks systems. One is in the affluent areas where they can afford to charge fees, and the other is in lower income areas."
During the group's visit to the Will Rogers Memorial Park swimming pool in Watts, Rachal reminisced about activities that were available for youths.
"Back when I was a kid, I went to the park every day. There were carnivals and festivals on holidays and the youth was involved with the parks," said Rachal, a member of South-Central Youth Community Services, a gang prevention group. "Now they're getting involved with gang activity instead."
Violence in the park came to the public's attention in June, when six lifeguards at the Will Rogers pool were attacked within three days. One lifeguard remains in a coma.
Authorities said the attack was prompted in part by tensions that grew out of the county's decision in April to charge admission to the pool. Shortly after the violence, Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke stepped in and obtained private contributions to pay the fees at the pool.