Los Angeles County’s parks appear safe--for now. Their threatened closure was forestalled this week by a compromise on the county’s massive budget deficit.
But even as county supervisors were voting in the boardroom, a disturbing phenomenon was taking place on the streets--one that authorities will have to confront the next time county parks are on the chopping block.
Anticipating the park closures, gangs on the county’s Eastside began meeting to discuss whether to divide park turf peacefully or go to war, according to gang members, park staff and park police.
The gangs convened at parks in groups of 20 to 30 and bluntly told park staff of their expansion plans. In some cases, park police say, gangs anticipated charging “rent” in drugs, weapons or money to other gangs for continued use of the park.
“This is a turf, and if the county doesn’t want to run it, we’ll take it,” said Shyboy, a 20-year-old member of the Maravilla Projects gang, who was pumping iron one day last week in the park’s weight room as the Geto Boys’ lurid rap music blasted on a boombox.
“Right now the park is neutral. But if it closes, it’s going to be a combat zone,” he said. “We’re all willing to claim what is ours. . . . It’s a matter of territory.”
Last week, John Zrofsky, chief of the Los Angeles County Park Police, predicted: “There will be territorial disputes over who’s going to own the parks, and it will last until they settle it. Then no one will be allowed to go to the park except that gang.”
On Thursday, Zrofsky said the Board of Supervisors’ decision to preserve the parks would contain the gang expansion problem--but only for the time being.
“In the last week we’ve had three shootings across from parks in East L.A.,” he said. “And it will get worse in years to come unless we can find some long-term funding solutions.”
At stake for thousands of children whose parents keep them inside cramped apartments rather than risk the gangs and drug-dealing outside is their reliance on county parks as a neutral zone, a respite of green grass and fresh air for picnics and sports.
Some fear that the publicity surrounding park closures has sparked events that may now take on a life of their own.
Staff and gang members at Belvedere Park on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue, which was scheduled to lose its staff, still worry that tensions are rising among the Maravillas, a large Eastside gang whose many offshoots have observed a truce for the past two years. Tagging is up and threats have been exchanged, according to park police and gang members.
One long-faced 16-year-old with a shaved head who lives in the Maravilla project next to Belvedere Park says that two weeks ago, as he rode his bicycle through Belvedere, he was stopped by a group of Arizona Maravillas, whose turf also abuts the park.
“They told me to stop riding in their park or I would get shot,” he said.
Officer Gilbert Valderrama, a park policeman assigned to a special gang detail in East Los Angeles, says Belvedere Park has been a sore point between the gangs for years despite the truce.
In recent weeks, gang members were “nosing around, they’re sending people in to get answers” [about closing dates], said Steve Frank, district manager of the parks’ Northeast Communities Services.
Earlier this week, the Board of Supervisors dropped plans to close 30 county parks and six swimming pools. Sixty-five of the 75 activities directors at county parks slated for layoffs and 44 of the 83 park police officers also were reinstated.
Some county parks are already violence-plagued. More than 3,000 crimes are committed annually in county parks, ranging from murder to armed robbery to assaults with machetes, park police said.
At least one large Eastside gang--Gerraghty Loma--has already divided up sections of City Terrace Park peacefully among the gang’s “cliques,” according to county probation officials.
“They’re going to take over the recreation facilities and have a mini-fort, that’s what the gangsters are telling us,” said a Los Angeles County probation officer with the gang suppression program who spoke on condition that his name not be used.
Some say fears of warfare are exaggerated. Sgt. Al Garcia, who works a gang detail with the Sheriff’s Department, says he has not heard any rumblings of trouble: “We don’t see any problems right now.”
Under the narrowly averted closures, the county would have boarded up the recreation centers, turned off water and electricity and stopped maintenance. Staff members painted a dismal picture of closed, abandoned parks that will draw crime, transients and vandals. The same scenario is sure to play out next year unless more money is found.
Andi Liebenbaum, executive director of People for Parks, a nonprofit organization, applauded the board’s decision. Everybody loses when parks close, she said, because recreational activities divert gang members from crime.
“Parks . . . tend to discourage negative activities. If gang members are playing basketball or lifting weights, they’re not selling drugs and tagging,” she said.
Gang members agree that sports keep them out of trouble. At the weight room in Belvedere Park, for instance, young men from different gangs work out together in peace.
“People come in here with respect,” said Noel Garcia, 24. “This is just a little room, but it holds a lot of gangsters. We were hoping they’d extend the hours.”
Gang members had muttered darkly that they would retaliate if the parks close. How? Break-ins and vandalism, they said. Several gang members at Belvedere said they would steal the weights.
“We’ve been here late at night before; a few boards won’t stop us,” one gang member boasted.
That is exactly what Herman Gonzalez, a father of five who was at Saybrook Park in East Los Angeles recently to pick up his children from summer day camp, is afraid of.
“If you get rid of these activities, who do you think is going to control the parks?” Gonzalez asked.
Bill Meehan, the president of the Saybrook Park Baseball Assn. and a park volunteer who grew up in the neighborhood, says that in the last month, gang members warned youths to stay away from the park if it was closed or they would get “jumped” into--forced to join--local gangs.
Ditto for Salazar Park in East Los Angeles, where gang members also planned to charge “rent,” said county parks Police Chief Zrofsky.
“For the gangs, the parks are a potential gold mine. They can charge admission in dope and if you want to hang out and be cool, you have to pay,” Zrofsky said.
Recreation centers are busy from morning until night, doling out free lunches and classes in karate and self-esteem. Thousands of working parents count on them for day care at park-run summer camps and they launched a petition drive and collected 10,000 signatures. The community outcry worked--at least for this year. But parents and even gang members worry that the reprieve is only temporary.
One recent afternoon, Maria Leon, the mother of three, said she wanted a safe place where her children can play outdoors.
“We don’t want our kids to grow up to be cholos [gang members],” she said.
In the weight room at Belvedere, even the cholos seemed relieved.
“It helps, it helps a lot that the parks people are here,” Shyboy said.
Weightlifter Ernie Avila added: “No one wants to see another gang war, but that’s what’s going to happen” if the parks close. The gangs “will just keep trying to claim more territory. And people will get dragged in by where they live.”