Urban Gardens : Sunday in the Park at Leimert

The little girl trots cautiously around the edge of the water fountain, flapping her skinny arms, pretending she is like the pigeons cooing on the ground below. Emitting awkward, high-pitched notes, she jumps into their midst. The birds lift up and fly low across the street, landing on the stucco rooftops. The girl runs to her mother with a frown, arms still beating the air.

Sunday in Leimert Park is like a morning prayer. The water from the fountain whispers soothingly. Neighbors stroll through. The vein-like traffic of Crenshaw pulsates. Although the park benches are painted an unsexy brown and cardboard boxes lie flat atop two picnic tables--a sure sign that the table has recently served as a bed--the regulars don't seem to mind.

"It's wonderful," says Margo Morgan. She and her fiance are playing Yahtzee on a picnic table while waiting for a casting call at the Vision Complex across the street. "The water, just the right amount of shade." Margo's fiance cuts her off, "Just the right amount of hobos." Margo smiles ruefully, "Yeah, that's all a part of it."

Soon the tables will quake with the slam of dominoes. By early afternoon, the elderly men who live in the senior citizen home kitty-corner from the park will have gathered. On a clear day, the echo of the their salty glee can be heard blocks away. Rarely are the tables used for sandwiches and punch; children race to make them launching pads as flustered mothers call out warnings.

"It's a very interesting place," says Ben Caldwell, whose multimedia KAOS Network and Video 3333 has been on the corner of Leimert and 43rd for 12 years. "Ever since I've been here, it's always been a keeper of different types of people." Some Sundays, a phalanx of Black Jews moralizes from a bullhorn near Crenshaw. Cars slow to hear snatches of their righteous proclamations. Other Sundays, musicians practice in the park directly across from 5th Street Dicks, the local coffeehouse/jazz club, competing with the afternoon band.

"We don't have small leisure parks, meditation and reflection points in our community," says poet Kamau Daaood, who has been in the Leimert community for 10 years as owner and operator of Final Vinyl Collectibles and the World Stage Performance Gallery. "The fact that you can come in the middle of this urban setting and hear water, the flapping of birds' wings and children's laughter is healing."

Only half an acre, Leimert Park is both an island surrounded by a sea of pavement and the centerpiece for the neighborhood. On this Sunday a homeless man reclines against a tree in a blue-and-white lawn chair. Despite the heat, he is layered in three heavy jackets. A grocery cart full of bottles and newspapers is parked next to his bundle of clothes as he watches the soaring little girl and the pigeons, which have returned to gorge themselves on a freshly scattered pile of stale crumbs. The child eases up to their feeding ground, arms still in motion, a grin on her face.

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