Renewal of Parks Proceeds Quickly

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To Emma Viescas Monahan, the Wabash Park and Recreational Center in Boyle Heights has long resembled a junkyard, a graffiti-scarred testament to the city's neglect of her neighborhood east of downtown Los Angeles.

But Monahan, the park manager, beamed with pride Wednesday as she showed the newly refurbished park to Mayor Richard Riordan and other visitors.

The city has planted flowers, reseeded the ball field, put up a new chain-link fence around the diamond, painted the gymnasium, refinished the floor of the basketball court, replaced windows and doors, upgraded the plumbing and installed air-conditioning in the preschool area.

And the graffiti is gone.

"I was raised in this community, and this building is like 50 years old, and they'd never done anything to it," Monahan said. "The people in this community have felt very neglected. They felt like all the money was spent in the Valley."

Wabash Park is one of 22 that the city has renovated since Riordan promised in December to revive a park every two weeks before he leaves office at the end of next week. The city expects to finish 15 more by then, well beyond his original target.

"It's wonderful to see families retake parks," Riordan told children and neighborhood residents in the Wabash gym. "It's one of the things that really makes you know that you've made a difference for people."

Mayor-elect James K. Hahn has pledged to continue renovating parks "as quickly as possible," but the budget adopted by the City Council for his first year in office includes money for only 10 upgrades--a drastic slowdown in the pace set by Riordan.

Riordan launched his park revival campaign after Helen Johnson, a community activist, urged him to fix up Vermont Square Park in her neighborhood. He promised to get it done within two weeks. Once it was finished, Riordan promised to revitalize another park every two weeks for the rest of his term in office. Some critics derided that effort as too little, too late in the Riordan administration, but the improvements have been welcomed in community after community.

The mayor's appearance Wednesday at Wabash Park to tout the program's success was one of a number of events over his final days in office aimed at sealing positive impressions of him before he leaves his post. After the park event, he went to Pacoima Elementary School to announce the latest expansion of the LA's BEST after-school program. Pacoima is the 59th school to start the popular program since Riordan took office eight years ago.

On Saturday, Riordan plans to take a 20-mile bike ride among Los Angeles landmarks that he views as symbols of his achievements--including Vermont Square Park.

Both the park renovations and the expansion of after-school activities have underscored Riordan's emphasis on education and programs for children, especially during the second half of his eight years as mayor.

"The parks belong to the people in the neighborhoods, not to the gangs," he told the group in the Wabash Park gym.

Nancy Fiore, who coordinates programs for the elderly at Wabash, welcomed the renovations, but said the city still needs to install a ramp to improve access for seniors.

"Most of my seniors walk with canes or walkers," she said.

But Monahan had no complaints. She recalled that when she needed fabric in recent years for youth arts and crafts projects, she had to rummage through trash bins in the garment district. Now, with some extra youth-program money that came with the renovations, she said, that will no longer be necessary. The biggest benefit, she added, is less tangible.

"It's wonderful for the children's self-esteem," she said. "They feel like they matter."

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