Just a few decades ago, the Taylor Yards was a two-mile-long expanse of railroad tracks where trains were coupled together to connect Los Angeles industry to the rest of the nation.
Today, most of those tracks and grimy rail yards are gone, and something else has risen in their place: a 40-acre state park that is intended to revive the working-class neighborhood of Cypress Park in northeast Los Angeles and be part of the "emerald necklace" of parks the city envisions one day lining a rejuvenated Los Angeles River.
The Rio de Los Angeles State Park opens Friday, complete with soccer fields, baseball diamonds, a playground and a new community center -- not to mention vast expanses of grass and a field strewn with wildflowers.
"This park is a symbol; it's almost like a fresh start," said Gus Lizarde, president of the Greater Cypress Park Neighborhood Council and a longtime business owner in the community. "It brought us together because it was such a long fight to get it."
A little more than a decade ago, Cypress Park was in the news for all the wrong reasons. In 1995, 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen was killed after her family's car was struck by a hail of bullets fired by gang members. The shooting also became a symbol for the long decline of Cypress Park.
Union Pacific phased out most of the rail yards in the 1970s and '80s and began moving those operations to the Inland Empire. Soon the city began pushing a plan to create new jobs and amenities by allowing nearly all of the area to be developed as warehouses, commercial sites and a multiplex theater. The proposal spurred a lawsuit by a coalition of community groups who argued that the city should have required a proper environmental review of the project.
In July 2001, a judge agreed with the groups.
"There would not be a park here if not for the community," said Melanie Winter, a Los Angeles River activist who helped bring the suit against the city. "The residents are the reason that there is something to celebrate."
The court ruling opened the door for the state to purchase the land from funds generated by a $2.1-billion parks and water bond measure approved in 2000. The money enabled the state to purchase 40 acres for the new park, a 17-acre parcel along the river that hasn't been developed and to acquire the Cornfield -- another abandoned rail yard next to Chinatown -- for the Los Angeles State Historic Park, which is being designed. But there was a problem: Nearly all of the state parks in California are intended to protect landscapes and ecosystems. The community wanted something different: playing fields. Over the years Cypress Park business owner Raul Macias, a Mexican immigrant, had organized a nonprofit youth soccer league with hundreds of players who desperately needed a place to play.
The matter was resolved when legislators devised a way for the city to lease the land and build much-needed playing fields. In addition to the five soccer fields -- including one with a synthetic surface -- and two baseball diamonds, the new park features an expansive children's playground and walking paths through an area of natural-appearing grasslands.
City parks General Manager Jon Mukri called it "the greenest park from an environmental standpoint we've designed," from the waterless urinals in the community center now under construction, to the park's permeable parking lots, intended to absorb storm runoff.
Ruth Coleman, chief of the state parks system, said that she views the local park as a return to an earlier time.
"Really, this is a new vision for state parks to create large-scale places of beauty and nature in the city because the cities are so park poor," Coleman said. "It's kind of going back to the vision Frederick Law Olmsted had for Central Park" in New York. "These parks can become community centers if they're done right."
One question that remains is whether the city or state will be able to acquire a key parcel, owned by Union Pacific, that separates the new park from the Los Angeles River.
"We are still assessing any impacts to the environment that may have taken place over the years in the areas where rail cars and locomotives were serviced and repaired," wrote Mark Davis, a Union Pacific spokesman, in an e-mail. "This property may be retained for railroad uses."
River activists covet the property because it is a site where the river channel could potentially be widened to create more riparian habitat. The feasibility of reworking that stretch of the river is under study by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Even if the land were acquired, there would be challenges. Union Pacific and Metrolink commuters use tracks that form a barrier between the new state park and the parcel along the river. That corridor also is being considered for a proposed high-speed rail system tying Los Angeles to Northern California.
City Councilman Ed Reyes, whose district includes Taylor Yards, is still hopeful that something can be done to make the tracks less of an obstacle. Reyes grew up three blocks from the new park and came to be a supporter of it after initially working on building proposals for the site as a deputy to former Councilman Mike Hernandez.
Reyes said he appreciates Cypress Park's railroad legacy and the jobs it provided, but he has come to believe there's a greater need now for open space for today's youth. Like many others, he also grew up hearing the clang of railroad cars being coupled together day and night and was a little shocked to see the yards gone.
"I went down there after they had finished the cleanup of the site and had taken the tracks out," Reyes recalled, "and it just blew me away because we're actually living in a beautiful valley here. I never appreciated it before."