Site comes full circle

Times Staff Writer

Long ago, when Lincoln Park was an extravagant playground of alligator and ostrich farms, lakeside fishing and conservatories filled with exotic blooms, a glorious carousel delighted children far and wide.

One of those children was the son of struggling Mexican immigrants, a native of the surrounding Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles' Eastside. The boy was dazzled by the carousel's hand-carved horses, twinkling lights and booming music. He savored the smell of hot dogs and the sweet taste of wispy cotton candy. Kept largely indoors by protective parents hoping to avoid gangs, the boy found thrilling freedom and wondrous pleasures in his weekend visits to Lincoln Park.

The carousel was gutted by fire in 1976, a tragedy that would come to mirror the park's decline as gangs, drug dealers and drifters gradually moved in.

But the boy never forgot the carousel or the gift it gave to families such as his. He grew up and became a Los Angeles city councilman. And on Saturday, Councilman Ed Reyes made good on a lifelong dream and six-year campaign pledge to bring the carousel back.

More than a mere merry-go-round, Reyes said, the carousel symbolizes the community's determined effort to take back the park from unsavory elements.

"This represents the healing of the community," Reyes said of the carousel's return. "We are saying the carousel is back, the park is back for kids and families. We're reknitting the community's recreational fabric, making it whole again, complete."

The carousel, dedicated Saturday by Reyes and others, drew more than 100 delighted riders from infants to grandparents, according to operator Ralph Gustavson of GP Rah Enterprises.

The riders included Darrel Eckhart, a 46-year-old Lincoln Park local who climbed aboard a chariot to relive childhood memories, and the five children of Gabby Martinez, a 30-year-old homemaker who said she wanted her brood to play in the park where she grew up.

Her daughter, 11-year-old Kristine, said she had taken as many as 10 rides -- which are free this weekend -- and with a toothy grin pronounced the teal-blue carousel as "very cool."

"I think this carousel will bring back good memories -- the laughter, the families being together," Gabby Martinez said. "The whole park is much cleaner and safer now, with a lot more families."

The carousel is the latest in a series of city improvements that have revitalized one of Los Angeles' oldest parks. The 50-acre site, between North Mission Road and Valley Boulevard, was laid out in 1901. It was first known as East Los Angeles Park, then Eastlake Park and finally Lincoln Park 16 years later. It once featured a zoo, giant stone elephants at the entrance gate and a backdrop for Tarzan movies filmed at producer William Selig's studio inside the park, according to www.lincolnheightsla.

A forerunner of multicultural Los Angeles, the area long housed a diverse community of Italians, Jews, Mexicans, Japanese, Chinese and African Americans, residents say. Today, that mix has changed.

According to the 2000 Census, three-fourths of the 4,900 residents in the two census tracts adjacent to the park are Latino; half are immigrants. About 40% live below the poverty line, with a median household income of $20,000. The population density is more than three times the city average.

For many, public parks offer a rare, affordable escape from grueling work, crowded apartments and dangerous streets.

Marvin Aburto, a Nicaragua native and 24-year-old satellite TV dispatcher, said his toddler son spends most of his time cooped up with his grandmother in a home with no yard and no other young kids. The park gives his son, Alonzo, a chance to run through the grass, clamber up play structures and meet other children, he said.

"Especially when you live in an apartment, you don't have somewhere for kids to play," Aburto said during a recent park outing with his son. "If the park is not safe, you have nowhere to take them."

Aburto said Lincoln Park has dramatically improved in the last few years. When he worked at the park recreation center in 2001, he said, the lake was polluted and emitted a foul odor, and the park was a constant scene of gunfire and drug deals.

The turnabout began about a decade ago, boosted by two bond measures approved by voters in the 1990s, according to city officials. In the last seven years, the city has invested $2.5 million in Lincoln Park improvements, making it one of the largest beneficiaries of park dollars, according to Mark Mariscal, superintendent of the Recreation and Parks Department's metro region.

The improvements included upgraded walkways, a skate park, a T-ball field, new play equipment on one end of the park and an "all-abilities" playground -- complete with Braille displays and ramps wide enough for wheelchairs -- on the other. A striking series of murals memorializing AIDS victims was completed last month.

Next, the city plans to invest $10 million in a new swimming pool, scheduled to open in 2010, Mariscal said.

The city has also beefed up its recreational programs and special events, including an annual youth fishing derby and today's Junta Hispania festival showcasing the cultures of more than 20 Latin American countries.

"The city recognizes that poor folks living in high concentrations need their green space," said Tomas J. Benitez, development director of the nonprofit arts school Plaza de la Raza, in Lincoln Park. "They've done a great job maintaining the facilities and adding to them. They're really unsung heroes."

It was Reyes who doggedly pushed through the carousel -- a project he said cost the city $500,000, largely to grade the land and construct the carousel's protective shell and fence. He said he tried to locate the original carousel but learned that the few horses that had survived were on merry-go-rounds in San Francisco and Griffith Park.

Then Reyes discovered an available carousel that had been used in a Long Beach shopping mall until it closed a few years ago. At the city's request, carousel owner Don Gustavson refurbished it and, along with his brother Ralph, plans to operate it for a three-year trial period. At $1 a ride, the carousel will run every day during the summer and on weekends and school holidays during the rest of the year.

"This is what our community should be doing for our kids," Reyes said. "We have to start filling the void we create with the absence of things -- no jobs, no recreation. Otherwise, gangs will fill that void very easily."

As family-friendly park activity increased, crime in the area began to drop significantly.

Lincoln Heights has recorded a 14% decline in violent crime from January to October this year compared with a similar period last year, the city's second-largest drop, according to Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Blake Chow of the Hollenbeck area. He credited new strategies that more effectively analyze developing crime patterns so officers can respond to them.

Inside the park itself, police say, gang, drug and homeless problems have dramatically declined. A decade ago, three gangs claimed the park as their own, touching off frequent conflicts, said Austin Fernald, the LAPD's senior officer for Lincoln Heights. But most of the key gang leaders have been killed or imprisoned, calming the streets, he said.

Injunctions that allowed police to arrest gang members for publicly congregating have also been a powerful tool in keeping them from gathering in the park, Fernald said.

In addition, Reyes and Fernald said, city officials have cut down many of the hillside hedges and trees that shielded gang members, and added outdoor lighting.

But problems remain. A woman was killed in a park restroom a few years ago, and residents say graffiti still defaces too much of the neighborhood. But longtime resident Tammy Fierro, property manager for her family's historic Villa Rafael home, said she no longer hears the constant drone of police helicopters or gunfire.

Art Gomez, director of the Lincoln Park recreational center, said the number of youths involved in baseball and basketball programs has tripled to more than 350 since 2000. The after-school program has grown from five to more than 30 children. He said he expected more than 4,000 people to flock to today's festival.

Vera Padilla, a Lincoln High School counselor and civic activist who has lived in Lincoln Heights for 58 of her 61 years, said the park's future has never looked brighter.

"The park is at its best right now, and it's going to get even better," she said.

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teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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