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It was an in-your-space move

Times Staff Writer

The outsiders on bicycles, mostly white, rode into the predominantly Latino immigrant neighborhood west of downtown L.A. on Friday, dropped quarters into a meter, laid artificial turf on the asphalt and declared the parking space at the corner of 8th and Alvarado streets a “park.”

At least for an hour. It is a “One Hour Parking” tow-away zone, after all.

Martha Santos, 50, drove around the block to find another parking spot. “They must be filming,” said the El Salvadoran immigrant, who owns a clothing store just feet away from where the group set up.

A passerby cheekily asked, “Is la migra (immigration authorities) going to come?”

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One of the park builders, Ron Durgen, 43, of Beverly Hills asked a burly man wearing a black T-shirt to join the group, explaining enthusiastically that they had “commandeered this parking space and turned it into a park.”

“This is a street, you know. It’s not good to put that there,” the man said brusquely.

“But wouldn’t it be nice if this was really a park?” Durgen asked, no more than a block from MacArthur Park.

“OK, good, good for you. See you later, my friend,” the man said. Walking away, he muttered that one of L.A.'s first parks is also often one of its most crime-ridden. “Might as well build a cantina.”

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Friday was Park(ing) Day Los Angeles. Dozens of people -- many of them artists and activists involved in issues ranging from affordable housing to creating urban farmland -- temporarily set up “parks” in scores of parking spaces from Long Beach to Westwood and beyond.

They brought sod, dirt, plants, potted trees, benches, beach chairs, umbrellas and even sofas to give the parking spaces an inviting feel. The activists then spent their hour -- with the parking meters ticking -- encouraging often wary passersby to take part in their vision of more open space in L.A.

The idea was to make a statement about what they consider a lack of parkland and recreation areas in Los Angeles and how much of the public landscape is dominated by automobiles.

But in L.A., where the car remains king and a good parking space is considered a prized possession, some passersby made some statements of their own.

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In some parts of the city, the activists were cheered by like-minded residents who want more park space.

But in other neighborhoods, the reaction was more complex -- and perplexed.

On 8th Street, Russell Lewis, 62, stopped long enough to learn that he was seeing a demonstration against too many spaces for cars and not enough for people. All things considered, including his hungry stomach, he didn’t get it.

“I’m a Vietnam veteran. I have no money, no place to eat, no nothing,” Lewis said, “and you guys are talking about a park? Right here?”

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The action comes at a time when city officials are examining how to improve L.A.'s 15,700 acres of park space and possibly add more. A report by the city auditor last year found that L.A.'s lowest-income residents have far fewer park and recreation spaces available near them than residents of more affluent areas. In fact, each of the three L.A. City Council districts to the south and east of downtown L.A. has less than an acre of parkland per 1,000 residents (the recommended national average is generally 4 to 10 acres per 1,000 residents).

It was a point the activists tried to make Friday.

At a spot along Broadway in Chinatown, Autumn Rooney, 34, a member of the Socialize L.A. Project, handed out fliers and bus maps to curious pedestrians. Rooney said that while growing up in Chicago and New York, she was used to more green spaces and more reliance on public transportation.

Rooney said it was with reluctance that she bought a car to get around L.A. (other activists insisted on biking or walking).

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“There’s more space devoted to cars than for parks,” Rooney said. “People have been supportive. One Chinese woman said, ‘Winner, winner!’ She was sweet.”

At Figueroa and Avenue 26 in Northeast L.A., another group of activists also laid out artificial turf, potted plants and a green sofa.

They showed a TV documentary called “Contested Streets,” which, according to one website, “explores the rich diversity of New York City street life prior to the introduction of the automobile.”

Veronica Jauregui, 31, spoke about the cause to a passerby who identified himself only as Mike.

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Mike was unconvinced. “Meanwhile, where are all the people parking?” he asked with a smile.

“We’re trying to eliminate car parking,” Jauregui said. “L.A. is all about parking [and] parking structures.”

Many activists set up multiple “parks” throughout the day. The bicyclists who rode to 8th and Alvarado had earlier been at the corner of Rampart and Wilshire boulevards in Westlake. People leaned against a nearby building, smoking cigarettes and generally ignoring the activists. About six people stopped by, Durgen said.

The neighborhoods of Pico-Union and Westlake near MacArthur Park are among the most densely populated in the country, with more than 40,000 residents per square mile. Creating more open space is a challenge.

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Councilman Ed Reyes said the area is primed for rooftop parks and gardens. He applauded the message the activists were trying to send but noted that cultural and economic barriers had to be overcome on both sides.

“The beauty of it is it begins bridge building between different cultures,” Reyes said.

As Michelle Espinoza-Coulter, 34, of Livable Places held a spot for her fellow activists, Santos, the store owner, hesitated, hoping that she would move. Santos then drove away, looking confused.

She found a parking space a few minutes later and, looking at the new “park,” commented that there was a need for both parking spaces and open spaces.

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“Imagine if there was no parking here, with so many people,” she said.

Minutes later, about 11:30 a.m., the bicyclists showed up. They set up orange pylons and then benches and chairs on artificial turf.

Aurisha Smolarski, 34, an activist with various groups, wore a shirt with a rendering of a Hummer and the word “Dummer.”

Watching them transport potted trees with mini-trailers, passerby Angel Mendoza deduced that they were “going to plant another little tree.” Asked what he thought about their cause, Mendoza shrugged and said, “Esta bien (It’s good).”

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But others, like Lewis, were harder to persuade.

Activist Beth Steckler, a Highland Park resident who is the affordable-housing developer for Livable Places, invited him to sit in the park. Lewis declined, reiterating that he thought they had their priorities wrong. Lewis, who is black, had lived in the largely Latino neighborhood for decades, one of the few places he could afford, he said. He barely had money too eat.

The pair walked to a lunch truck, where Steckler took care of Lewis’ most pressing need at the moment. She bought him a burrito.

“When people are as poor as he is,” Steckler said later, “this feels frivolous. His basic needs are not being fulfilled, and we’re talking about a park. But we’re working on those other needs too.”

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hector.becerra@latimes.com


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