Tony Flamenco has taken his share of risks when he ends a day at the office with a game of chess at MacArthur Park.
Over six years, he’s been shaken down and forced to pay $10 “rent” to gang members, witnessed a stabbing and an assault, and seen the everyday transactions of gamblers and drug dealers who linger near South Park View and West 7th streets.
But the 50-year-old accountant from San Dimas has continued to ignore his wife’s warnings to stay away from the park. For Flamenco, who works nearby, the park remains an oasis among the trees and grassy slopes, a place where he can gather with friends to huddle over chessboards and play games for a quarter or a cup of coffee while he waits out the traffic to go home.
He was one of many regular park users who cheered when the Los Angeles Police Department and city officials began a major crackdown in the notorious park and began several projects to make the area more family-friendly.
Authorities installed surveillance video cameras in the park in 2004 and redoubled those efforts last year by placing six cameras along the 6th Street corridor. They also boosted patrols and recently opened a police station nearby. But about a month ago, in the name of fighting crime, the city removed the tables Flamenco and his friends used to play chess. City authorities said they pulled out the tables at the request of the MacArthur Park advisory board, the local neighborhood council and the LAPD because gangs were using them in extortion schemes.
Flamenco and others say the crackdown has gone too far.
“Those tables belong to the public, not the government,” Flamenco said.
The debate over the tables underscores the tricky balance authorities face between stopping crime in the park and ensuring that park users can enjoy themselves.
Jose Maciel, an employee of the Department of Recreation and Parks and senior director for MacArthur Park, said the area where chess players had their matches had become a gambling haven for other games.
“According to LAPD, you have kind of gangsters that are in charge of each table. They’re putting up blackjack tables, poker tables, they allow that to go on. There’s no money that’s handled there on the spot, but they have a person taking notes on who’s winning or losing,” Maciel said.
“You also have the bigger gangs, and they’re going down there and basically taxing those individuals. . . . They can see a chess game going on and they’ll charge anywhere between $10 and $20 a head,” he said.
Maciel said he has suggested replacing the large tables where park users played chess with smaller tables on which it would be more difficult for large-scale gambling.
Still, Flamenco feels that chess players received the short end of the stick.
“They’ve been doing their jobs. A great, beautiful job. This park was considered very dangerous a long time ago. But chess players have always been there and they don’t get involved in that kind of stuff,” Flamenco said.
Located in the heart of the Westlake district, the park thrived in the first decades of the 20th century. Back then, that stretch of Wilshire Boulevard was one of L.A.'s most fashionable addresses, named after the eccentric millionaire Henry Gaylord Wilshire and dotted with fancy department stores such as Bullocks Wilshire.
But in recent decades, MacArthur Park became a brazen drug bazaar. Things got worse as the surrounding community saw an influx of large gangs such as 18th Street that began selling drugs and extorting street merchants.
“Almost every other day, you’d hear ‘pop, pop,’ ” said Manuel Jiminez, 68, a construction contractor from Hancock Park who has been coming to the park to play chess since 1961.
“I’ve had to dodge bullets,” said another player, 36-year-old Henry Castro, a carpenter from the Westlake area who remembers ducking under one of the concrete tables as he heard gunshots and saw a young man firing into the park when he first came there about seven years ago.
Mario Cevallos, 58, who lives in North Hollywood and manages an apartment building, said he has been playing chess at the park for 25 years and was so enraged that the tables were taken out, he started a petition he plans to give to the City Council.
Since the eight tables were removed, the chess players have shifted their games to other picnic tables or played in the same spot by bringing a plastic folding table.
Cevallos said that he’s collected about 100 signatures from chess players and others around the park, and that taking the tables is not the answer to the Police Department’s problem with gangs.
City Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents the area, supported the initial removal of the tables -- arguing that public safety must be the first priority -- and said he still wants to find a way to provide tables for chess.
Reyes said that residents should respect efforts to crack down on crime and that violence has greatly decreased.
According to statistics from the LAPD, serious crimes in the district that includes MacArthur Park have dropped from 333 in 2004 to 271 in 2008. Aggravated assaults have decreased from 69 in 2004 to 23 in 2008, the statistics show.
Reyes said that he thinks residents can win back the entire park, and that he has dedicated himself to the notion that the surrounding community deserves a better day at the park than extortion and violence.
In recent years, city officials have allocated about $2.5 million to a renovation plan that will bring artificial turf, a children’s playground and better lighting; put aside $350,000 for restrooms; added two maintenance workers and a program manager devoted to the park; spent another $1.7 million renovating the MacArthur Park band shell and started a summer concert series, said Tony Perez, a spokesman for Reyes.
Additional plans to make the park more family-friendly include adding a boat house, bringing back the chess tables and building affordable public housing in spaces near the park that were acquired by the city, Reyes said.
Flamenco supports the improvements, but said officials should not drive users away.
“We love this park,” he said. “We appreciate what they’ve been doing, but this is too far.”