To get to the place in Boyle Heights where the spirit of summer lives, I first passed through a neighborhood of stout little houses, where the streets were too quiet, too lonely and much too dark.
Next I passed through a tunnel where the concrete walls gleamed and pulsed ominously with taggers’ spray paint. And then, suddenly, I saw it: an oasis of light.
Getting closer, I heard the voices of children. Then I stepped into the bright park itself and found a village of people. They ran on the soccer fields, spun on skateboards and held hands on the concrete steps that faced the baseball diamond.
Some of the neighborhood old-timers told me it was a sight they thought they’d never see. Ramon Garcia Park was filled with people, several hundred in all, well after dark.
“To come here at night, you used to have to carry a knife,” Juan Caudillo told me. He’s a retired mechanic who’s lived near the park for 25 years. Until recently, gang members and assorted muggers prowled the edges of the park, he said.
“Once I came here with two rocks in my hand, just so I could make it across,” Caudillo said.
Ramon Garcia Park is open late these days because, after decades of bureaucratic slumber, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and a few other key people in City Hall finally woke up and realized something incredibly obvious -- our neglected and underfunded city parks are breeding grounds for violence.
Thus, the idea behind the city’s Summer Night Lights program: If you distract troubled youths with wholesome things like basketball, outdoor movies and a well-lighted field, they’ll be less likely to start shooting one another.
The city has fixed up 16 parks in the corners of the city where gangs roam and is keeping their facilities well staffed and open until midnight, Wednesdays through Saturdays. The cost? Some $2 million in city funds, with private donors kicking in about $1 million more.
Yeah, they should have done it years ago.
Better late than never, I guess. Now Villaraigosa gets to issue celebratory press releases that announce the drop in crime in neighborhoods thanks to “my Summer Night Lights” program.
But at Ramon Garcia Park, the program has done something more than reduce gang violence: it’s given an entire neighborhood its summer back. Thanks to a few city employees and a dozen kids working their first summer jobs, the families of Boyle Heights can enjoy the pleasures of a cool breeze on an August night.
“If I wasn’t here, I’d be locked up in the house fighting with my old man,” Zoila Perez, a native of Acapulco, said as she watched her young children bounce inside an inflated castle.
When outsiders think of Southern California summer, they imagine beaches and the choruses of Beach Boys’ songs. I remember sitting under of the shade of an olive tree in the South Whittier neighborhood where I spent my teenage years and the steady voice of Vin Scully calling Dodger games on my transistor radio.
My friends and I played baseball with aluminum bats and tennis balls in our cul de sac. And when dusk darkened and the street lamp came on, we kept playing without worry.
In Boyle Heights, a corner of the Eastside intersected with freeways, Southern California summer isn’t quite as free and easy.
For Ruben Verduzco, a studious 16-year-old, summer has been a daily battle to find some smooth and safe concrete and asphalt to skateboard on.
In recent weeks, he and a dozen skateboarder friends have been chased out of an elementary school by the police and have had their boards and cellphones stolen by gang members and a guy who was “drugged out.”
“They hit my friend with a metal bar,” Ruben said.
After all that, five hours at Ramon Garcia Park with the ramps and rails set up by Summer Nights Lights workers is pure happiness.
“They should have it going all year,” Ruben added. He lives just four blocks away, but when he finishes skateboarding at 10 p.m., his parents pick him up because it’s not safe for him to walk home.
At the park, however, it was safe enough for even kindergartners to run about free.
Carolyn Castano, an artist working for the city, was leading half a dozen pint-sized boys and girls around the fields and basketball courts with digital cameras.
“You see the same kids and families coming back every night,” Castano told me. “It’s really fulfilling to see that.”
Castano’s team of child artists took pictures of the people standing in a long line formed for some free sandwiches and of the skaters who flipped and sometimes fell on their backs, laughing.
Inside the park’s gym, a spirited game of women’s basketball was underway. The next night, a local rock band was scheduled to appear.
“We’ve got a little bit of everything,” said Miguel Leon, the city program manager at the park. “There’s skaters, taggers, rockers, homies, jocks, [basket]ballers and, of course, the families.”
Over by the softball diamond, gang-intervention workers were talking to some of the homies. They wanted summer jobs as security guards, but with the felonies on their records, they were told, that would be difficult.
Before the summer program started in July, Leon said, outreach workers had negotiated a truce between the gangs that claim the surrounding neighborhoods. And the “youth squad” of summer employees at the park included young men and women with family members of at least three rival gangs.
Johnny Garcia, a gang intervention worker, said the summer had unfolded at the park without any serious incidents. The homies, some with their children, blended in with everyone else at the park. “If you bring your relatives or your family, it’s a whole different thing,” he said. It’s as if you stopped being a gang member for an hour or two.
That’s the magic trick that can defeat gang violence and other urban ills: You overwhelm the darkness with the light of normal life, the bright glow of families and running children.