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California

‘All we do is clean and clean': There are big plans for MacArthur Park, but residents are skeptical

Veronica Jarquin likes to visit MacArthur Park every few days and let her 3-year-old run free on the playground.

On a recent morning, a man was smoking weed by the slide so they had to skip it and turn back home.

 “It’s OK,” she told her daughter in a warm tone. “We’ll try again tomorrow.”

In the six years Jarquin, 33, has lived a few blocks from the park, she’s learned to tolerate the troubles that have long plagued this place. She holds her breath when the grass reeks of urine. She keeps her distance when police are making an arrest. She never goes near the yelling homeless men or their tents on Wilshire Boulevard.

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Jarquin recently heard about big plans to clean up and renovate the park. Looking out at the stinky lake, she could hardly picture such a transformation. 

“I just don’t know where they’ll start,” she said. “Or how they’ll ever finish.” 

It’s a fair question for Councilman Gil Cedillo, who began representing the Westlake neighborhood in 2013. From day one, he talked about tackling the street trash problem. 

Three years later, he said, he often asks himself: “Why isn’t it looking spiffy?”

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“All we do is clean and clean,” he said. “But it’s like trying to push the waves back from the ocean.”  

The immigrant neighborhood is one of the poorest in Los Angeles. It’s also among the most dense, with more than 100,000 people crammed into 3 square miles. 

In an area full of crowded apartments, MacArthur Park offers something rare: 32 acres in which to gather and play. 

Or throw trash, sell drugs, gamble, bathe, pitch a tent and live.

“It’s the kind of public space you have to stay on top of every day,” said Jose Gardea, who worked in the offices of two previous councilmen and has written a book about the park. “If you let go just a little bit, you lose control very quickly.”

Cedillo is developing an extensive plan for the park’s future, though it’s still in its early stages.

A $2.5-million renovation in 2008 brought in a popular artificial-turf soccer field, stadium lights, picnic tables and a children’s playground. 

Cedillo would like to invest up to $20 million in the next few years. He wants to build a new boathouse and an outdoor classroom, renovate the entrances, add more areas for play and fitness, and update the restrooms. 

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This summer, his staff kicked off the planning process, gathering residents to piece together a park wish list. People requested school programs, piano lessons, fishing derbies, gardens and Zumba.

“We have to think big,” Cedillo said. “Otherwise, it’ll be nothing more than a Band-Aid.” 

We have to think big. Otherwise, it’ll be nothing more than a Band-Aid.
Councilman Gil Cedillo

So far, the city has $1.6 million in federal money set aside for the renovation. The rest, officials said, will need to be sought, project by project, from public and private sources. 

And they say Cedillo’s $20-million plans will only go so far. More money will be needed to tackle top concerns like safety and homelessness. Stationing a park ranger at MacArthur, for example, would need to be covered by the city’s general fund. 

Cedillo’s staff also has talked with local businesses about the possibility of launching a Westlake business improvement district that could pay to deploy private-security bike patrols.

On a recent afternoon, Los Angeles Police Department Senior Lead Officer Iris Santin, who has worked the area for almost 20 years, stood watch just north of the lake as a sanitation truck picked up the remains of a homeless encampment. 

She had returned from a three-week vacation to find the grassy hills loaded with tarps, blankets, filthy clothes and makeshift stove tops. 

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“This is how it usually goes,” she said. “When I’m not around, things can get really bad.”

Santin grew up a few blocks from the park. She knows its ebbs and flows. The gang warfare and drug dealing that used to consume officers’ energies are long gone, she said, but patrol units still feel outnumbered.