Easter festivities mark south LA park's dramatic rebirth

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Leslie Benson, 75, who has been living near Western Avenue and 39th Street for 45 years, says the Martin Luther King park has transformed from a “dungeon of hell” to “a little heaven”.

On Saturday, the Martin Luther King Park near 39th Street and Western Avenue in south Los Angeles hosted an Easter event, much like many others in the city. About 100 families from the neighborhood participated in egg hunts, drawing contests and a picnic lunch. What was different though, was the venue.

Until a year ago, the park, located near a liquor store, a recycling center, cheap motels and graffiti-streaked buildings, was a barren stretch. Its public bathrooms, the only structures inside the park, had become a cover for illicit trade in drugs and prostitution. But with help from community groups, residents fought to turn the park into a better place.

Today, Martin Luther King Park echoed with children excitedly looking for hidden Easter eggs to fill their baskets. While some sought the attention of the Easter bunny, posing for pictures with him, others lined up near a table to paint eggs in shades of bright pink, green and yellow. The older children hit the courts, dunking balls or showing off their skills with skateboards. By noon, people began queuing up for a complimentary Easter lunch.

The drug dealers and prostitutes who used to wander the park have now largely been replaced by families with baby strollers and seniors walking their dogs. There are swings, a play area and basketball and tennis courts. Soon, residents say they expect a skate park and a soccer field.

From a “dungeon of hell” MLK Park has become “a little heaven”, said Leslie Benson, 75, who has been living in the area for 45 years. “Earlier, if you came here, you would be afraid to walk from one side of the park to the other, for fear that people lounging inside would rob you,” he said.

Celia Castellanos, 26, who lives less than a mile away from the park, agrees. Her only memory of the park is her mother telling her, “Do not go there.”

About a year ago, Community Coalition, a non-profit organization that works for economic and social development in south L.A, mobilized residents to address safety issues surrounding the park.

Through awareness marches, cleanliness drives and neighborhood campaigns, they got the city to clean up the park. “Having safe local community parks like this one is an essential part of reducing and preventing crime,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president and CEO of Community Coalition. “It’s a better and more cost effective way of dealing with crime than sending police officers.”

Last year the group fought to make the city impose tough conditions on a nearby liquor store which had been declared a public nuisance. The adjoining Martin Luther Ling Recreation Center, which was closed due to toxic mold, was cleaned up and reopened.

Josseling Espinoza, 15, who lives two blocks away from the park said the changes have made the community look better. “Earlier, people passing by the park would wonder what kind of people live here. They would draw wrong conclusions about our community. But now people think better about us. And that makes me feel proud,” she said.

Sharlene Garbutt, 34, who has been living in the neighborhood for five years said now that the park is in shape, she will bring her son, Adrian, and nephew, Gavin, to the park. “In the summer, I plan to bring them here to ride their bikes, and have a little picnic together,” she said.

Urging residents to keep up their fight for improving their community, Dawson said a lot more needs to be done. “We are going to keep requesting the mayor to include our park in his Summer Night Lights program" -- an anti-gang initiative. "We have to make sure that when the city budget gets cut, the park does not fall into disrepair again. The city has to make a decision between closing golf courses in Century City and Griffith Park or closing parks like these,” he said.

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