Typically, they get to the park at 8:30 in the morning, wearing sneakers and pastel colored tracksuits. For almost two hours, a trio of retired ladies cleaned up an area that is landscaped with flowers. They pulled weeds and rake leaves — anything to keep this part of the park as tidy as when it first opened in 2007.
“Having this park here now keeps us from having to walk too far or get on the street," said Anacelia Ruiz of Glassell Park, who is at Rio de Los Angeles Park seemingly every day of the week. "We’re here walking around the park three days a week and weeding or cleaning the park twice a week. This park has been a little blessing for us.”
Ruiz and her friends, Conchita Villalobos and Maria Aguilar, are part of a group of about 12 women who have come to be known as “Las Abuelas del Parque” — the Grandmothers of the Park.
“Well, we are grandmothers, and even great-grandmothers, but we’re not known as the Abuelas del Parque," explained Ruiz and Villalobos."But you know? It’s not bad, it’s not a bad name at all!”
They may not have known it, but the simple fact that they are neighborhood elders, who come here on a regular basis, makes them a special asset for this 40-acre park.
“We feel that the more that people have a stake, the more that is going on here, even our presence in doing this maintenance has kept the graffiti down and kept the vandalism down,” said Suzanne Siegel, a volunteer coordinator for the park.
About 50 years ago, this was known as the Taylor Yards, a place where multiple train tracks converged to get cargo from the port further inland. When operations moved to Riverside County in the 1980s, the land was to be developed into industrial warehouses. Gangs took over the area.
Soon after, local neighborhood groups demanded that the rail yards be considered for a cleanup, and ultimately, a city park. The grandmas, their kids and their grand-kids were vocal about the need for this park from the very beginning.
“I’ve seen some of the most engaged, active groups of people fighting issues in places where they do work two or three jobs," said Melanie Winter, director of The River Project, which helps communities reclaim riverfront property like this one, part of Rio de Los Angeles Park. "They are living in communities that are so under-served that it becomes a serious priority. They know that if their kids can have these kinds of things, it’s worth them working the two and three jobs and going to a meeting at night to make sure that these things happen.”
Sean Woods, superintendent for the L.A. sector of California state parks, said those meetings established a model for how the city — and the state — need to engage working class residents in creating more urban green space. Safety was on top of the residents’ demands, so his office incorporated a special design into the landscape. A 5-foot-high dirt hill, what’s known as a “drive-by berm." that would shield visitors from drive-by shootings along the main road.
“To really establish a sense of security when you go into an open space that you feel that you can kinda let your guard down, that’s critical," said Woods. "When you go into that park you feel secure, I think, and the presence of people in the park engaged in legitimate activity, that’s been great for us, because we’re stretched with funding and resources and staffing. So knock on wood, we haven’t had any major incidents since we opened the park in 2007.”
On a recent weekday morning, the grandmas — and a handful of grandpas — gathered inside a multi-purpose room at the opposite end of the park. Step by step, with small weights in hand, they moved to the beat of Latin pop as they mimicked their aerobics teacher.
“Gangs would roam around here and were responsible for a number of killings over the years," said Guillermo Reyes a sometimes-student in this class who's a retired probation officer and a long-time resident of Cypress Park. "I really think it was sports that saved my brothers and I from joining gangs when we were kids. Now, from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m., I hear the kids playing in the courts and soccer fields from my house.”
Shooting incidents and crime in general are down in the areas surrounding Rio de Los Angeles Park, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. But that’s a trend that holds true for other parts of the city as well. Who knows who or what deserves the credit here? But it certainly hasn’t hurt to have a group of grandmothers working alongside traditional gang intervention strategies.