One of Maria Flores’ specialties is keeping an eye out. She’s lived in south LA for more than 30 years; her daughter Celina remembers her warily watching gangbangers in the street, even offering them first aid. On an overwarm weeknight, on the porch of her white, blue-trimmed house, she says she’s seeing something she likes in the street now: a new pocket park where a dilapidated house once stood.
“Cuantos años?” her daughter asks. Ten, says Maria, in Spanish: ten years when an abandoned house was an attractive nuisance for kids from the elementary school next door and, worse, drug addicts who abandoned a free clinic on Avalon at the end of the block.
The lot across from Flores, on 49th near Avalon Boulevard, holds a playground with a tiny patch of grass, ringed with a colorfully-painted metal fence.
It’s the first of 50 parks, most around an acre or less, in a citywide initiative.
Los Angeles has long struggled to improve its ratio of park acreage to people, with mixed success. Parks are about 14 percent of the city’s footprint; much of that green space is piled up on mountains and pocketed behind wealthier neighborhoods.
The project’s one of LA Mayor Antonio Villariagosa’s last major salvos in a war to green the urban core.
“I talked about LA being people rich and park poor. I talked about the need for us to build parks and open space, to plant trees, to revitalize the LA River, and create an emerald necklace of park space along the river,” Villaraigosa says. “These parks will be an important addition to a city [where] we still don’t have enough parks for a city this size.”
Over seven years in office, they mayor has backed up that talk, adding 660 acres of parkland around the city.
“It’s more than double what they did in the 12 years before us, and we did it in a shorter period of time,” he brags. “But now we’re going to be doing more.”
The newly-announced initiative will add another 172 acres to city holdings, much of it in the form of permanent acquisitions. The project places a particular focus on LA’s densest, oldest areas: south LA and the San Fernando valley.
Barry Sanders, the president of the board of recreation and parks, says LA has done all this by making lemonade out of the financial meltdown’s lemons.
“As the foreclosure crisis was really hitting, I hit upon the thought that we should take advantage of that bad news,” he says, “and use this as an opportunity to grab land at what I hope will be the lowest cost for the remainder of our lives.”
The LA Parks foundation, the Trust for Public Land, and other nonprofits helped obtain property. LA’s Housing department contributed some federal funds to obtain foreclosed homes and businesses. Sanders says the city sewed together a patchwork of money, state and local ballot initiatives, federal community block grants, donations and other sources add up to 81 million dollars.
“We have to be creative,” he laughs, “because our funding at the department over these last 5 years has dropped by 40% in our annual operating budget.”
One potential wrinkle for the initiative is that the Department of Recreation and Parks has assembled money for building parks, not maintaining them. The Trust For Public Land has calculated LA spends a little more than a third what New York does per person on its property; that’s one factor that lowers the ParkScore the group grants LA, ranking it 25th out of 40 major American cities.
But Jon Kirk Mukri, the parks department’s general manager, says these 50 parks are designed to cope with the new normal, with low maintenance in mind.
“We’re putting in plants that take less maintenance. We’re putting in solar lighting,” he says. “We’re putting in fencing, where we can automatically open the gates, where a gardener can drive up and maintain it in an hour or two.”
Mukri says community groups and volunteers have offered to pitch in to watch over the parks so he’s not worried about upkeep. He says it’s more important to maintenance and safety that these small parks are where people want them.
“Every freeway cuts communities in half,” he says. “LA was designed to move people around. I don’t care if across an 8-lane freeway I have a park right there on the other side. People aren’t going to it.”
A boulevard can be enough, too. Maria Flores and her daughter remember another house they lived in, on the other side of Avalon, with a view on South Park. They entertained on their porch, not among the park’s palms.
“We never really went to play there,” says Celina. The park was well-known Crips territory. “We would have to run inside because of what’s happening inside the park,” Maria remembers.
The last six years or so have been better on her street, and in South Park, Maria says. But she’s happy that the new pocket park will save her battling across busy Avalon Boulevard now that she’s got grandchildren in tow.
“That’s my hope, that this will be a big advantage for my children as well as for the older people, because there’s a lot of them in this street,” Maria says.
When LA’s city leaders are on hand to open 49th street’s park tomorrow, Maria Flores says with a smile on her face that she’s proud she’ll speak too. “She’s hoping to ask the neighbors for us as a community to take care of the park and work together to keep it safe for the kids,” Celina translates.
The city’s still working to acquire a dozen or so pieces of land to complete the initiative, with the help of the Trust for Public Land, the Mountains Conservation and Recreation Authority, and even the defunct Community Redevelopment Agency, among others. The new program signals the city’s recognition that it’ll take a chorus of voices, public and private, to add and sustain parks in the Los Angeles.