Is an Echo Park Lake-Style Situation Unfolding at MacArthur Park?

Since March, when police cleared a large homeless encampment to revitalize Echo Park Lake, the specter of similar projects has taken on an unusual emotional and political charge

On September 28, Los Angeles Twitter lit up with the urgent tweets of a citizen journalist covering a meeting of the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council. “LAPD is saying they’re going to close the south end of the park for about 8 weeks to ‘reclaim the park,’ ‘much like with Echo Park,'” wrote user Tom Bellino, a regional planner at the Southern California Association of Governments.

He added,  “I will not stand by while another ‘Echo Park’ happens here,” he wrote.

Within three days, the original tweet had garnered hundreds of retweets and likes. On Reddit, the post spawned a discussion with hundreds of spirited comments. It was also picked up by influential activist accounts like Ground Game L.A., which addressed LAPD with the reply, “My ass u are.” Kate Cagle of Spectrum News 1, a local TV reporter arrested on March 25 amid chaotic demonstrations near Echo Park Lake, commented, “Wait wut.”

As outrage over the park cleanup built up online, a rep from the office of Westlake-area councilman Gil Cedillo was unavailable; likewise, no one from the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks returned calls.

Call it the Echo Park effect.

Since March, when a park revitalization project was the premise for Los Angeles police to clear a large homeless encampment at Echo Park Lake, city beautification has taken on an unusual emotional and political charge.

“[Echo Park Lake] was a proof of concept, now they are going to roll out that kind of violent repression to every public space in LA,” wrote one commenter in reply to the post about MacArthur Park. “Um WHAT? Is it time to rally the squad in opposition?!” another comment reads. Another user wrote: “I covered the closure of Echo Park Lake earlier this year and even then, there were rumors of MacArthur Park facing a similar fate.”

Not so fast, says Al Labrada, deputy chief of the LAPD Central Bureau, in which the Westlake neighborhood of MacArthur park is located. Via telephone, Labrada says, “The city intends to put up temporary fencing as they do refurbishment, which will be long term, at least eight weeks, as it involves draining dredging and setting up new pumps in lake.”

He continues, “This is an effort being led by the department of Recreation and Parks of the City of L.A. It’s a long-term program to rehabilitate the park including to clean out of the lake. It’s been in the works for some time. We supported a ten-month outreach effort with housing services and finding homes for unhoused individuals there.”

“This is an opportunity for Rec and Parks to find housing for the unhoused as well as an opportunity for the park to be refurbished.”

According to the LAPD, there has been a significant spike in violent incidents around the park—assaults and a lot of stabbings—since January. “We’ve had a few recent homicides including a young lady found overdosed face down in the lake, and a couple shootings in the tents,” says Labrada. “We’ve heard reports of threats by gang members against unhoused.”

Last Thursday at 8:30 in the morning, 68-year-old Elizabeth Rodriguez exited the tent where she has lived for six weeks. She was standing alone in one place, teasing out a tangle in her long gray hair. Light poles around her solitary camp were tagged with graffiti, large patches of denuded earth broke up the green grass, and geese pecked around at the edge of the lake, whose water lapped a dingy shade of brown. Thirty tents dotted the southern edge of the park near Seventh Street. A parks employee was using a spade to scrape a mass of what looked like a soft pile of clay slurry from the sidewalk.

From a green patch of grass at the southern edge of MacArthur Park that rings the fountain, Rodriguez told how county social workers employed by the Los Angeles County Homeless Services Agency had arrived at the tent two days earlier, told Rodriguez about the pending park closure, and offered her a room at the nearby Mayfair Hotel.

“I’m moving tomorrow. They have to clean out the park,” Rodriguez shrugged. “They don’t want people here any more.

“I will be so happy to move out because there’s a bunch of thieves here,” she added, nodding gravely at a nearby complex of tents. “They’re criminals who prey on the poor.” Recently, she had her stimulus money stolen: “I tell them, ‘You’re supposed to rob the rich!’”

Having been apprised of the tension around the MacArthur Park cleanup online, and the claims in the original tweet by Bellino, the vice president of the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council, José Félix Larios, waxed indignant. This is the same thing that happened when the city was cordoning off the northern end of the park for the installation of a new children’s playground. The ceremonial grand opening was on September 21; Gil Cedillo made a frothy speech and toasted the playground.

“Unfortunately,” says Larios in his native Spanish, “there are people in this area, mostly white people, who, for reasons of their own, have gone as far as to oppose the installation of a children’s playground. They’re young, they don’t live here, and they don’t get how it works around here or have a grasp of what the community is asking for.”

Larios says he believes it is inhumane for a person to have to live outside, but that local children depend on the park for their social life. “Kids around here live in crammed apartments. They need a safe place to go and play,” he said.

Two sources with knowledge of the situation and who asked to remain anonymous told Los Angeles that the southern half of the park will be closed starting on October 15, and poles for a perimeter fence will be staked into the ground around the lake park on Monday.

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