Panic in Echo Park: Councilman’s Plan to Tear Down Fence Has Some Residents Seeing Red

At a raucous town hall meeting last week, Hugo Soto-Martinez stuck by his campaign promise to remove the controversial barriers at Echo Park Lake

Before he was elected to L.A.’s City Council in November, Hugo Soto-Martinez was a familiar presence at civic meetings, where he was a vocal critic of his predecessor Mitch O’Farrell. But last Thursday, it was Soto-Martinez who was feeling the heat. The freshman councilman, who represents District 13’s fifty-two neighborhoods, one of which is Echo Park, met with his constituents from the district to share new details of his plan to remove the fence around Echo Park Lake, which has been in place since the 2021 dispersal of a major homeless encampment there which had become a plague on the local community.

At Thursday’s Echo Park Chamber of Commerce-sponsored, town hall-style meeting, the 39-year-old tried to allay concerns that the fence’s removal will usher in a return of the Echo Park encampment of two years ago—and the subsequent national headline-grabbing standoffs between cops and activists as the park became a flashpoint in an ongoing national debate over the rights of the unhoused.

In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, more than 200 people were living at the lake encampment, which had become one of the fastest-growing tent cities in L.A.  Some Echo Park locals complained that the encampment hindered recreational activity and posed a safety threat to the neighborhood. Four of the encampment’s residents died there in a year; in November 2020, one of its leaders was hospitalized with a gunshot wound. But a sizable group of activists and locals pushed back against attempts to clear the encampment, which they saw as a supportive community for LA’s roughly 41,000 unhoused residents.

After a year-long impasse, on March 25, 2021, former District 13 Councilman Mitch O’Farrell ordered the park’s two-month closure. The police had dispatched hundreds of officers to clear the park; scores of protesters were arrested and several journalists covering the proceedings detained. The fence, installed for the costly cleanup that followed the removal of the 200 people living in encampments, has remained there ever since.

The issue became a key factor in the subsequent election and helped power Soto-Martinez’s 2022 campaign past his predecessor.

Thursday’s meeting proved that both sides remained polarized. Some attendees stood up to say that they viewed the fence as a shameful reminder of the city’s callous indifference to its least fortunate citizens. But they were generally overshadowed by others who said that keeping the park closed at night helped ward off crime in the neighborhood and kept the 13-acre urban lake surrounded by 16 acres of open green space clean and safe

Presiding over his first public event, Soto-Martinez, formerly a 16-year veteran labor organizer for the hotel workers union, seemed occasionally in pain as protesters rose to assail his plan. But he reminded the divided crowd that taking down the fence was a central plank of his campaign last year, in an election that he won handily.

“We said exactly what we were going to do,” he told the scores of supporters and opponents seated in the crowd. “We said we would take down the fence. And in this neighborhood, if you look at the breakdown of the election results, we won every precinct in Echo Park.” He went on to claim that a full 80 percent of respondents to the survey of Echo Park conducted by the armies of volunteer door-knockers for his office were in favor of knocking the fence down.

But on Thursday, opponents of the fence removal turned up in greater numbers than supporters. Applause for speakers who called for the chain-link blockade to be replaced with wrought iron was louder than any for the councilman, who framed the fence as an emblem of contempt for those who’ve found themselves homeless.

“The connection in the minds of some between the installation of the fence and the cleanliness and safety of the park is a myth,” he said. “We can achieve all that people want to achieve in terms of safety and cleanliness without a fence surrounding the park.”

Held at a community center just up the street from the park, and in sight of a sprawling RV encampment, the meeting was conducted mostly in Spanish. It was billed as the first of several town hall events; a follow-up meeting held Saturday at Echo Park United Methodist Church was conducted mostly in English.

“He is resolute,” said Echo Park resident Delia Ibarra, who wrote about the meeting for neighbors on Facebook. “His position is firm. It is not a question of if the fence will come down, but when.”

Many in the predominantly Hispanic crowd at Thursday night’s kickoff meeting live within walking distance of Echo Lake Park. And despite the divergence of opinion, the councilman’s sustained popularity was palpable; several speakers prefaced remarks critical of his plan by saying they had voted for him and even donated to his campaign.

“I can’t be against you, because I voted for you,” said a Spanish-speaking constituent. “But I am against lawlessness. I live across the street from Echo Park. And what we lived through two years ago with the encampments—prostitution, charging rent for park space, beatings to those who couldn’t afford to pay. It got to be like la Mara Salvatrucha around here.”

Unruffled, Soto-Martinez reassured him that the park would not again become an outlaw area: “I’m not ignoring your concerns about drug dealing and prostitution, and the way things were before,” he replied. “I’m confident in our plan for dealing with trash and vandalism cleanup and that when the fence comes down, things will be OK. I know you may not believe me, but I have faith.”

But crime wasn’t the only issue raised by proponents of the fence. Advocating on behalf of the birding community, Travis Longcore, PhD., president of the Los Angeles Audubon Society, called the fence “a vital piece of infrastructure” for birders because it protects the ecologically pristine habitat enjoyed by more than 150 bird species that make Echo Park Lake their home. At Echo Park, the environmental damage the park sustained was quantified by L.A. Sanitation in hundreds of pounds of human waste and needles removed from the park after the former homeless encampment was cleared in March 2021. 

Nancy Ochoa, a native of Echo Park, had come to the meeting with her young daughter and elderly grandfather and her middle-aged aunt, this last a street vendor stationed at the park. Nancy watched from the front row behind dark sunglasses and a sign reading “Fences Equal Safety.” “We don’t have a backyard,” she said, “and we don’t think it’s fair for our community to have to give up the little bit of green space we do have,” she said.

At the meeting,  Soto-Martinez revealed details of his plan for the park for the first time. He’s vowing to install an overnight private security patrol, although he did not enter into specifics. He’s hiring the pro-environment nonprofit L.A. Conservation Corps to conduct daily cleanups. And three members of his staff will be assigned to oversee a web of nongovernmental organizations, government agencies and volunteer advocates for the unhoused to offer tent-dwellers alternatives to living in the park.

Meanwhile, the L.A. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which had served as an auxiliary to the tent city and vigorously opposed its dispersal two years ago, hyped the imminent removal of the fence on Twitter. Sources close to the matter say that the councilman had initially hoped to maximize press coverage by removing the fence on the second anniversary of the Echo Park dispersal; this week, he and volunteers from DSA-LA have been partnering with city agencies on the clearance of encampments from the area around the park.

But Soto-Martinez, himself a DSA member, said that the timeline for the removal of the fence is still unclear and he will be approaching it delicately.

“We will not take down the fence until we feel confident that we can be successful,” he said.

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