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Villaraigosa Announces Ambitious Initiative for 50 New Parks

Yesterday's ribbon-cutting for the grand opening of 49th Street Park. Front row left to right: Councilmember Jan Perry, Housing GM Mercedes Marquez, Maria Flores, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Parks Commission President Barry Sanders, and Parks GM Jon Mukri. Photos by Joe Linton

Yesterday, Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa formally announced that the city's "50 Parks Initiative" is underway. The city's Recreation and Parks Department is acquiring land for fifty new parks, predominantly in park-poor population-dense neighborhoods.

The announcement took place at grand openings for two new parks in South Los Angeles: 49th Street Park and McKinley Avenue Park. Both small parks are located near the intersection of 49th and Avalon, just over a mile southeast of Exposition Park and USC. Both parks are on sites formerly occupied by blighted dilapidated housing.

Neighborhood kids didn't wait for a mayoral announcement before playing and smiling and running around in McKinley Avenue Park. Dozens of young Latinas and Latinos swung from bars, climbed on and played with new exercise equipment.

The mayor briefly toured McKinley Avenue Park, showing off the new exercise stations, before walking a half-block to 49th Street Park, where ceremonies and announcements took place.

Villaraigosa appeared genuinely enthusiastic upon entering the newly-opened 49th Street Park. He remarked excited about how bright the colors are and bounced a bit on the spongy rubber playground surface.

After a brief ribbon-cutting, city and community representatives expounded on the two small new parks and the broader 50 Parks Initiative that they represent. Recreation and Parks commission president Barry Sanders outlined the new initiative. Despite city budget shortfalls, the down economy presented an important window for acquiring land. Under the city charter, park land  acquired is permanently dedicated to park uses.  Sanders touted these new acquisitions as an important opportunity to ending the injustice of unequal park distribution, with fewer facilities in L.A.'s densest communities of color.

Local youth demonstrate McKinley Avenue Park exercise equipment for Mayor Villaraigosa.

The city plans to have all fifty new park sites acquired by next summer when Villagraigosa's completes his term. The projects are in various states - a few completed, some acquired, some funded, and some where funding is anticipated. The projects' varied states shadows Villaraigosa's not wholly reassuring statement that "virtually all the money is pretty much secured." In the current fiscal climate, with very little local, state and federal funding available; 50 new parks is ambitious.

The press event included statements by Los Angeles City Councilmember Jan Perry and Mercedes Marquez, General Manager of the city's Housing Department.

Some of the most heartfelt remarks came from Recreation and Parks General Manager Jon Mukri, who has a reputation as more of an administrator than a visionary. Mukri recalled that, during his military service, small parks played important roles for his four children. Mukri told about how when his family revisited some of these military base sites, and his kids were surprised at how small the parks actually were. While adults may see a small lot park as tiny, from a child's perspective they can feel huge.

McKinley Avenue Park bars received this girl's enthusiastic approval.

Mukri also spoke about a number of smart sustainability and security features, from lighting to landscaping, that will make these parks relatively easy to maintain. Visibly, these new sites don't look like the somewhat cookie-cutter city park facilities. They have less turf, and more mulch. Less concrete, more permeable pavers.

Closing the speakers, a local resident, Maria Flores spoke on the importance of these parks for her neighborhood. She described the park as something to be treated as "nuestra propia casa" - our very own home.

The 50 Parks Initiative, and, more broadly, the  struggle for park facility equity across the city, faces a somewhat uphill battle. This includes getting these projects open on the ground - and maintaining them over time. The mayor has been criticized for announcing ambitious goals which sometimes scale-back after the cameras depart. Time will tell if the city is completing all of the 50 Parks underway. Even small successes will mean improved quality of life in communities starved for parks, and full build-out can be a park-building legacy that this generation can be proud of.

The two new South L.A. parks were looking great on their opening days. The neighborhood families were certainly enjoying them.

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