Park[ing] Day Installation in South L.A. Highlights Residents’ Desperate Need for Peaceful Green Space. And Plants.
11:53 AM PDT on September 24, 2013
The young man looked nervous.
Hands jammed in his pockets, unwilling to meet my gaze, he walked towards me, backed away, moved toward the potted plants sitting on the sidewalk, came back towards me, and finally mumbled something unintelligible.
"I'm sorry?" I asked. His behavior was so unusual I thought he might be having some sort of emergency or need help with something.
Still not looking me in the eye, he asked, "Are you selling plants?"
I explained that the plant had been part of a display created by the Neighborhood Land Trust in celebration of Park[ing] Day L.A. They had taken over a parking space at Manchester and Vermont -- directly in front of one of the area's trash-filled and block-long vacant lots -- to raise awareness about the need for parks in South L.A. and to connect with residents on their aspirations for their community.
I pointed at Project Manager Mike Kim who was talking with John, an older resident from up the street that he had just handed a raspberry plant to. John had professed a love for growing vegetables on the sly in the building that he managed and talked about how tough it was to find fresh fruit and vegetables in the area.
"You could ask him if he had any more plants he could give out..?" I said.
"Naw, naw, it's OK," said the young man, backing away, disappointed.
He wasn't looking for a handout.
It had been happening all day, Monica Curiel, Lead Organizer for the Little Green Fingers program told me. She and other staff had been surprised by the number of people that had stopped by their installation in the hopes they were selling plants. They had eagerly taken the seeds staff were handing out and were excited to hear they could now plant along parkways. But what they really wanted was plants.
Gesturing at the vacant lot behind her she said, "Apparently, this should be a nursery."
Or a quiet space for relaxation, according to kids in the area.
The Land Trust had set up a table where passersby could use toys and other objects to construct their ideal park space and the consensus that many had come to was that they needed spaces where they could kick back, stress-free.
Eight year-old Morgan wanted his relaxation space to have a big TV, a couch, and a vending machine.
"You mean you want your living room in the park?" I joked.
"Kind of," he smiled.
It turned out that what he was looking for was more along the lines of a rec center where kids could watch movies and hang out. And also play in the splash pad and pool he constructed.
"Where do you go now to play when it gets hot?" I asked.
"The water park," he said.
"What water park?" I asked. There were no water parks in the area that I was aware of.
"Oh, yeah, Superior," chimed in 10 year-old Angel.
Apparently there is a fountain at one of the Superior markets that serves as a de facto "water park" for South L.A. kids.
Whatever their aspirations, people were desperate to see the lots along Vermont transformed.
The one at 85th -- seemingly mocking the County Supervisor’s Constituent Office it sits across the street from -- once hosted a swap meet building. It burned to the ground during the unrest in 1992 and has sat vacant and decrepit ever since, thanks to developer Eli Sasson, who has sat on the land for all these years. Although the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) finally began eminent domain proceedings against Sasson in 2008 to get back control of the land, the proceedings were abandoned with the dissolution of the CRA.
For long-time residents, the lot and others up the street serve as constant reminders of the city's disinterest in investing in them and in their neighborhood.
For kids, vacant lots are just confusing. They have no park space and yet all this land sits right there, fenced off, filthy, and just out of reach.
"They should build a preschool," said Morgan.
"Or a soccer field," said Angel.
Why doesn't somebody do something with it, they wanted to know.
I considered trying to massage the confluence of multi-millionaire developers that live in Florida, concerns about land values, economics, and city politics into digestible terms for kids and realized it would only sound like nonsensical adult gobbledygook.
Turning to something more positive, I told the boys that the Land Trust was working with the community on building a park at 81st and Vermont, around the corner from where Morgan lives.
It's a project they've been working on for a few years now. It takes that long both to get access to the land and to organize and build relationships with community members, help them flesh out their aspirations for the lot, and come up with viable designs that satisfy residents' needs and fit within budgets. Their efforts should finally come to fruition some time next year. They just brought on a landscape architect, Mike Kim told me, and, if things go well, they should get through the permitting process by spring and break ground shortly thereafter.
"What's the name of the park going to be?" Morgan asked.
"I don't know," I said.
Pointing to the brochure Kim had handed him, I encouraged him to talk to his mom and get involved in the project.
"Maybe you can be the one to name it."
* * * *
To learn more about the Land Trust, please click here. To see them in action, check out the grand opening of the West Athens Victory Garden at 105th and Normandie this Saturday (the 28th), between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
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