For a community with a name that literally translates to "the serene one," the East Los Angeles neighborhood of El Sereno has historically lacked places to find such serenity. Despite the fact that El Sereno has among the county's highest percentage of residents aged 10 or younger, few community facilities exist to provide opportunities for play, exercise, or just relaxation. Fortunately, thanks to a far-sighted mayor along with overwhelming support from several NRPA partners, individual donors, city officials, and community activists, a new park is well underway that is eagerly anticipated to provide a much needed peaceful oasis in the middle of the busy community.
Construction for the park, which has yet to receive an official name, broke ground on July 26, and it's slated to include a number of exciting components. PlayCore, a national playground manufacturer, has donated a 4,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art playground with elements for adults as well as children of all ages and ability levels, and a grant from First 5 L.A., a California state program that provides funds for early childhood development programs, paid for a nature play garden specially designed for younger children. The site will also include walking trails, traditional wooden play elements, picnic tables, and sustainable design concepts to minimize its environmental impact and reduce the need for regular maintenance. For this community that has been advocating for a neighborhood park for half a century, the anticipated green space couldn't be more welcome.
Decades in the Making
About 50 years ago, the California Department of Transportation (known as Caltrans) bought a property in El Sereno with plans to extend the I-710 freeway through the neigborhood from the south. But those plans never materialized, and about 30 years ago, community members began envisioning a vibrant community park on the long-neglected lot. However, the land was still owned by the state and controlled by Caltrans, and despite plenty of community effort, the neighborhood could never secure the proper approvals and funding for a park.
In recent years, though, renewed interest in the project from some influential individuals with the support of the community has brought the idea from a dream to a reality. Through the combined efforts over the past six years of Jose Huizar, Los Angeles City Councilmember for District 14, and community members including Val Marquez, founder of the neighborhood advocacy group Concerned Neighbors of El Sereno, the community was finally able to secure a 25-year lease from Caltrans for the property. In January 2010, Councilmember Huizar contacted The Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national land conservation organization, and Program Manager Tori Kjer has since led TPL's efforts toward gathering funding for the project and soliciting community input for the park's design. When NRPA asked the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks if they would like to cooperate on a Parks Build Community project, El Sereno was their first choice.
"The community has been advocating for a park to be there since way before we got involved," Kjer says. "We agreed to facilitate community outreach efforts to pull together a design (to propose with grant requests for funding). We facilitated a number of meetings over about six months and got a really great turnout. People are really excited about it, and we came up with a design based on that [community input]."
In a true effort to accommodate the requests of those who will be using the park the most, community leaders have turned to neighborhood children for design ideas. "Twelve-year-old kids are telling me, 'We don't want any gangs, we would like to have more shade,'" Marquez says. "These kids are watching this every day, seeing the progress, and they're always asking, 'When is it going to be open, when can we go in and play? …