(Nov. 18, 2005) -- It's been a little over a year since a group of LB activists and businesspeople, frustrated with conditions in and around what they called (and others didn't) "14th St. Park," decided to focus overdue attention on the establishment-ignored area.
When they began, "14th St. Park" was basically a street median between Chestnut Ave. and LB Blvd. with some fenced off childrens' playground equipment. LB's Dept. of Parks and Rec. website listed it as a "playground" and officials tally it as "park land"...but in the real world it was unfit for children.
Adults in various mental states used the "playground" to do drugs, urinate, defecate, engage in sexual activity and hurl epithets at children walking to nearby Washington Middle School. The City of LB, which holds property owners responsible for nuisances on private property, was allowing nuisances and law-flouting activities on city property. In effect, LB City Hall had become a slumlord.
Gangs moved in and posted their trademark "city limits" signs -- graffiti -- announcing they, and not city officials, were in control. The park had become a dangerous place, with neighbors feeling abandoned by their city.
Veteran LB activists Jane Kelleher, Annie Greenfeld-Wisner, Dan Berns, Paul De Jung and others were not neighborhood residents but they came to the neighborhood's assistance. Their chosen name -- Better Balance for Long Beach (BBLB) -- targeted City Hall priorities they considered unbalanced...meaning unjust and unfair.
BBLB's plan: hold free monthly picnics for the 14th St. park-area neighborhood to show citywide solidarity with the residents. The strategy was to persuade (our translation: embarrass) city officials to acknowledge the situation and do something about it...and simultaneously empower neighborhood residents to continue the process.
The Better Balance activists nagged us (and others) to attend their picnic. We stopped by and saw some residents watching from a distance, reluctant to attend. Those who did gave us an earful. They described (in English and Spanish so unambiguous even we could understand) the appalling conditions they faced. We reported this as did others. Meanwhile, BBLB continued its picnics, a monthly thumb in the eye to officialdom.
Eventually, a no-nonsense summit of sorts took place. The meeting, facilitated by Councilwoman Bonnie Lowenthal's office, included high ranking city management, multiple City Hall agencies, neighborhood reps and BBLB. City staff pledged a coordinated, multi-agency approach to the situation...with police, prosecutors, code enforcement, nuisance abatement and other agencies operating on the same wavelength. Councilwoman Lowenthal also publicly agendized a number of Council items focusing on improved safety and enhanced facilities for 14th St. Park.
The results have been liberating. BBLB co-founder Annie Greenfeld-Wisner says last month (Oct. 2005), BBLB's picnic saw over 1,500 hotdogs cooked...and was the first event co-sponsored by the LB Rescue Mission, Neighborhood Services and Washington School Neighborhood Association. Ms. Greenfeld-Wisner says over 250 attended [comment: an impressive ratio of hot dogs to picnickers]. Her photos of the event speak for themselves:
"For the first time in 22 years, families are picnicking in the park!" says Linda Palacios, BBLB member and President of Washington Neighborhood Association (WNA), which includes the park and the surrounding neighborhood. "We've seen more progress in the park in the last year than in the previous 21".
BBLB acknowledges specific improvements include "new sidewalks, higher output lighting on the light poles that illuminate the park at night, new perimeter fencing to protect the soccer playing children from running in the streets to catch wandering balls, increased responsiveness by the West Division of the Police Department to the community's request for police services and aggressive code enforcement."
BBLB says most heartening is the neighborhood's buy-in to "taking back their park." BBLB co-founder Geenfeld-Wisner offers, "we've accomplished so much through pressure and we are finally starting to reap the benefits; we are a long way from being finished, but the neighborhood has responded fabulously."
On November 19 from noon to 2 p.m., Better Balance for Long Beach will hold its First Anniversary celebration with another picnic in 14th St. Park. "It's fitting that we're celebrating our 1st Anniversary in the month of Thanksgiving" says Jane Kelleher, another BBLB co-founder.
Thank you, Better Balance for Long Beach.