El Dorado Park is the city's biggest park and accounts for the largest chunk of park programming. Photo: Jason Ruiz
When it comes to park programming it’s been an open secret that some areas of the city benefit more from classes and activities while pockets of Long Beach see the park space they do have sit vacant and under-activated.
Tuesday night the Long Beach City Council voted unanimously for city staff to take a longer look at why certain parks in the city hold a seeming monopoly on park programming and how the city can work toward evening out that disbursement in the future.
The motion was brought to council by First District Councilwoman Lena Gonzalez, who represents the Downtown area, one of those districts that suffers from both less park space per capita, as well as less programming. Councilman Roberto Uranga, Dee Andrews and Vice Mayor Rex Richardson, all who represent areas with similar park programming disparities signed on to support the motion.
Gonzalez’s presentation highlighted the gap between contract classes—typically run by small businesses, not to be confused with programming run by the parks department—and their concentration in the eastern part of the city at places like El Dorado Park. She noted that in the city’s directory of activities running from March-May of this year, nearly two-thirds of programmed hours were concentrated in just two of the city’s nine districts.
She sought to debunk the idea that because the east side of the city has more park space than the west side—nearly 16 acres more per 1,000 residents—that it demands more programming by comparing Cesar Chavez Park in her district, and College Estates Park in the Third District.
“It [College Estates Park] is 2.3 acres in size including a community center and has fifty hours of weekly contract class programming in Summer 2017 as compared to Cesar Chavez Park on the western side of Long Beach,” Gonzalez. “It is 32.9 acres with a community center and represents zero hours of weekly contract class programming.”
In late June when the 2017 schedule for the Long Beach Municipal Band was released, Gonzalez took to social media to voice her displeasure with the fact that of the 23 performances this year none will be held in the First, Second, Seventh or Ninth council districts. She followed that by launching a #ParkEquity Facebook page where she invited residents to write in or attend the council meeting last night to support her motion.
Nearly two dozen people showed up to speak in support of the motion, noting the inequities that they observe in their district parks, and having to travel across Long Beach to access some entertainment or programming options not available in their community parks.
"If we want to keep our kids off of drugs, and gangs, and all those kinds of things, they need to be busy," said Angelina Ramirez, who has spent the last 23 years living near Drake and McArthur Parks. "The way they need to be busy is having those programs and those parks in their communities. It’s hard for a mom having two or three kids, carrying them to go to other parks. And the money they have to spend."
Hollis Stewart, a First District resident, said that if there were more attractions at parks that are currently underserved, it could remedy the attendance issues, but also the perception issues of parks on the West Side.
"I’m not afraid to go to Drake Park. I’m not afraid to go to Chavez Park. But I do go to El Dorado Park and I see a lot of people there but I don’t see them come to my neighborhood," Steward said. "For some reason it’s assumed that people in my neighborhood can go to all the other places but people over there don’t want to come here. Why not? Maybe we need to get more equity in our parks so people feel free to come down here to take advantage of things at Chavez Park. It’s a beautiful place."
While the motion may have been spurred by the municipal band schedule, the band went mostly unmentioned with the focus being on park programming in general.
Contract classes are administered through the parks department with the instructors paying a fee to the city for the right to host them on city property but the department has no control over where they end up. Long Beach Parks, Recreation and Marine Director Marie Knight said that while the city does try and incentivize contract class instructors to seek out other parks that are underused, they are small business operators that will ultimately act in their best interest.
“At the end of the day for these instructors it’s a business decision and they’re looking to put their classes or run their business where they believe there is a demand for those businesses,” Knight said.
Knight added that the city itself puts on after school programming, free lunch programs and other activities at parks across the city. She also pointed to the recent undertakings to expand park access in the western part of the city, pointing to projects like Gumbiner Park and the Deforest Wetlands as progress.
The council was careful not to cast the discussion as a divisive issue, with multiple members stating that a victory for one part of the city is a victory for Long Beach. Vice Mayor Rex Richardson agreed, stating that the discussion should be about “one city” and in order for the city to have equity the council needed to get behind the principle that all neighborhoods have value and so does the quality of life, no matter what neighborhood a person might live in.
Richardson admitted that until recently he paid little attention to park programming, but now that his daughter is 2 years old, he’s seeking out activities at parks for her to take part in. Recently enrolled in the “Kids Love Soccer” program at El Dorado, Richardson said he drives to the east side so she can take part in the program, but for some, those opportunities are out of reach.
“We get in the car and we take that trip,” Richardson said. “Not everyone has the means to take that trip and I think we do need to do a better job of looking at how we leverage these contract classes because I gotta tell you kids are interested in soccer all over our town, not just at one park.”
Gonzalez’s motion asks the city manager to work with the parks department to provide an overview of citywide parks programming including the number of hours and funding expended in each location. It calls for an explanation for the prioritization for those areas, tracking of participants’ zip codes when they take part in programming, and several policy amendments that could encourage growth at other city parks.
Some of those include possibly waiving park permit fees for organizations and non-profits that are activating the parks that the city has not, creating multi-year permits for community events so organizations won’t have to apply on an annual basis, and possibly a mechanism where areas of the city that miss out on park programming could receive funding in lieu of city-wide park entertainment. The findings are expected to be back before council within 120 days.
The budget, as many pointed out, is a simple math problem and a handful of council members expressed not wanting to add to one region by subtracting from another. Ben Goldberg, chair of the Parks, Recreation and Marine commission, recalled former Mayor Bob Foster and the city manager’s office “act of mercy” to keep park programming available in underserved communities when budget cuts were being proposed just five years ago.
Goldberg said that while the city may be in a different economic situation currently, it shouldn’t forget that the parks department’s budget is already stretched thin.
“We were looking for water when we were having a drought and we were under budget on that and we couldn’t even water the parks that we had. So every time we talk about opening a new park I cringe,” Goldberg said. “The hairs come up on the back of my neck because I know that we don’t have the money for the water for that park, no matter how we open it, no matter how we landscape it.”