When Sheba Gillis started her first job at 16 years old in Long Beach’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park, she remembers a community parcel alive with programs and activities. Almost 30 years later, she and many more who live nearby say the historic park has been left to deteriorate after decades of neglect.

But now, thanks to a $120,000 grant, lifelong 6th District residents like Gillis are participating in plans that would go beyond restoring MLK Park to what it once was. Last week, at two vision planning workshops, they discussed what the park would need to really serve the neighborhood. 

“It’s pretty outdated,” Gillis told the Long Beach Post.

In July, Long Beach tapped City Fabrick, the city’s go-to nonprofit park consultant, and the Long Beach Alliance for Food and Fitness to initiate a new vision planning process for the park. Last year, the collaboration secured the $120,000 grant from the Resource Legacy Fund to create a vision plan. 

“When we first started, the entire community was very wary, which I think really speaks more to the history of this park and how they have been left behind by the city time and time again,” said Mina Emamifar Roades, director of landscape design for City Fabrick. 

For the current visioning plan, though, community input will be key.

That was clear last week, when dozens of 6th District residents filed into the MLK Jr. Community Center for two separate planning workshops, one on Wednesday and one on Saturday.

From a new computer lab to an outdoor basketball court to more accessible and well-lit walkways, locals were asked to dream up beautification and amenity ideas for the park by playing a board game, in which the boards were customized maps of the park.

The bottom plaque of sponsors' names was stolen from the base of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue at a park in Long Beach. Photo by Thomas R Cordova.
The bottom plaque of sponsors’ names was stolen from the base of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue in 2019 within King Park. Photo taken on March 26, 2019 by Thomas R Cordova.

Residents who didn’t get a chance to attend either of those meetings, though, will get more opportunities to participate. Next, the board game workshop will be brought to Poly High School, the Long Beach Senior Center and the Boys & Girls Club at the park, according to Emamifar Roades, though the dates for those workshops have not yet been announced.

In May, all of the vision boards that have come out of the events will be combined into two schematic designs that residents will eventually vote on. Then, another design will be presented at the park’s annual Juneteenth celebration to give residents another opportunity to give input before it is finalized to submit for funding opportunities.

During the games last week, residents shared personal memories of what the park used to offer. In the 1970s, there were robust educational programs for local children and an active 6th District Council office within the park. But overall, residents spoke about a history of disinvestment and crime. 

While some work has been done in recent years, including the debut of a new playground in 2019, residents said there’s much more work ahead.

“I’d like to see the rest of the park match the upgrades that they’ve made,” Gillis said at the Wednesday workshop.

Gillis is also the co-founder of the community organization The Six, which she said was born last year in response to outrage over the city’s neglect of the park and tensions over its poorly maintained swimming pool—concerns that were brought into high relief during the pandemic, when many residents sought more outdoor space.

Even though she lives close by, Gillis said she hadn’t spent time in the park in years since she started commuting to her job in Los Angeles. That all changed when she started bringing her daughter there during the pandemic.

In addition to a general sense of neglect, the park has also started getting more attention in recent years after a string of vandalism and other crime-related incidents. In 2019, the commemorative plaque at the base of the park’s namesake statue was stolen. It took two years to replace. Then, in 2021, the park’s iconic statue was vandalized with symbols resembling a swastika and SS bolts that were worn by Nazi troops during World War II. 

The uptick in crime, in fact, has led the Boys & Girls Club to lock the door to its facility at the park and only allow access for members—a perk that longtime residents remember used to be available to all.

According to Terence Berry, an area director for the Boys & Girls Club at the park, the door is now locked simply because it isn’t safe to leave it open, he said.

“There’s been a historical gang violence and drug activity in the park,” he said. “As a kid growing up, there were shootings. Last year, there was somebody who was killed in front of the King statue.

“For us it’s always about safety. When it comes to kids and parents trust you with their children, they expect it to be a safe haven.”

Taken together, the issues at the park have made the need for revitalization clear to those who live nearby. But as residents have pushed for more city investment, Gillis said, they realized that community members would need to lead the effort.

“We didn’t feel like there was enough engagement from the council person,” Gillis said. “And so we literally banded the community together, and we’ve been doing activities … in the community just to engage people and make sure that they’re here and make sure that they have a voice.”

Gillis and Senay Kenfe, who also leads The Six, have both been assisting City Fabrick with as many community workshops related to the park as they can.

While community members like Gillis have expressed frustration with a lack of involvement from the city, officials including 6th District Councilmember Suely Saro say they are equally committed to a brighter future for MLK Park.

Last April, in fact, the City Council approved a request from Saro to create a vision plan for the park. Saro, who was elected in 2020, told the Post that her goal is to place community members at the forefront of the planning process.

“My goal and my hope is, once we get this plan done, is to really get the money and the funding needed to implement it,” she said. “That’s what I’ve done with MacArthur Park and I hope to do the same with MLK as well.”