Sharon McLucas remembers when Long Beach’s Martin Luther King Jr. Park was vibrant and bustling. She vividly recalls the community pride and excitement that came from having a clean, safe place to relax and play, but after more than a decade without any significant investment in the park, things have changed.
Lately, the park has gotten more attention for its problems: a stolen commemorative plaque that took almost two years to replace or a case of hateful graffiti on the park’s namesake statue that’s gone unsolved because of ill-functioning security cameras.
“There was a point and time that MLK Park was the thriving center of the Sixth [City Council] District. Those days have come and gone,” said McLucas, who is part of a group of residents pushing to reverse that decline.
On April 5, McLucas was among a crowd of about 20 community members who lined up at a Long Beach City Council meeting to ask for changes they hope will bring King Park back to what they remember when it first opened in 1964.
“During the summer, us kids were there every day. … It was essential to our lives,” said Sharron Diggs-Jackson, a member of the coalition who is also a board member for the Long Beach Center for Economic Inclusion and Program Officer for Elite Skills Development, a non-profit organization that provides services to create pathways for at-risk and under-resourced youth. She remembers playing hopscotch and ping-pong with the neighborhood kids or reveling in the excitement of a newly installed outdoor pool.
“The community was excited to have new facilities with a clean, safe playground, meeting space, baseball field, and parking right here in the heart of the Sixth District,” McLucas remembers. ” … The park brought jobs to the community, activities for the youth, and opportunities for senior involvement.”
Their pressure to bring back those days may already have had an effect.
At the April 5 meeting where they spoke, the City Council approved a request from 6th District Councilwoman Suely Saro to develop and identify funding for a vision plan that would revitalize the park according to the community’s desires—something Saro characterized as reversing a history of disinvestment and neglect.
“This agenda item has been a long time coming,” she said, explaining that it’s been 15 years since the park saw any significant improvements.
Since the park first opened in the historically Black neighborhoods that long made up the 6th City Council District, it’s undergone major improvements including expanding from 1.17 acres to the 8.9 acres it sits at today. In the late 1970s, the Central Facility Center was added to include Health and Human Services Department programs and an office for the 6th District City Council staff. Though the 6th District staff no longer works from the park, community members can now find the Central Child Development Center and the Black Resource Center in their place.
Eventually, in the 1980s and ’90s, state funding allowed for the Boys and Girls Club to build a recreational facility inside the park along with an outdoor public swimming pool that is still open today. In 2007, state funding from the state Safe Neighborhood Park Bond Acts of 2000 and 2002 allowed the city to add locker rooms, restrooms, staff offices and a classroom for the pool.
Since then, there have been no major investments into park programming or recreational facilities, only a few restoration projects for the MLK statue that sits in the park that has been vandalized twice since 2019, according to Saro’s agenda item.
The first time, in March 2019, someone stole a bronze plaque from the base of the park’s statue of King that included a list of the people who sponsored the monument’s construction. The plaque was replaced almost two years later in February 2021 while the city worked to restore the integrity of the plaque. Last July, the city removed symbols resembling a swastika and SS bolts that were worn by some Nazi troops during World War II that were graffitied onto the statue.
Now, the City Council has 90 days to report back with a vision plan and possible funding sources for the park. Saro says she hopes to build momentum from previous park vision plans like McArthur Park in Central Long Beach which received $14.5M in state funding last year for renovated sports fields and expanded playgrounds.
The first step, she said, is making sure the community voices their concerns. “We need to address these concerns, engage our Office of Equity and I look forward to having them be part of this process and dialogue. This was the way we are able to carry on Dr. King’s legacy beyond the annual parade,” said Saro.
For Diggs-Jackson, those improvements include more programming for the youth in the neighborhood, better bathroom facilities and better communication with the community. She also hopes to see more investment into programs already available at the park like the Black Resource Center, which is run by Elite Skills Development, and helps the Black and African American community access information related to small business support, mental and physical health, financial literacy, COVID resources and personal and career development.
McLucas hopes to see investments into programming and true community engagement. “This is an opportunity to bring together everyone in the community but especially the district’s African American residents.” During the April 5 meeting, community members asked for an outdoor basketball court and free programming that benefits the community.
Paul Felder, a recreation assistant at the park, said the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on park programs like their Summer Fun Days and spring and summer camps. Now, they are slowly coming back but enrollment numbers have been minimized in accordance with health and safety guidelines.
While the city recovers from the lasting effects of the pandemic, Diggs-Jackson said the needs of the city have changed and community leaders must prioritize and understand where their needs currently stand.
According to Saro, the vision plan process will be long and will require collaboration with multiple community partners and organizations to make it happen. “I am committed to finding a way to get this plan done,” she said.