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I live near Los Angeles’s most infamous green space, the titular grounds of what may be the strangest hit in pop song history (the original hit № 2 on the charts in 1968 for Richard Harris — yes, the actor Richard Harris — while the more famous rendition by Donna Summer topped the charts a decade later). MacArthur Park has seen a lot of problems in the 15 years I’ve lived near it. In that time, it has gone from a No Man’s Land where gangs — notably the 18th Street Gang and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), two infamous international criminal organizations with roots in the area — would sell drugs and dump bodies in the lake, to the vital heart of the mostly densely populated area of the country west of the Mississippi River. The area, known as Westlake (because the lake was on Los Angeles’s western periphery about a century ago), is home to Central American immigrants, many of them illegals, though also some Koreans priced-out of neighboring Koreatown.
Many groups have sought to rehabilitate MacArthur Park, making the area a safer, more livable place for some of Los Angeles’s poorest residents by encouraging families, especially mothers, to use the park en masse. The strategy worked: The presence of moms, kids, and even intact families in the park and on the adjacent streets has gone a long way toward reducing crime and changing the neighborhood for the better. But, in the last year or so, a new problem has shown up in MacArthur Park and the surrounding streets that has beaten back the families and made the streets more dangerous: the tents. In the past few years, homeless encampments and tent villages have proliferated across Los Angeles. The city has always has a massive homelessness problem, so much so that it even became the ultimate punchline of the 2007 South Park episode “Night of the Living Homeless.”