Richardson Family Park
Once there was an empty lot where children played among discarded tires, torn mattresses, and broken bottles. Then neighbors got together and decided to make the lot into a real park.
The idea for the park began in 1994 after the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation had purchased and begun to rehabilitate an apartment building that faced the empty lot at Budlong Ave. and 27th Street. Melanie Stephens of Esperanza and Lillian Marenco, president of the Jefferson-Budlong Block Club, thought of approaching other block clubs in the area with the plan of creating a community garden. Jennifer Charnofsky of the Van Buren Place Community Restoration Association joined the effort, and the discussions turned toward the far more ambitious concept of raising half a million dollars to build a permanent park for this underserved inner city area. There were no parks for blocks around in any direction, and neighborhood children used the empty lot as a makeshift playground.
The park project soon grew into a model of community organizing. The group named itself the Richardson Family Park Project after the family that owned the land. They began discussions with the owners, Donald and Elinor Richardson, with the goal of raising funding to buy the land. Elinor Richardson had been a professor at USC, as had her daughter, who had died young. Donald, her brother in law, had been an administrator with the Los Angeles School District. They expressed an interest in seeing a park created in memory of their family to serve the community where Donald had grown up. In the end, the Richardsons decided to make a gift of the land to the Park Project.
In addition to the land, which was valued at $100,000, it was decided to seek to raise an additional $400,000 to construct a model park, and then to donate the park to the City of Los Angeles.
The Park Project formed two subcommittees: one of local block associations and the other of nonprofit/governmental organizations. The neighborhood association subcommittee members played the principal role in calling all meetings, reviewing and formulating plans, periodically cleaning the land, and providing explanatory materials about the project for city, nonprofit, university, and corporate representatives whose aid was solicited. Stalwarts of the committee included Lillian Marenco; Juanita Judice of the Vermont-Jefferson Neighborhood Watch; Senior Lead Office Randy Cochran of the LAPD Southwest Bureau; and Ben Reng, a USC student. Jennifer Charnofsky became project coordinator for both subcommittees.
The nonprofit subcommittee took central responsibility for arranging the legal matters involved in the gift of the land by Donald and Elinor Richardson. They took central responsibility for writing grant proposals, searching for funding sources, seeking support from city and corporate officials, and securing insurance for the land. Insurance was provided by the Martin Luther King Legacy Association prior to the transfer of the park to the city. Key members of the nonprofit committee included Melanie Stephens of Esperanza Community Housing Corporation; Genethia Hayes, then head of the Martin Luther King Legacy Association and later president of the Los Angeles Board of Education; Reginald Chapple, director, and Mark Wilson of the Youth Empowerment Project; and Bruce Saito, director of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps. The office of Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas was deeply involved in the project from an early stage, and there was important input at key moments from the Trust for Public Land.
A central addition to the project was Professor Achva Benzinberg Stein, director of the Landscape Architecture Program at USC. Professor Stein involved her whole class in designing the park, with input from the community groups and from the children who played in the empty lot. In 1996 she brought in metal artist Gale McCall and architect Norman Millar of the Southern California Institute of Arthitecture (SCIARC), who with their students, designed and built the artistic gates and mosaic tiles. Achva Stein helped secure an initial $3,000 grant from USC.
In 1998 the USC Neighborhood Outreach Program funded a grant from the Richardson Family Park Project in the amount of $31,377 to purchase the professional play structures for the park.
At the end of 1998 the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation wrote a successful $253,000 grant for Los Angeles Proposition K funding. This provided the bulk of the needed additional funds to finish the park. Environmental Industries, Inc., a major Southern California landscape contractor, donated $50,000 in supplies and labor, and the West Adams Heritage Association put in $1,800 to complete the last section of the fence. Countless hours of time of the block association volunteers and the staffs of the nonprofits over almost five years' time also went into the park.
At the east side of the park there was a concrete block wall 180 feet long. This was a favorite site for graffiti by local gangs. The project leaders enlisted a group of artists, In Creative Unity, to design a mural to cover the whole of the wall including a building at the south end. The art was based on real locations in the neighborhood. The committee through St. Agnes Catholic Church arranged a meeting with leaders of the main local gang, the Dead End Harpys, who pledged to respect the mural and not deface it.
The finished Richardson Family Park opened to the public on June 19, 1999 at a ceremony presided over by Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and attended by more than 200 community residents, and friends of the Richardson family. The park includes two play structures, one for toddlers and the other for 5-12 year olds; a full basketball court; six permanent family picnic tables; a drinking fountain; lighting; landscaping; the extensive mural; and an ornamental wrought iron fence and gates. The project took four years to complete, from the first planning meetings to opening day.
The park, created by the community with the help of nonprofit organizations, was then donated to the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.
Renovation in 2007
Over the years the agreement with the Harpys broke down and gang members often vandalized the mural. By late in 2006 the protective coating that allowed city workers to clean off the spray painted graffiti without damaging the art underneath had worn away. The mural was irreparably damaged and the city said it would no longer attempt to clean it.
Jennifer Charnofsky and Lillian Marenco, who had been central figures in the original creation of the park, contacted Stash Maleski, the director of In Creative Unity. Stash said he would try to reassemble the original artists to recreate the mural. This would mean sandblasting the wall to completely remove the existing mural. Photographs of the old mural would be taken first as a guide for the artists to replicate their original design. Then a superior set of protective coatings would be applied that would last far longer than what was available in 1999. But this was going to cost $20,000.
Jennifer and Lillian went to the neighborhood council for our area, the Empowerment Congress North Area Neighborhood Development Council (ECNANDC). In a series of meetings in late 2006 the council agreed to fund the project in full. In April 2007 the sandblasting was done and the artists returned. In a few weeks a beautiful new mural was in place.
On May 12, 2007, a big community party was held at the park, cosponsored by the ECNANDC and USC's Neighborhood Outreach program. Almost 200 people attended, including City Councilmember Bernard Parks (CD8), who spoke movingly on the importance of the park to the children of the area. From there interest in the park grew. USC had made a new grant to the park for further renovation. And on August 5, 2007, the L.A. Stars All-Star Charity Basketball game featuring NBA All-Stars Baron Davis, Paul Pierce, and Gilbert Arenas, will be held at the USC Galen Center and is slated to donate $37,000 to the Richardson Family Park for regular afternoon programming for neighborhood kids.