Friday, May 22, 2009

What's going on with MacArthur Park?: from la cancha to "synthetic meadow"

In fall 2008, the city broke ground on the "MacArthur Park Improvement Project." More specifically, the city fenced off and dug into the dry ground pictured here - the two fields marked out on the packed dirt served a range of leagues, including a large children's league and a women's league that was the subject of a June 2008 Los Angeles Times story (Guatemalan Women Kick Aside Constraints in the U.S.). Thousands of people have been kicking up dirt in this spot over the years.

As the improvement project takes shape, people in the neighborhood have started wondering what happened the long-promised soccer field. The story had been that the city was replacing the dirt with an artificial turf field. From a November 2008 LA Parks press release:
A 37,000 square-foot synthetic field will replace the existing dirt field. When completed the new field will be added to the half dozen synthetic turf playing fields managed by the Department.
An October 2008 Los Angeles Times story on the temporary displacement of the leagues using the dirt field reports that
The new synthetic field promises to be a hit when it reopens next summer. But for now, the upheaval and lack of field space elsewhere has alarmed players and upset team rosters.
Well, folks have become more alarmed as this huge field has taken shape: a gently sloped, bean shaped expanse of green has replaced the dirt field. There are no lines on it. It is big - big enough to house a field, certainly, but with no markings league play is impossible - in fact, it is hard to call it a "soccer field" - if by that one means a field on which refereed league matches are played. [Actually, since posting this I've had a closer look - it is not big enough to play 11 aside.] That LA Times story and much of the press surrounding this redesign promise a return of league matches, but this seems not to be the case at all.

When I phoned the engineering department for Parks & Rec, I was told there was no plan to put lines on the field, and that it wasn't in fact being called a soccer field, but a "synthetic meadow." A spokesperson from contractor Parkwest Landscape, Inc said that while the turf is "top of the line" (featuring heat-resistant flexsand), the field is unlined and has gentle slopes (I can't see this slope, however, from the above photograph, culled from A View from A Loft.)

A 2007 Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks memo describes the MacArthur Park Improvement Project's plans for the fields in the following terms:
Expected improvements include reconstruction of an existing dirt soccer field with artificial turf, installation of...light poles approximately 50 feet in height around the soccer field....(Dec 26, 2007/p. 9)
But an October NBC news report identifies the space as "MacArthur Park Synthetic Field and Meadow," and this same space is described on Ed Reyes's own blog as "a synthetic children's meadow."

In the incoherence of public discourse on this space, we see something of the deeply conflicted place of fútbol in Los Angeles. The presence of the turf says one thing (fútbol will be played here), the absence of lines another (fútbol can be played here, but not in any organized way - those who want to watch full field games will have to go elsewhere).

In an excellent article for Progressive Planning ("Playing Out Democracy in MacArthur park," Summer 2008) Kelly Main gives an overview of the major role played by soccer in MacArthur Park, and also of the dumbfounding resistance fútbol communities face from a range of quarters like gentrifying residents and park and city officials invested in pastoral fantasies of green "passive use" parks - which are in fact more conducive to crime than active use parks which host the beautiful game. For many, park improvement means green grass and pretty pictures. Their fantasies about such public spaces are skewed - where we see community, they see crowds. Where we see pleasure, they see chaos. Where we see game, they see dirt.

Of the recent and significant drop in park crime Main writes: "despite claims that police surveillance has 'cleaned up the park,' many park goers assert that the soccer league and the people it brings to the park are primarily responsible for the safer conditions." The more people use the park every day (returning frequently, making themselves known, getting to know others in the park), the safer it becomes. It's been the games that have brought people into the park in this way - recent arrivals to the country find their way to MacArthur Park on the weekend, where they'd return again and again to watch league matches, route for their favorite teams, and eventually feel at home.

Will a "children's meadow" serve that function? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

In the meanwhile, I find myself turning to Donna Summer's disco anthem, and for the first time I am able to make sense of its infamously mysterious lines. It's about losing your turf.

Spring was never waiting for us dear
it ran one step ahead
as we followed in the dance
MacArthur Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left my cake out in the rain
I don't think that I can take it
'cause it took so long to bake it
I'll never have that recipe again
Oh No...
I recall that yellow cotton dress
Foaming like a wave on the ground beneath your knees
Birds like tender babies in your hand
And the old men playing Chinese checkers by the trees

MacArthur Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left my cake out in the rain
I don't think that I can take it
'Cause it took so long to bake it
I'll never have that recipe again.
Oh No.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. that's the facking wierdest song lyrics i've ever heard. i think.
    apt description of mac park.

  3. Fantastic piece - the USSF needs to push around these local municipalities that are ruining soccer pick-up spots. Or perhaps more investment in the anglo pay-to-play OPD is really needed

  4. it will likely still be ok - maybe even fantastic for pick-up. you'd have to station armed guards around that turf to keep pickup off of it. it's the leagues which may have lost an important field. field access in this part of the city is ridiculously complex, and can be quite expensive.


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