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City Officials Keep Watchful Eye on Newly Expanded Park

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

June 6 -- At the newly renovated and enlarged Virginia Avenue Park in the Pico Neighborhood, life is indeed serene on most days.

A patch of green at the center of the poorest, most diverse and gang-prone neighborhood in Santa Monica, Latino and black teens compete side-by-side in basketball pick-up games, duck inside for creative learning programs or just sit outside on the grass.

Little, if any, gang graffiti can be found since the park’s extension was officially reopened last winter. And a police substation is onsite in case of trouble. So far, they haven’t had any.

It is a safe park by all accounts -- so far.

Yet City officials -- who wish to make the $13 million park a center for services to combat youth violence and gangs -- want to make sure and keep it that way.

With summer vacation looming, City officials are “remaining vigilant” to keep Virginia park goers safe from the gang-violence that traditionally irrupts just beyond the park’s grassy parameter.

As if on cue, shots rang out nearby last week as a reminder.

“Ducking down” in his passenger seat, the victim of the latest attack, which took place Thursday, may have narrowly escaped injury when a male Hispanic teenager came up behind the victim’s vehicle in the 2000 block of Cloverfield Boulevard -- just bordering the park -- and fired several shots, police said. One bullet pierced the back windshield.

Police are seeking information about the incident and no arrests have yet been made.

It is but the latest in a string of shootings over the years in the neighborhood surrounding the 9.5 acre park and a reminder to park officials that they can’t let their guard down, City officials said.

“I think we’re doing a lot of what we’ve been doing,” said Human Services Administrator Scott Wasserman. “We are always very vigilant.”

This is the first summer for the newly expanded park -- which includes a recording studio, computer lab, two “space age” playgrounds and two state-of-the-art fitness gyms -- and City officials said they are doing all they can to make sure it is a safe and successful summer. (see story)

As head of the Pico neighborhood and park initiative programs -- a new position created in February -- Wasserman is in charge of coordinating the Police Activities League, the Santa Monica teen center and Virginia Avenue Park.

A large part of Wasserman’s new job is to work with the City’s most troubled and at-risk youth and to make sure the City’s resources are put in the right place, he said.

While Virginia Avenue Park appears to be like other parks, it is different, City officials acknowledge.

“Many of the shootings (in the Pico Neighborhood) have been on Cloverfield,” said Betty Macias, the Human Services Administrator for the City, who oversees Virginia Avenue operation, alluding to the street which bounds the eastern section of the park.

The boulevard -- like other parallel streets -- stretches the length of the park and is just blocks away from the I-10, an easy escape route for Los Angeles gang members who come to fight their Santa Monica rivals, according to City officials and police.

The City, Wasserman said, is working overtime to make sure the park remains a safe place for residents and park visitors.

Graffiti is removed on a weekly basis, especially on Mondays, since the park tends to get “hit on the weekends.”

“Before we remove the grafitti, we photograph it for police,” Wasserman said. “We may not know what we are looking at,” although police often do.

While it could not be confirmed officially with police, City employees who work at the park said they have noticed a step up in patrols in the area since the park was renovated.

Further, while not the largest part of his job, Wasserman meets regularly with law enforcement to oversee the public safety of the park.

While Wasserman said they have not seen an increase in gang activity in the neighborhood in recent months, there is always a need to be cautious and proactive to counteract the violence outside the park if it is to remain a peaceful sanctuary for Pico Neighborhood Youth.

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