Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pedaling around MacArthur Park

One of Los Angeles’ cultural monuments, MacArthur Park, is now a family friendly and fun place to visit.

Located in the Westlake District, at the southwest corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Alvarado Street, surrounded by busy streets, a variety of small shops, restaurants and high-rise buildings, the park, which boasts a large lake, has become somewhat of a sanctuary for city dwellers.

“It’s like a little piece of nature in the big city,” said Julia Martinez, a Los Angeles City recreation and parks employee.

Martinez, who has worked for the city for 14 years, has worked at the park for a few months. She works at the pedal boat rental window at the lake.

The pedal boats, which are available to rent for a half hour or hour on weekends, offer visitors a respite.

There are several boats available. One boat is specifically designed for handicapped riders. That boat can be moved using hand pedals instead of foot pedals. All of the boats come with awnings.

“It’s something to get away from the norm,” Martinez said. “It’s a little diamond in the rough.”

The park, formerly known as Westlake Park when it was built in the late 1800s, was once used in silent films. In the 1940s, it was renamed after General Douglas MacArthur. Starting in the late 1970s, there was an increase of illegal activities such as drug dealing, public intoxication, prostitution, the sale of fake identification cards and gang activity in the park and surrounding area.

These circumstances caused some of the long time business establishments in the area to close, relocate or change hours.

The famed Westlake Theatre was closed and is now used as a swap meet. Edward’s Steakhouse, which was in Westlake District area as well, relocated to the city of Rosemead. The second-generation run Langer’s Deli, which opened in 1947 across from the southeast corner of MacArthur Park, canceled its evening hours.

After many years of decline and neglect of the Westlake area and specifically MacArthur Park, local businesses and community members joined together to create the Rediscover MacArthur Park campaign shortly after 2000, to revitalize the park and make it a safer and more welcoming place.

Sandra Romero, who with her business partner, owns and operates Mama’s Hot Tamales Cafe across the street from the south side of the park, has played a vital role in the Rediscover MacArthur Park campaign.

Romero, who cared deeply about the community and the people, started to get involved to turn the park into what it once was, a place to enjoy an afternoon sitting on the grass or riding in a boat around the lake.

Many seagulls, ducks and other birds come to the lake to swim and look for food. One popular area for the birds is an island on the south side of the lake.

“We started revitalizing the park,” Romero, a member of the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Alliance said.

“The tamales became a really good way of getting people to the park,” Romero said. “They’d come and say ‘it’s not so bad here.’”

“We started weeding out the negative and planting the positive,” Romero said.

Among those who started coming to the park were many new immigrants.

“It plays a great role to first generation immigrants,” Jose Maciel, Senior Director of MacArthur Park said.

Maciel said the Park has become a hub for many immigrants in the area, and that it is a place where they can come together and feel comfortable.

“Just like any other part of the city, it has its flaws, but it is unique and it has a great mixture of ethnicities,” Maciel said.

“There is not enough open space and green area in the community,” Maciel said.

Maciel, who took his children to the lake at the park for a pedal boat ride, enjoyed the experience.

“I took my kids on it and my kids had a blast,” Maciel said. “It’s something for the young generation. It’s a connection to when the park was originally built.”

Maciel said that there were boats on the lake in the early 1900s and there are plans to restore the original boathouse, which is sinking about one inch per year.

Hopes are that the pedal boats will continue to stay available.

Ducks and other birds sometime swim near the boats when the boats stop moving.

With the poor economy and a lack of funds, the pedal boats are only available on weekends and there is a fear that they will not be available for long.

“They barely have the money to operate here,” Martinez said.

Despite the tough times, Martinez said she has met customers from as far as Riverside who came to the park to ride a pedal boat.

“I think it’s fabulous,” Martinez said.

Though the pedal boats are a great feature of the park, Maciel said there is much more that the park has to offer to visitors.

“We have outdoor concerts every summer,” Maciel said. “People can come out and enjoy free music. Bring a chair or blanket and sit under the stars.”

The free concerts are held from July until September.

He added that a new jungle gym as well as Astroturf is being added to the north side of the park.

“They no longer have to worry about dirt and rocks,” Maciel said.

Whether you come to MacArthur Park just to sit and have a picnic or to ride the pedal boats, you will not be disappointed.

One of the many spectacular views from a pedal boat on the lake. The Westlake Theatre sign is still intact on top of the building. A fountain often runs in the lake.

And if you work up an appetite after pedaling around the lake, head over to Mama’s for a hot tamale or Langer’s Deli for a hot pastrami sandwich.

MacArthur Park and the surrounding area have received a face lift and have the backing of a very supportive community that is determined to see both thrive.

For more information about:
MacArthur Park, visit
Mama’s Hot Tamales, visit
Langer’s Deli, visit
Accessing the park with the Metro Red Line, visit

Gas: About $3
Parking (all day lot): $6
Pedal boat rental: $7
(The charges are $7 for 30 min. and $10 for an hour, and an identification card is also required)
Total amount spent: $16