Officials across multiple agencies can’t explain why a portion of the park remains closed, but it’s a part of an alarming citywide trend of restricting public spaces.
Grand Park’s lowest block has been fenced off for nearly nine months.
Last September, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies evicted a protest encampment in Grand Park during a surprise 3 AM raid. The encampment, which faced City Hall, was set up during that summer’s uprisings. Organizers had built a kitchen, garden, library, community event space, and mutual aid services. Leaders within the protest encampment envisioned the space as an example of the police-free society they wished to see, where experimental approaches to building community could be practiced.
Nearly nine months later, the park’s event lawn, which also contains a playground, remains completely fenced off between Broadway and Spring Street, despite all repairs being complete. On a recent Friday afternoon, a hole in the fence allowed Knock LA to see the park’s sprinklers watering its pristine lawn, while members of the public were shut out of one of the only public green spaces in the neighborhood. This section of the park was also a critical staging ground for a variety of massive protests, including the Women’s March in 2017, the Climate Strike in 2019, and Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, making its ongoing closure a significant suppression of free speech.
The park’s continued closure reflects an alarming trend of local officials depriving Angelenos of their right to freely access public space. Most infamously in March, Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s office coordinated a multi-agency effort with the LAPD to evict the residents of Echo Park Lake, arresting hundreds of protesters and journalists and inflicting numerous injuries in the process. Residents of the park were given fewer than 24 hours notice to leave the park or face arrest. O’Farrell later took a victory lap, claiming all residents were provided housing and that the park needed new landscaping, graffiti removal, and other repairs in order to reclaim its status as the “crown jewel” of the city’s parks system.
Similarly, after the Grand Park raid in September, LASD officials said the County-operated park required landscaping improvements, graffiti and trash removal, and restroom repairs.
As of May 26, Echo Park reopened but retains its consistent presence of law enforcement, as well as nightly sweeps of the park to prevent anyone from staying overnight. Despite the park being opened, suppression of free speech remains a severe issue as demonstrated by the violent arrest of Gustavo Otzoy, a former unhoused resident of Echo Park, on Saturday.
Both Grand Park and Echo Park were raided with little community notice or input, by the force of hundreds of armed police officers, during the darkness of night, and fenced off to the public indefinitely. Police in both raids arrested and injured journalists who were on-site covering protests. Residents of both park encampments were primarily Black and/or unhoused.
Knock LA reached out to the offices of numerous officials whose jurisdictions include Grand Park for comment. Representatives for County Supervisor Hilda Solis, Councilmember Kevin De Leon, the LASD, and the Music Center, which operates the park, were all unable to provide a reason for the park’s continued closure or an estimated reopening date.
Political pressure from NIMBY-aligned interests may be contributing to the park’s continued closure. Knock LA obtained several constituent emails to Supervisor Solis’s office (via public record request) regarding conditions at Grand Park in August 2020, prior to the police raid. One email from a local property manager describes the park as “overrun by violent transients” to “create an open air drug market and tent prostitution ring,” unsubstantiated claims that stand in contrast to reporting by the LA Times. Another email from a landlord lamented the “tents, drugs, and garbage all over.” The emails were sent following a hyperbolic PSA by former downtown Los Angeles Neighborhood Council President Patti Berman where she claimed there have been random violent assaults and that the park is unsafe for the public to pass through, day or night. Additionally, a letter was circulated to employees of the Foltz Courthouse, which is adjacent to Grand Park’s event lawn, warning that LASD has stopped patrolling “Block 4” of Grand Park, because “the presence of a uniformed law enforcement officer attracts unwelcome attention to that officer.”
These forms of political pressure have long been used as justification to restrict public spaces through the use of surveillance and aggressive crackdowns by law enforcement, as seen in Grand Park and Echo Park. But the degree to which local parks are being impacted appears to have escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Barnsdall Park, which sits along the border of East Hollywood and Los Feliz, has been closed since the start of the pandemic. A spokesperson for the Department of Recreation and Parks (DRP) tells Knock LA that the park will reopen tomorrow, June 15, the same day as the state lifts most COVID restrictions, but would not say why the park has been closed for the duration of the pandemic.
To try to understand why the park had remained closed for so long, Knock LA obtained a series of emails between Mitch O’Farrell’s Field Deputy, the Executive Officer of DRP, and a local resident upset about the closure. In one email from September 2020, Field Deputy George Hakopiants tells the resident that CD 13 is in favor of “seeing East Hollywood parks open,” but that DRP was standing firm against any park openings due to “limitations surrounding maintenance that has (sic) been brought about by COVID.”
After the resident followed up in February 2021, pointing out that the explanation sounded “vague and implausible,” DRP’s Executive Officer A.P. Diaz proposed an internal meeting to discuss the matter, adding that “it may be time to re-open the park.” A spokesperson for DRP did not respond to questions regarding that internal meeting.
While the emails do not point to a clear motive for the park’s continued closure, the lack of transparency from O’Farrell’s office as it pertains to his actions at Echo Park Lake has led some to speculate that Barnsdall remains closed for similar political reasons.
“It’s not unfeasible that there was some coordination between [O’Farrell] and the parks department and possibly LAPD to make [Barnsdall] not become an Echo Park situation,” said Lane McFaddin, co-chair of the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council’s ad-hoc committee on policing, in an interview with Knock LA. “It’s speculative, obviously, but it does fit the pattern of the general way he operates. Something comes out, he gives the least amount of information possible, and we learn after the fact what they were doing behind the scenes.”
Besides Grand Park and Barnsdall Park, several other parks in an already park-poor city are currently unavailable for public use. Gates at Leimert Park Village have been chained shut for the duration of the pandemic, but the park is set to open on Juneteenth. Venice Hope Park, which serves a low-income portion of Downtown, has also been chained shut for the entirety of the pandemic, despite parks being allowed to open under the county’s (soon-to-be eliminated) COVID rules. The city has also yet to formalize a plan to open the Rowena Reservoir as a park space, despite strong support from local residents.