Local Nonprofit Transforms Blighted Park Into Urban Oasis

Over the last 19 years a local organization has changed a dangerous park into a bastion of art, music, education and a family-friendly space for the public

By Justin Chapman, Highland Park-Mt. Washington Patch, 4/22/2011

On Saturday, April 23, La Tierra de La Culebra Park in Highland Park was bristling with life. Adults danced to live music while children scampered about or worked on arts and crafts projects. The small urban oasis located on South Avenue 57 bore little resemblance to the place that was once written off as a haven for illegal dumping, gang activity and prostitution.
Since 1992, the nonprofit organization ACLA (Art.Land.Community.Activism.) has slowly but surely worked to foster the transformation of the park from eyesore to community asset.
The property was once privately owned, but was abandoned years ago. In 1994, ACLA acquired the property through Adverse Possession laws, more commonly known as Squatter's Rules. In 2004 they sold the land to the City of Los Angeles, which gave ACLA a 25-year, no-cost lease, giving them almost total freedom to do what they wanted with the space. It is now essentially a privately run park on public land.
ACLA's two co-executive directors, Efrim Chiavetta and Nancy Zuniga, now live in one of the buildings on the property owned by ACLA founder and current chair of the organization's nine-member Board of Directors, Tricia Ward.  The rest of the park is run by teenagers. 
At the park, ACLA host shows, classes, workshops and unpaid internships that mainly relate to business administration, community organizing and maintenance of the park and the organization, according to Chiavetta.
"In terms of the real work that we do, like mentorship, leadership development, and those kinds of programs, that's just kind of a daily ongoing program," said Chiavetta. "A lot of people ask us about what kind of classes and programs we have, and since we're still such a small organization, we're running on such a small budget, we don't have staff, and we're completely volunteer supported, really the program is maintenance and sustaining the organization itself."
Although hundreds of kids have come and gone since Chiavetta joined ACLA four years ago, he said he has a core group of about 60 to 80 teens and young people, aged 14 to 22, with whom he works on a regular basis, as well as about a dozen reliable teenagers who help him run the place.
"They do everything from grant research--some of them write grant proposals for me--to grounds maintenance to … pretty much all the events that happen here are partially if not entirely organized by teenagers," he said. "I'm mostly here to offer logistical support. More and more kids are coming from Highland Park, but I've got kids coming in from Hollywood, Pasadena, all over the San Gabriel Valley area."
The next big event in store at the park is another all-ages, teen-organized show. Tickets are $5 at the door and the bands, which include 13c13d, The Shrine and Grapes and Nuts, will perform on Saturday, April 30, at 7 p.m. 
ACLA also hosts a Midnight Picnic during  the Second Saturday of every month for NELA Art's Second Saturday Gallery Night.
Because of positive events and outreach programs such as these, Chiavetta has had no problems with the neighbors or the police, except for a few noise complaints here and there when the music gets too loud too late.
"The cops come when there are noise complaints," he said. "As far as we're concerned as a 501(c)3, we're allowed to have public events as fundraisers and things like that. It's also written into our lease that we're allowed to do that, too. But even when the cops do come by they say, 'We get it. We see you got a good group of kids, it's a healthy environment, etc., but it's just really loud and we have to respond to noise complaints.'"
He said even the local neighborhood has responded positively to ACLA's mission at the park. They appreciate the organization's zero tolerance policy regarding drinking and drugs on the property.
"The neighbors are all really supportive of what we're doing," said Chiavetta. "I think there is not as much awareness in the neighborhood of what we're doing because the place kind of has a stigma to it and a history that has been difficult to remove. But in the last year or so I think we've been doing a fairly good job of that."
Chiavetta said that when he and Zuniga first moved into the front house a few years ago, there was still some gang activity going on.
"It took me just going out there at two or three in the morning and talking to these guys and saying, 'Look, this is who I am, this is what I'm trying to achieve, I'd really appreciate your cooperation.' Just gaining respect and meeting people, that was vital to turning this place around."
He partially attributes that success to opening up the streetside of the park by removing the fence there so that anyone passing by can see that it's a clean, public space.
"Even having those swings in there is enough to show people that this is a public space," he said. "We're getting more and more families back to the park in the afternoons, a lot more parents are letting their kids come here and play alone, as opposed to it being seen as a gang hangout. Which I'm really pleased about."
The property itself is quite beautiful to explore. It's built on an incline so it includes several different levels and even a stone trench walkway that was built to line up with the summer solstice. Well-drawn graffiti with good taste lines the walls. They are currently undergoing construction on what will become a large graffiti wall. For bigger projects like that, ACLA needs city approval, which Chiavetta said has been the most frustrating part.
"When we sold the land to the city in 2004 we had a number of sites at that point," he said. "Our other one, that is an actual park property called Spiraling Orchard, just between downtown and Echo Park. That site was completely privately owned just like this one was at the time. We decided that we would experiment with two different models, keeping one completely privately owned and then one as a private-public partnership, to see which one was a more effective model for facilitating the change that we wanted to see happen. As it turns out the private model is much more effective. It's been kind of frustrating working with the city."
Regarding La Tierra Park, part of which is known as Ghetto Grounds, the only thing ACLA has to work with the city for is if they make any permanent changes to the property, such as the construction happening on the upper level of the property for the new graffiti wall.
"That has to go through the city, which is why it takes so long," said Chiavetta. "I've been trying to get that construction done for the three or four years I've been working here. So that process is really, really frustrating. There are a lot of things we can do, a lot of structures we can build, if we just call them temporary art installations. We have a lot of freedom, but when it comes to doing major work at the park, it's been difficult."
The other property ACLA owns, Spiraling Orchard, is a work in progress. It's about 12,000 square feet and will eventually be a performance space for live music and theatre and a professional art gallery. Chiavetta said the plan is to transfer a lot of the activity they're doing at the Highland Park space that they don't have room for to Spiraling Orchard. Once that's built, they also plan on building a low-income housing unit in the neighborhood right next to it.