A transformation of Reed Park is underway in Santa Monica
September 10, 2019
by Rick Cole
Reed Park has become Santa Monica’s Rorschach test.
Like the famous inkblot images that are used to assess patients' psychology, Reed Park evokes a wide range of emotional responses.
For vocal critics on social media, Reed is ground zero of what some of them describe as “a zombie invasion” of homeless people into their neighborhood park. In response to a recent Eyewitness News report (“Santa Monica man clashing with city over handing out food to homeless in Reed Park”) one outraged resident posted on Twitter:
“We want our park back on Sundays! This org who feeds the homeless draws transients from all over who leave garbage behind, do drugs, and commit crimes.”
But there were others equally angry that the City would discourage what they saw as a humanitarian effort. A supporter of Steve Petramale (who started the feeding program) emailed me to say:
“If you aren't going to let the Petramales feed the homeless then get off your lazy bureaucratic ass and feed them yourself. The Petramales demonstrate there are still good people in the world, of which you are not! Help build a solution, not ruin one!”
In a time of polarized debate over the regional housing crisis playing out in communities across Southern California, Reed Park is a fierce battleground between clashing visions of shared public space – and a key test case about our ability to make those spaces safe and welcoming for the entire public.
Reed Park, named after longtime Santa Monica Mayor and Councilmember Christine Emerson Reed, is a five-acre public space across Wilshire from Downtown. Created in 1892, it is perhaps best known for its former name, Lincoln Park, the inspiration for the name of the rock band Linkin Park (they changed the spelling to acquire their own unique internet domain name.) It has served for decades as a busy hub for tennis, recreation programs, cultural performances, family picnics, and playground activities for pre-schoolers in an increasingly dense multi-family area.
One of its five acres is a shaded grass lawn at the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and California Street. For years, it has been a spot for people experiencing homelessness to gather or sleep during the day, fostered by a weekly outdoor feeding by volunteers from a Culver City Church. An extensive redesign of that area (that incorporated outdoor exercise equipment) was completed two years ago. Since the re-opening, the tug of war over this small public space has escalated.
The one-acre green lawn at Reed Park was revamped in a project completed two years ago.
Neighbors became ever more frustrated that after the redesign the population of homeless people using the park increased. A “bicycle gang” of meth-using petty criminals brazenly set up shop in a highly-visible spot each day and a handful of disturbing incidents sparked a social media storm. The problems in the Park were at the heart of sharp debates before the Recreation and Parks Commission, which brought a recommendation to the City Council that a police officer be stationed there around the clock. Council directed staff to look at a range of options to improve security.
Meanwhile, Police and Community and Cultural Services staff worked hard to reclaim the grassy acre as a safe space for everyone. Chief Cindy Renaud reorganized the Public Service Officers to restore regular park ranger assignments, with special emphasis on Reed. New plantings were made to discourage overnight camping in the park. Neighbors convinced the church group to end their weekly feedings, but a new volunteer, Steve Petramale, replaced them, serving hot meals instead of handing out sandwiches. Homeless Liaison Program (HLP Team) Sgt. Erika Aklufi, Senior Homelessness Advisor Alisa Orduna and I worked to persuade him to find an alternative location, particularly since County Health cited him for failing to comply with state health and safety laws.
The City partnered with the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce to host the annual Buy Local Health & Fitness Festival at Reed Park on September 17.
Photo Courtesy: Drew Stewart.
During the budget process, the single most significant addition that Council made was to invest $275,000 toward a six-month trial of Ambassadors at the park restrooms, modeled on a similar program that has worked at Tongva Park to dramatically reduce anti-social and criminal activity. The blue-shirted Ambassadors were deployed on July 1, the first day of the new fiscal year and the impact has been similar. Meanwhile, Steve Petramale (who organizes the Sunday feedings) was given a deadline to comply with the law – which resulted in his appealing through the media for public support to defy the City compliance order.
Cameras were rolling the following Sunday, but we chose diplomacy over a confrontation for the cameras. A second notice, however, made clear our patience was not endless. The following week, just as Sgt. Aklufi was poised to issue a citation, the pastor of the nearby Lutheran Church offered to host the feeding in his parking lot. During the week that followed several faith leaders worked to find another location, so last week the feeding took place in the courtyard of the Metro Church at 6th and Arizona. That church has offered to continue to host the meal program while the search continues for a permanent location that complies with health and safety laws.
Reed Park on a Sunday afternoon with the hot meal program relocated.
The City’s comprehensive efforts are clearly paying off. “Meet Me at Reed” events” (sponsored by our recreation and parks team) have activated the park with a wide range of concert, movie and community activities. Last weekend’s well-attended “Wellness Fair” showcased how vital a resource the grassy area can be for all kinds of community programs. Additional Police patrol, the pro-active efforts of our Public Service Officers and the addition of the Ambassador deployment have helped curb criminal and anti-social issues. The relocation of the feeding program will make a difference as well. While some irate neighbors will continue to agitate to banish the poor from the park entirely, the City’s collaborative teamwork is aimed at making the park welcoming and safe for all.
The regional homeless crisis affects us all. We can’t solve that problem in 8.3 square miles, let alone one acre. Yet we know from Reed Park that teamwork can make our public places safer and more welcoming and connect homeless people with services. Our challenge is to maintain community support to continue and expand those efforts -- knowing there are no easy answers or quick solutions.