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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. “Cercando un Lugar: Otros Imaginados en el Proceso de Conflicto sobre un Parque en un Barrio”
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. METHODOLOGY
  5. SOCCER AT THE MAR VISTA RECREATION CENTER
  6. THE ABRUPT INSTALLATION AND REMOVAL OF A PARK FENCE
  7. LOCAL OPPOSITION TO THE OPEN FIELD
  8. THE ROLE OF IMAGINED OTHERS IN BROADENING SUPPORT FOR THE RETURN OF A PARK FENCE
  9. THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO DEMANDS FOR A FENCE THROUGH IMAGINING OTHERS’ RESPONSES
  10. RESOLUTION: HOW CONFLICT LED TO A NEW FENCE
  11. CONCLUSION
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. REFERENCES

This article offers a detailed analysis of a neighborhood dispute over fencing a public park. Unlike the archetypal turf battles between longstanding and new neighborhood residents described in previous research, here the daily visits of Latino “outsiders” coming into a local public space produce conflict over park usage and control. The usually cited conditions for conflict, such as reactionary residents resisting ethnic transition and protecting their backyards, do not apply in this case, as the park sits amidst a relatively stable, affluent, white “liberal” neighborhood. This case study shows how sources of tension and trouble extend beyond the property interests and actions of the park users to include the more symbolic and indirect concerns about identity as reflected in park use. Together with longstanding concerns over neighborhood reputation and property values, changing demographics and greater sensitivity to the perception of racism distinctively shaped the unfolding of conflict in this case. The bumpy course of conflict and shifting opinions about the fence shed light on the new complexities and contradictions of contemporary social diversity and exclusion in city parks and other public spaces.

“Cercando un Lugar: Otros Imaginados en el Proceso de Conflicto sobre un Parque en un Barrio”

Resumen

Este artículo ofrece un análisis detallado de una disputa en un barrio en torno al cercado de un parque público. A diferencia de los conflictos arquetípicos al interior de barrios entre residentes antiguos y nuevos descritos en otras investigaciones, en este caso el ingreso diario de latinos “de fuera” a un espacio público produce conflicto sobre el uso y control del parque. Las condiciones normalmente referidas para el conflicto, como residentes reaccionarios resistiéndose a la transición étnica del barrio y el proteger “el patio trasero” (backyard), no actúan en este caso en tanto el parque se ubica en un barrio relativamente estable, afluente y con residentes blancos “liberales”. Este estudio de caso muestra cómo fuentes de tensión y de problemas se extienden más allá de los intereses sobre la propiedad y las acciones de los usuarios del parque para incluir antiguas preocupaciones sobre la reputación del barrio y el valor de la propiedad, cambios demográficos y una creciente sensibilidad a la precepción del racismo, los cuales efectivamente moldean el desarrollo del conflicto en este caso. El curso irregular del conflicto y el cambio de opiniones sobre el cercado del parque dan luces sobre las nuevas complejidades y contradicciones de la diversidad y la exclusión social contemporánea en parques urbanos y en otros espacios públicos.


INTRODUCTION

  1. Top of page
  2. “Cercando un Lugar: Otros Imaginados en el Proceso de Conflicto sobre un Parque en un Barrio”
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. METHODOLOGY
  5. SOCCER AT THE MAR VISTA RECREATION CENTER
  6. THE ABRUPT INSTALLATION AND REMOVAL OF A PARK FENCE
  7. LOCAL OPPOSITION TO THE OPEN FIELD
  8. THE ROLE OF IMAGINED OTHERS IN BROADENING SUPPORT FOR THE RETURN OF A PARK FENCE
  9. THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO DEMANDS FOR A FENCE THROUGH IMAGINING OTHERS’ RESPONSES
  10. RESOLUTION: HOW CONFLICT LED TO A NEW FENCE
  11. CONCLUSION
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. REFERENCES

This article offers a detailed analysis of contemporary urbanites arguing about the fencing of a public park where Latinos from elsewhere played soccer. The bumpy and at times contradictory course of conflict in this case sheds light on the new challenges and opportunities urban residents face in maintaining status and exclusivity in today's increasingly diverse American cities. Alongside traditional concerns over neighborhood reputation and property values, changing demographics incited disagreement and greater sensitivity to the perception of racism spurred resolution.

Research on park conflicts has historically concentrated on competing sets of users, an issue typically arising within the context of “changing” neighborhoods, meaning neighborhoods in which the income level or ethnicity of nearby residents is changing (Pattillo 2007; Suttles 1968; Zorbaugh 1929). Park conflicts, in these cases, often become symbolically charged battles over the meaning, control, and future of city neighborhoods. The issue is not so much what is going on in parks per se, but what it says about the transition in the surrounding area and its residents (Firey 1944; Suttles 1972). Homeowners are shown to be particularly sensitive to perceived changes in the community's identity and reputation, especially indicators that relate to status and property values (Brown-Saracino 2010; Deener 2012; Gregory 1998; Kefalas 2003; Modan 2007; Pattillo 2007; Smithsimon 2011; Tissot 2011).

Unlike the archetypal turf battle between neighboring residents as an area undergoes demographic transition described in previous research (DeSena 1990; Rieder 1985; Suttles 1968), here a daily migration of “outsiders” coming into a local area but then leaving produces conflict over park usage. The usually cited conditions for conflict do not apply in this case, as the park sits amidst a relatively stable and “liberal” neighborhood. In contrast to the well-established relationship between park conflict and residential change—as a catalyst and expression of defended neighborhoods, white flight, or gentrification, for example—this case identified different dimensions of volatility that shaped the unfolding of conflict.

More specifically, this article analyzes a conflict over the installation, removal, and reinstallation of a fence around a soccer field in a West Los Angeles public park. The field was located in a predominantly white, upper-middle income neighborhood and it attracted working-class, first-generation immigrant Latinos as users. Tensions were present but sporadic and indirect from start to finish. Instead of growing out of daily face-to-face interaction, as is generally the case in neighborhoods undergoing ethnic and class succession (Anderson 1990; Pattillo 2007; Suttles 1968), this conflict emerged in a context of social distance, between sets of people who rarely if ever encountered each other personally. Nearby residents arguing about whether or not to enclose the field had little interest in using it themselves, while the predominantly Latino immigrant users of the public facility rarely attended or directly participated in local debates about fencing the field. There was also little concern that the working-class users of the field would soon be moving into the upper-middle-class area, another factor that distinguishes this case from prior studies linking park conflicts with neighborhood change. Something more indirect and symbolic was motivating local advocates and opponents of the fence and shaping how the conflict played out over a series of phases. In fact, the dispute quickly came to symbolize much more than installing a fence around a soccer field.

The conflict arose, changed course, and was resolved through contingencies involving how each side imagined what third parties whom they respected would think. A recurring, critical contingency of the conflict's progression was how local residents speculatively anticipated how the use of the park, and their role in the conflict over the park, would be seen by others like themselves. While scholars have certainly alluded to the significance of imagined others and symbolic concerns in public land-use conflict, they have not systematically analyzed their complex role in the unfolding of such disputes.

Quixotic versions of Cooley's looking glass self (1902) and Mead's generalized other (1934) were the key protagonists in the drama. Local residents constructed a sense of self and neighborhood identity by imagining how meaningful others perceived them over the course of the conflict. Imagined others took varying forms, from abstractly conceived public opinion to real people whose impressions concretely mattered. The other who was imagined and the party doing the imagining were also different at each stage of the conflict. Some local residents first anticipated that the immigrants’ use of the park would shape the perceptions of acquaintances or homebuyers, “people like themselves,” in ways that would damage the neighborhood's reputation and lower the prices of local residential real estate. Subsequently, and ironically, other local residents quieted the tension as they anticipated that opposition itself would reflect badly on them by eliciting views that they were racist and by projecting an image of disorder about their neighborhood. Those images would also hurt their reputation and reduce property values.

In contrast to previous studies of interethnic conflicts where oldtimers’ intolerance and exclusion were more easily and explicitly voiced to the other group (DeSena 1990; Rieder 1985; Suttles 1968; Zorbaugh 1929), concerns with being identified as racist influenced the tone and direction of the field debate, even as residents vehemently refuted the charge. The “NIMBY” (not in my back yard) label has similarly silenced and discredited local opponents of public land-use and human service projects (Gibson 2005). Being branded with the NIMBY label is especially frustrating for those who see themselves as “progressive” (Lyon-Callo 2001). Indeed, the term often implies underlying racial prejudices beyond economic self-interest (Dear 1992). In this study, I show how long-time residents themselves used and combated dueling perceptions of racism and NIMBY-ism in the unfolding of a park-based conflict. The park's location in an area commonly regarded as “liberal” further incited suspicions and denials of racial prejudice. The general absence of the predominantly Latino immigrant users of the contested field in local deliberations over its fencing also shaped the parameters of debate and resolution. Both sides talked about them, or what they imagined the soccer players were like. The lack of face-to-face interaction with the field users perpetuated their strangeness, relegating them to objects of imagination and fear (Merry 1981). The noninvolvement of the Latino players in local debates also allowed for individuals with considerable resources and confidence to influence park policy and to express a particular middle-class perspective on public space and diversity. Although not without compromise and challenges, local residents resolved the dispute so they could both achieve and reinforce their social exclusivity while outwardly celebrating diversity and tolerance.

While scholars have examined similar instances of park conflict, including the interplay between public space and community (Mitchell 1995; Smith 1996; Zukin 2009), they often focused more on the implications for normative and theoretical debates about public space and citizenship than on the social interactions and processes that motivate and structure these conflicts. They care about the outcomes, the winners and losers, not the process of unfolding conflict itself. Park conflicts, however, have to be started and sustained, and they often end, or at least enter extended quiescent phases.

As American cities become increasingly heterogeneous, the complexities and contradictions of diversity and exclusion are increasingly frequent sources of contemporary struggles over public space (Brown-Saracino 2010; Deener 2012; Pattillo 2007; Tissot 2011). The perception and social meaning of order and disorder are also shown to change and vary over time, place, and social location (Duneier 1999; Sampson 2009). Contrary to static and collective understandings of “broken windows,” here the implications of the field, fence, and Latino soccer players for area residents shifted over the course of the conflict. By providing a detailed account of how one such conflict happened at the local level, this study sheds light on the changing use, control, and meaning making of city parks under new conditions of interaction between oldtimers and newcomers.

After describing the park, the neighborhood setting, and how I collected the data, I analyze the rise, stages, transitions, and decline of conflict over proposals to fence a park where Latinos commuted in to play soccer. Taking the social form of conflict, especially volatility, as the matter to be explained, I focus on the explanatory role of multiple moments as the dispute unfolded in which participants imagined how others would see them and the neighborhood. In conclusion, I draw out implications for how this case study contributes to understanding conflicts over exclusion that other scholars have examined.

METHODOLOGY

  1. Top of page
  2. “Cercando un Lugar: Otros Imaginados en el Proceso de Conflicto sobre un Parque en un Barrio”
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. METHODOLOGY
  5. SOCCER AT THE MAR VISTA RECREATION CENTER
  6. THE ABRUPT INSTALLATION AND REMOVAL OF A PARK FENCE
  7. LOCAL OPPOSITION TO THE OPEN FIELD
  8. THE ROLE OF IMAGINED OTHERS IN BROADENING SUPPORT FOR THE RETURN OF A PARK FENCE
  9. THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO DEMANDS FOR A FENCE THROUGH IMAGINING OTHERS’ RESPONSES
  10. RESOLUTION: HOW CONFLICT LED TO A NEW FENCE
  11. CONCLUSION
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. REFERENCES

This article draws from a variety of sources accumulated over 4 years of ethnographic fieldwork. Since I came on the scene in January 2008, 2.5 years after the field was opened, I have observed 42 community meetings regarding the field and other park and neighborhood matters. During these gatherings I sat quietly taking notes, although my researcher identity was known by many because I also conducted a series of interviews with a range of actors on all sides of the issue, including area residents, park activists, and city administrators and politicians. In total, I carried out 32 semistructured, taped interviews with individuals I identified as relevant subjects from my observations or from recommendations by others. I also engaged in many informal conversations with park users, neighbors, and city employees. Primary sources were used to build a local history, including the more recent activities around the soccer field. In addition to what I personally gathered, such as public records, newspaper articles, and meeting notes, several participants graciously handed over stacks of materials, including flyers, reports, photographs, and hundreds of emails.

The actions and perspectives of the Latino users of the soccer field were obtained through my interactions with them on and around the soccer field. What is most important for this article is that they generally did not attend or directly participate in community meetings and debates about the field (but see Trouille 2013). In speaking with many of these men, it became clear that they felt both unwelcome and uncomfortable in these settings, and lacked time or interest to participate in lengthy and often convoluted deliberations in their second language. There was also little attempt on the part of local residents and city officials to actively encourage or facilitate the players’ participation.

The combination of ethnographic observation, interviews, and documentary analysis allows me to assess the relation between private beliefs and public practices by “cross-checking” and noting the context-specific nature of views on a sensitive and controversial topic (Duneier 1999). Concerns that were deemed illegitimate or too provocative to express in public settings were aired in one-to-one interviews or in settings where the individual was among “people like him or her.” The range of public and private situations observed allows for an analysis of normative forces that explain otherwise seemingly contradictory or mysterious changes of position.

SOCCER AT THE MAR VISTA RECREATION CENTER

  1. Top of page
  2. “Cercando un Lugar: Otros Imaginados en el Proceso de Conflicto sobre un Parque en un Barrio”
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. METHODOLOGY
  5. SOCCER AT THE MAR VISTA RECREATION CENTER
  6. THE ABRUPT INSTALLATION AND REMOVAL OF A PARK FENCE
  7. LOCAL OPPOSITION TO THE OPEN FIELD
  8. THE ROLE OF IMAGINED OTHERS IN BROADENING SUPPORT FOR THE RETURN OF A PARK FENCE
  9. THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO DEMANDS FOR A FENCE THROUGH IMAGINING OTHERS’ RESPONSES
  10. RESOLUTION: HOW CONFLICT LED TO A NEW FENCE
  11. CONCLUSION
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. REFERENCES

The Mar Vista Recreation Center opened in 1947 in West Los Angeles.1 The conversion of the 18-acre lot from private farmland into a public park typifies a period of park expansion that accompanied a postwar housing boom in the city. The neighborhood around the park has remained primarily residential, white, and middle to upper income, although not as exclusive as nearby Beverly Hills or Brentwood. For example, 82 percent of the 1,461 residents living in the four census blocks bordering the park identified as white and reported a median family income of $135,108 in 2010. In the 18 city blocks directly north of the park, which was home to the most vocal opponents of the field, only 3 percent of the residents identified as Latino. Areas within one to two miles of the park, however, have experienced increases in foreign-born Latino residents over the past 25 years, most of whom are tenants in scattered apartment complexes in the city's historically white and affluent Westside. This development is part of the general growth in Latin American immigration throughout the region since the 1970s. The Latinization of Los Angeles, however, has been uneven, as seen in the area bordering the park. As Charles (2004) and others (Bobo et al. 2002; Waldinger and Bozorgmehr 1996) have documented, Los Angeles remains highly segregated by race and class.

These shifting demographics are reflected in changing use patterns of the park. In June 2005, a soccer-specific facility was installed in the park. The new field formally replaced two softball diamonds, although the area had already been increasingly used for informal soccer matches over the past two decades. The vast majority of players were Latino immigrant men who lived or worked in the general area.

Consistent soccer play rendered this section of the park a “dustbowl” and “eyesore,” as two local residents described it to me. Park administrators and local volunteers also shared their frustration in trying to maintain grass in this area, an objective viewed as futile as long as the space was used for soccer. In response, local park advocates attended meetings, signed petitions, and lobbied park administrators to install a more manageable and attractive soccer field, which was facilitated by a surge in park funding in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Wolch, Wilson, and Fehrenbach 2005). The $850,000 field was built with Proposition K funds, a park-bond measure passed by Los Angeles voters in 1996 to increase and enhance parks and recreation centers in the city. The publicly financed project came to include synthetic grass, regulation lining, anchored goals, and bleachers. Five area residents served on the Local Volunteer Neighborhood Oversight Committee (LVNOC) set up by the grant.

While benefiting from its construction, none of the soccer players were directly involved in the process that brought the field to the park. In speaking with those involved in the project—none of whom played soccer in the park—the field was primarily envisioned as a resource for area youth and as an esthetic improvement for a persistently unkempt and unmanageable section of the park, exemplified for them by its heavy use and “dustbowl” appearance. However, since they personally did not use the terrain, local advocates of the field did not foresee the amount of adult activity and “outsider” interest the new facility would invite, much less the problems this would create for other area residents. There was also no historical precedent of neighborhood objections to draw upon. Prior to opening the new field, there was little publicly voiced opposition, much less anything resembling the local controversy that ensued. The rapid escalation of conflict, however, suggests that latent concerns about “outsiders”—the Latino men who for decades had played soccer in this space—were already incubating, but were not expressed.

THE ABRUPT INSTALLATION AND REMOVAL OF A PARK FENCE

  1. Top of page
  2. “Cercando un Lugar: Otros Imaginados en el Proceso de Conflicto sobre un Parque en un Barrio”
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. METHODOLOGY
  5. SOCCER AT THE MAR VISTA RECREATION CENTER
  6. THE ABRUPT INSTALLATION AND REMOVAL OF A PARK FENCE
  7. LOCAL OPPOSITION TO THE OPEN FIELD
  8. THE ROLE OF IMAGINED OTHERS IN BROADENING SUPPORT FOR THE RETURN OF A PARK FENCE
  9. THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO DEMANDS FOR A FENCE THROUGH IMAGINING OTHERS’ RESPONSES
  10. RESOLUTION: HOW CONFLICT LED TO A NEW FENCE
  11. CONCLUSION
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. REFERENCES

Before debates about a fence surfaced as a local concern, the city's administration of the upgraded facility created its own problems. Specifically, community members expressed opposition to a gated fence installed around the new field, citing this “eleventh hour” addition as a change they had not been consulted on. The fence was not, in fact, part of the original plans presented to the community, but a request submitted separately by the then park director shortly before the field's opening. In contrast to local residents, park administrators anticipated management problems when installing the soccer field in this neighborhood. To begin with, park administrators, unlike area residents, recognized that the new field would attract heavy use, especially by Latino men who were flocking to limited park space throughout the city to play soccer. Based on their experiences in other neighborhoods, park officials also understood that in a predominantly white and affluent area, some homeowners would express discomfort or opposition to the increased presence of Latino men in and around the field.

While never identifying these concerns as discriminatory or exclusionary, much less “racist,” park officials repeatedly suggested to me that residents preferred “local use” of parks and generally resisted park changes, especially those that would attract “outsiders.” For example, a park director assigned to the facility after the field was installed shared with me that homeowner complaints were much more common on the city's Westside, where residents were seen to be more sensitive and vocal about park problems, adding: “I have some personal feelings that I don't know I should share or not but I do think it's the feeling of outsiders coming in. They want it to be a neighborhood park.” Like private developers who restrict access to bonus plazas (Smithsimon 2008), she claimed that her predecessor fenced in the field so staff could control its use, recognizing that without a fence it would be difficult to manage when and by whom the field was used, which they expected to be a playing population some residents would find problematic.

Yet, not informing local residents formally involved in the field project about the fencing decision, park officials anticipated a different complication. Specifically, park administrators were concerned that neighbors would object to the fence because it would symbolize conflict (i.e., people have to be kept out). As the later park director explained to me, “People usually don't like fences, at least talking about them. It makes them feel uncomfortable.” Rather than traveling touchy terrain about “outsiders coming in” during the planning stages, the then park director had the fence installed without community input.

Internal communications show that park officials anticipated opposition to the fence. For example, in an email to the park director, the field architect shared that, as he had “barely survived” local backlash over a proposed fence in a similar neighborhood, he was hesitant to inform the community about this project. His assistant revealed to me that they expected resistance to the fence as well, even though they both supported the plan. Residents from this neighborhood and other primarily white and upper-middle areas, they said, were more resourceful and insistent on shaping local park policies than less advantaged parts of the city.

Indeed, the park director's decision to install the fence without public deliberation—despite debating most other aspects of the project with community members—suggests serious concern over initial opposition to the barrier. Reflecting on the decision to fence the field without community support, a park administrator commented on the challenge of implementing unpopular projects: “It's tough when you know what's right or needed but the community doesn't get it,” adding, “the public has more knee-jerk reactions to things, while we have a more long-term perspective.”

As park officials anticipated, local residents opposed the installed fence. Several objections were raised: For one, as the fence went against, or was simply beyond, the approved plans, its underhanded inclusion called into question the legitimacy of the public participation process that accompanied the field grant. A more pressing and widespread reason for uproar was that the fence, which suddenly closed off a section of the park, was said to be unsightly, illogical, and offensive, especially as it often remained locked during daylight hours. In my conversations with those involved in the fence debate, many spoke of its “prison” look and “privatized” feel, as experienced in the park, when passing by, or from adjacent homes.

While anticipating local objections to the fence, park administrators did not foresee its removal. However, less than 2 months after its controversial installation, the local councilman, persuaded by political pressure of angry constituents, forced the park department to remove the $29,000 structure. As park officials expected, neighbors objected to the fence as a sign of exclusion and conflict.

The fact that local residents viewed the fence as both unattractive and counter to the type of park community members envisioned is theoretically significant. Like subsequent use of the field, the fence had symbolic implications for local residents, who experienced it as characterizing the neighborhood in a negative light. Specifically, local residents felt the fence indicated to imagined others that this was an area that either wished or needed to restrict its public spaces, which projected both esthetic and ideological messages.

In an interview, a park neighbor reflected on the resulting implications: “I didn't like how it looked and I didn't like what it said about us.” The role of imagined others in motivating opposition to the fence was made clear when I pressed the local: “I knew that when people drove by they'd think that we were trying to keep people out, it says that you don't belong and we don't want you.” Looking back, another local resident explained to me: “It was felt that this was not a park that needs or wants to fence in its facilities.” Indeed, the fence, like iron bars on a home, indicated to outsiders that there was a problem, even when no direct, immediate, or visible troublesome conduct indicated a problem. That few of these residents actually used the field, and were thus less motivated by practical concerns over access, shows how symbolic and indirect objections provoked opposition to the fence.

Unexpectedly, adjacent homeowners who would later take issue with field use claimed to be either indifferent or similarly unsatisfied with the fence. They also reported that they were initially pleased with the new facility without having any intentions of using it, primarily because it replaced a dirt section of the park they all agreed was an “eyesore” that several of them could see from their homes or when passing by. That the field remained largely locked and empty during this period meant that having an accessible and attractive field was not about personal experience.

Park managers’ had dueling concerns when they decided to fence the field without public deliberation: On the one hand, they anticipated local objections to heavy use of the field by Latino “outsiders” and on the other hand, they expected that neighbors would be initially unhappy about the restriction and its implications. Responding to this dilemma, they installed the fence without consulting area residents, as this would have brought up sensitive issues of difference and rights to the city, even though they expected those precise concerns to motivate neighbor demands for a fence in the first place. Park officials grounded this expectation not in direct use conflicts—i.e., neighbors trying to use the field for different purposes or at the same time—but by anticipating local opposition to its consistent use by stigmatized “outsiders” if not fenced. Rooted in past experiences in similar parks and neighborhoods, this proved to be a rational and realistic assumption. However, as the fence effectively barred the Latino men park administrators anticipated causing problems for local residents, the expected consequences of an open field had yet to materialize. In turn, neighbor objections focused on the fence, and through their influence with the local councilman, they were able to have it removed.

LOCAL OPPOSITION TO THE OPEN FIELD

  1. Top of page
  2. “Cercando un Lugar: Otros Imaginados en el Proceso de Conflicto sobre un Parque en un Barrio”
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. METHODOLOGY
  5. SOCCER AT THE MAR VISTA RECREATION CENTER
  6. THE ABRUPT INSTALLATION AND REMOVAL OF A PARK FENCE
  7. LOCAL OPPOSITION TO THE OPEN FIELD
  8. THE ROLE OF IMAGINED OTHERS IN BROADENING SUPPORT FOR THE RETURN OF A PARK FENCE
  9. THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO DEMANDS FOR A FENCE THROUGH IMAGINING OTHERS’ RESPONSES
  10. RESOLUTION: HOW CONFLICT LED TO A NEW FENCE
  11. CONCLUSION
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. REFERENCES

As word circulated about the first-rate and now unrestricted field, its use increased substantially, which created problems for residents living near the park. As anticipated by park administrators, adjacent homeowners voiced concerns over an increase in noise, street parking, traffic, loitering, trash, vandalism, and crime and more subjective discussions of the park and neighborhood's deteriorating “nature.” One individual, who maintained that his daughters no longer felt safe in the park because of field-related activity, described these changes to me: “Just the numbers of people and the quality. I hate to say quality, it sounds so snobby, and I don't mean it to be, but it is. It was the nature of the park being so very different.”

Five local homeowners aggressively mobilized in hopes of “controlling” the field and “overflow” problems. In an article for the Villager, the newsletter for the Westdale Homeowners Association (WHOA), which represents a housing tract of roughly 900 single-family homes directly north of the facility, the authors argued that, while the park used to be a “real asset to this neighborhood,” since the installation of the field, “the nature of the park has changed substantially.” Even more, the field had “displaced a community of residents who used to enjoy the park for quieter recreation, exercise, and relaxation.” Threats to community and family were stressed in circulating photographs of field problems, including images of garbage as well as large numbers of predominantly Latino men in and around the field, as in the case of one picture captioned with the text: “What parent will ask these men to stop so he can play catch with his child?” Another flier asserted that the new field was “turning a quiet residential neighborhood into a WEST SIDE STAPLES CENTER,” in reference to the downtown sports arena, and condemned “LAPD failure to respond to urgent calls from residents trapped in a lawless, Wild West environment.”

The offending users were often identified as people not from the “area.” For example, in an email to the WHOA president, a frustrated resident wrote: “The users of the field, are for the most part NOT homeowners in your area, but it is your responsibility of office to represent our interests,” adding, “You are defending the rights of people to PLAY, while we have been spending 27 months fighting for our rights to LIVE in peace and quiet.” In fact, residents frequently spoke of their violated right to “reasonable peace, quiet, and safety that I'm afforded as a homeowner,” as one individual put it to me, adding, “I paid a lot of money for this house.” Indeed, many wrote of an “out of control situation” at the park.

In interviews, residents expressed the personal impact of the new field emotionally, with anger and fear. One neighbor claimed that he no longer felt comfortable having friends over to barbecue. Economic interests were also invoked: another neighbor was concerned that she will never be able to sell her home because of its adjacency to the field. Neighbors spoke to me of the personal affront and nuisance of having to pick up discarded trash from their front lawns. Photographs of litter, especially beer bottles, were often included in circulating reports and public presentations as objects “out of place” (Douglass 1966; see also Murphy 2012; Perin 1979).

Arguing that the park is “too small and too close to residential homes to adequately support the amount of traffic [the field] has invited,” the authors of the aforementioned Villager article urged local residents to sign a petition addressing these problems. The petition, which was endorsed by the WHOA and eventually signed by 130 area residents, demanded that the park “reduce hours of operation, in order to remedy the negative impact its current use is having on the surrounding neighborhood.” As park officials expected when they initially erected a fence, these residents demanded a return of full-perimeter fencing.

THE ROLE OF IMAGINED OTHERS IN BROADENING SUPPORT FOR THE RETURN OF A PARK FENCE

  1. Top of page
  2. “Cercando un Lugar: Otros Imaginados en el Proceso de Conflicto sobre un Parque en un Barrio”
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. METHODOLOGY
  5. SOCCER AT THE MAR VISTA RECREATION CENTER
  6. THE ABRUPT INSTALLATION AND REMOVAL OF A PARK FENCE
  7. LOCAL OPPOSITION TO THE OPEN FIELD
  8. THE ROLE OF IMAGINED OTHERS IN BROADENING SUPPORT FOR THE RETURN OF A PARK FENCE
  9. THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO DEMANDS FOR A FENCE THROUGH IMAGINING OTHERS’ RESPONSES
  10. RESOLUTION: HOW CONFLICT LED TO A NEW FENCE
  11. CONCLUSION
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. REFERENCES

Individual complaints were not always effective in gaining support from those not directly impacted by field use. In hopes of influencing park policy, fence supporters stressed the broader appeal and urgency of their concerns and objectives, at least to fellow Westdale residents. Specifically, organizers were more and more explicit in identifying field problems as a symbol of larger developments that were threatening the park and neighborhood. Support for the fence was increasingly independent of any problems with personal use of the park or trash, noise, or other negative spillovers onto neighbors’ properties. These appeals increasingly included risks to safety and property values, both implicitly and explicitly. For example, a letter to the homeowners’ association newsletter concluded: “While the direct impact is felt most by those living nearby, these problems will affect the overall peaceful quality of our neighborhood and also our property values.” Indeed, the “market reaction” was a consistent source of unease for local residents, reflecting the ways in which locals’ preoccupations with imagined others in the real estate market entered to accelerate conflict. As warned in a circulating flier, “if we do not have a large, unified showing at all these meetings, others interests will prevail and determine the future of life in Westdale.”

The campaign picked up critical support by appealing to opponents who, living at a distance from the park, were more likely to be concerned by the symbolic meaning of park use. This shift away from practical concerns was made clear in a strategizing email: “The more interest and concern we show for the park as a whole, and as a part of the neighborhood, the more our voices will be heard.” In turn, community meetings about the soccer field were identified as opportunities to “protect,” “preserve,” and “save” “our neighborhood,” recurrent NIMBY catchphrases in distributed materials and public presentations. Thus, there was an appeal to collective local identity. That many local residents signed the petition and attended meetings, including those who lived several blocks away, and were thus not directly impacted by field activity, nor appeared to use the field, shows the appeal and effectiveness of this approach, at least in the early stages. The resonance of the campaign is found in encouraging emails, such as “I commend you for all your work to keep our park and neighborhood safe and clean” and “I so hope that we, the immediate locals, can get our wonderful neighborhood park again.”

The invocation of transcendent issues, such as homeowner rights and neighborhood security, distant from the particulars of field use, accelerated the conflict. For local residents, the future of the neighborhood was felt to be at stake with the fate of the park. Abstractly conceived others figured in the conflict as vaguely expressed concerns over the neighborhood's changing public perception. Others’ judgments may be based upon subjective allusions to the area's disturbed “nature” or more concrete assessments of crime, with implications for property values.

In addition, outside assessors were not always abstractly imagined public opinion, but specific people and real acquaintances whose impressions concretely mattered. For example, apprehension over guests driving by the field on their way home or fear of disapproval when mentioning that they lived near the park also helped rally support. However, the extent of activity on the field did not appear to alter neighbors’ personal use of the park dramatically, as few expressed any practical interest in using it. Many shared that they either never used the park before the field controversy or continued to visit other areas in the 18-acre facility. Local residents, especially older ones, also tended to relate to the park as a place of nature and quiet relaxation, not as a sports field (see Loukaitou-Sideris 1995). One middle-aged neighbor, for example, frequently joked with me that she wished the city would turn the soccer field into a duck pond.

Moreover, few spoke of any face-to-face contact, much less direct conflict, with field users. Soccer players were not invited to their meetings nor included in communications about the field. Had they participated, speaking for themselves, rather than being imagined on the basis of provocative accounts and photographs taken from a distance, they may have potentially changed the tenor of debate.

It is also noteworthy that everyone I spoke with agreed that Latino immigration had transformed use of the park well before the opening of the new field. In fact, it was heavy use by Latino immigrant men that, in part, precipitated the installation of artificial turf. Even more, prior conditions described to me by users of the “dirt” space, such as large numbers, beer drinking, and raucous interaction, correspond with locals’ complaints about use of the new field. As one longtime park user, a 42-year-old native of El Salvador, put it to me, “They didn't care about us until they put in the nice field.” Yet neighbors rarely had direct evidence that the soccer players were the culprits of purported field-related problems, be it noise, parking, or trash (Murphy 2012). By making these assumptions, the field drew collective attention to the park and crystallized opposition to the Latino use that had been potentially building informally for years but without a nonethnic rationale for opposition.

Disgruntled, complaining neighbors of the park won increased support from area homeowners by expressing concerns about how “Latino soccer players” could change anonymous others’ views of the residents. More concretely, the fence catalyzed local opposition to uses of the field and in effect, helped them focus, organize, and communicate with each other about the “problem.” It was more difficult and drawn out to maintain local support for taking action to solve that problem. In fact, by expanding their objections to gather broader support, field opponents provoked a counter-movement that surfaced in opposition to their demands for a fence.

THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO DEMANDS FOR A FENCE THROUGH IMAGINING OTHERS’ RESPONSES

  1. Top of page
  2. “Cercando un Lugar: Otros Imaginados en el Proceso de Conflicto sobre un Parque en un Barrio”
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. METHODOLOGY
  5. SOCCER AT THE MAR VISTA RECREATION CENTER
  6. THE ABRUPT INSTALLATION AND REMOVAL OF A PARK FENCE
  7. LOCAL OPPOSITION TO THE OPEN FIELD
  8. THE ROLE OF IMAGINED OTHERS IN BROADENING SUPPORT FOR THE RETURN OF A PARK FENCE
  9. THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO DEMANDS FOR A FENCE THROUGH IMAGINING OTHERS’ RESPONSES
  10. RESOLUTION: HOW CONFLICT LED TO A NEW FENCE
  11. CONCLUSION
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. REFERENCES

A small number of outraged individuals also spearheaded opposition to restrictions. While initially less organized and committed than local residents pushing for a fence, their numbers grew larger although with varying involvement and interests. For example, in contrast to the 130 individuals who signed a petition in favor of a fence, over 500 signed a counter-petition to keep the field “open.” Most of those actively involved in opposing restrictions—attending meetings, rallying support, lobbying sources of influence, for example—were also local residents, but generally younger and newer to the area than those advocating for a fence. The role of imagined others was key in mobilizing opposition.

Again, few actual users of the soccer field were actively involved in any of these debates. Many of the men explained to me that it was precisely their appreciation for local concerns that in part kept them from attending public meetings, as they anticipated their presence in these settings would be provocative. For example, when a member of the park office encouraged a group of Latino players to attend a community meeting about the field, one commented to me that it would “make things worse if we went,” humorously adding, “who's going to listen to him,” pointing to a player known for his disheveled appearance, combative temperament, and limited English. This absence leads their interests to go unvoiced, mischaracterized, or spoken for by others.

Yet in contrast to how they were imagined by fence proponents, those opposing demands for a fence portrayed the players in a very different light. Arguments against a fence, or any restrictions, varied. Most immediately, those closely involved in park affairs maintained that not only was the field never intended to be enclosed but, in reference to the original fence, it had not previously worked, as the field often remained locked during daylight hours. In turn, the notion of building an expensive fence to “appease a few neighbors,” as one local resident put it in a community meeting, became a consistent source of anger and frustration for open space proponents.

While opposition was initially in response to local demands for a fence, it quickly took on new energies and mechanisms. Many area residents joined the debate in response to their neighbors’ outspokenness. They felt that something invisible and illegitimate was driving the demands for a fence, and reflecting badly on them as part of the neighborhood. Much of this was indirect but helps make sense of lots of otherwise inexplicable developments, including the expansion and crystallization of competing positions on all sides of the issue. Thus, while challenging what they considered to be the artificial base of locals’ concerns, proponents of open access were also motivated by imagined views of self by anonymous others.

Most notably, fence opponents viewed complaints as coming from a small minority that at best had underhandedly gained the support of local residents, and at worst exaggerated the problems out of racist and undemocratic motives. According to the author of several reports opposing a fence, “They didn't even know why they were there. They were ill informed and driven by hysteria. It was all about protecting their neighborhood over unfounded threats.” Fence opponents viewed the inclusion of perceived nonfield-related concerns in turn as masking more sinister objectives and thinly veiled associations:

They kept dragging in other issues, parking, garbage, and alcohol. And that was the nexus that then said, that it's this element that is being brought in by this Hispanic community, they litter, they drink, and they socialize drinking beer out of their car. By letting the conversation go there, the lines could be connected. It should have never gone there.

The threat of lawsuits, talk of crime, reference to property values, and use of terms like “outsiders,” “invaders,” and “thugs” all represented this exclusionary and reactionary viewpoint. Referring to a park neighbor pushing for a fence, a member of the local Park Advisory Board said: “It didn't take long to figure out that maybe it was the people who were playing soccer [rather than the noise] that he had the issue with.” In fact, the immediate response of many fence opponents was to cast their neighbors’ demands for a fence as racist and disingenuous, since they gave less attention to practical field matters, such as after-hours access and parking overflow. For example, the councilman's field deputy assigned to the area confided that she initially regarded field detractors as “NIMBYs who don't like the fact that there are now young men of color coming into their neighborhood to play soccer.” After the conflict was covered in a local newspaper (Echavaria 2006), an adjacent neighborhood council referred to the matter as a “cultural conflict.” A widely distributed report that identified neighbor demands as the “politics of exclusion” further aroused local insecurities about “outsider” interpretations.

For many, perceptions of racism and NIMBYism were especially appalling given the area's self-identification as “liberal” and inclusive. As one individual put it to me, “It's hard not to be particularly offended when a group of people who love to espouse their liberalism at every opportunity and take almost a community pride in it suddenly do a reverse polarity.” An email regarding the escalating field controversy to the area councilman captures this indignation: “I was proud of my neighborhood but now I am a bit ashamed to say I live in the neighborhood.” A central figure opposing the fence used this reasoning to acquire a letter of support from the ACLU of Southern California encouraging “equal access.”

As with the “pro-fence” faction, those opposing it introduced new arguments, which mobilized broader support and escalated the conflict. For example, perceived changes in park life were attributed to living in a large metropolitan area with park space inadequate for the growing Latino population. The lack of outreach and consideration of this population was viewed as emblematic of the neighborhood's isolated and intolerant position.

The nonattendance of the Latino players at meetings relegated them to objects of the imagination of white residents too, but their supporters described the men and soccer activity quite differently than how field opponents characterized them. For example, a local resident described the players in the following way during a public meeting: “Maybe something that not all the stakeholders are aware of but the people that come out to play here work hard, they have families, they have jobs, this is a great place for them.” In this comment and others, the absent players were reimagined from ruffians and criminals into hard-working family men, although it is unclear how many personally knew the men they were describing and speaking for.

In turn, the fence opponents viewed a welcoming and diverse park as a positive reflection on the surrounding community, an association more in tune with how these locals perceived the area and themselves. For example, rather than viewing the field as a source of shame, many spoke in community meetings with pride of seeing the “city represented in the park,” as one participant put it during public comment. Calls for field restrictions were hence a violation of these values. Clearly, the fence came to carry very different meanings at the height of debate. What started as concern over real and perceived “spill over” from a new soccer field rapidly escalated into a much larger conflict over the identity of the neighborhood, which, while adding to its volatility, also worked toward its eventual resolution.

RESOLUTION: HOW CONFLICT LED TO A NEW FENCE

  1. Top of page
  2. “Cercando un Lugar: Otros Imaginados en el Proceso de Conflicto sobre un Parque en un Barrio”
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. METHODOLOGY
  5. SOCCER AT THE MAR VISTA RECREATION CENTER
  6. THE ABRUPT INSTALLATION AND REMOVAL OF A PARK FENCE
  7. LOCAL OPPOSITION TO THE OPEN FIELD
  8. THE ROLE OF IMAGINED OTHERS IN BROADENING SUPPORT FOR THE RETURN OF A PARK FENCE
  9. THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO DEMANDS FOR A FENCE THROUGH IMAGINING OTHERS’ RESPONSES
  10. RESOLUTION: HOW CONFLICT LED TO A NEW FENCE
  11. CONCLUSION
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. REFERENCES

A final stage in the conflict developed when all sides began to see the debate itself as a negative reflection on the local community. Again, resident concerns with the local community's reputation in the eyes of anonymous others were more prominent than practical problems over park use. Many local residents on both sides of the fence issue came to feel that the dispute was giving the neighborhood a “black eye” and tried to censor or distance themselves from untoward behavior and rhetoric. An area resident and Park Advisory Board member spoke of how embarrassed she was by what she perceived as “racist comments” by her neighbor: “I was appalled because he lived in my neighborhood and I couldn't believe it. And I surely didn't want to be associated with him.” Similarly, a park neighbor in favor of a fence recounted the horror of overhearing an individual at a party refer to Westdale as “that snooty neighborhood trying to keep outsiders from using their park.” As these comments reveal, the imagined perceptions of real and more abstractly conceived others motivated those debating the fence. Allegations of racism, in particular, were difficult to accept and firmly rejected by those in favor of fencing the field. To combat this perception, they frequently clarified that they had no interest in locking the field—nor harbored any ill feeling toward soccer or soccer players, much less racist views—but only wanted to secure “reasonable” hours and “balanced” use, which they had been told by park staff and city officials was only possible via a gated fence. A supporter of the fence was indignant and incredulous at the ACLU letter, writing in an email to his collaborators:

I think everybody should be very careful about making allegations of racism unless we want this to get real ugly, real fast. First, NONE of us have ever made any reference to skin color and frankly I don't even know the nationality of any of the players on the field. My only bias is against people yelling and whistling outside my house at 6am and waking up my family. [He] should be very careful about declaring that the [neighborhood council] Board feels the neighborhood is racist, if that is what he says. Personally, I am furious if he or the Board has made this allegation. Really, how dare they!

While outraged by charges of racism, some of the fence supporters recognized their objectives may have appeared racist and so, attempted to control incendiary rhetoric, especially given apparent opposition of white homeowners to Latino soccer players. One of the men, who became a spokesman of sorts for the fence supporters, reflected openly on the matter with me: “I can understand how that can be taken, particularly historically. Listen, I'm old enough to have lived through the civil rights movement, so I know all that was said about black people: they're always loud, they always throw garbage, so I understand that that can have a certain resonance.” Another local resident, who played a more mediating role, addressed these growing concerns with me:

There was a couple of individuals, I'm not going to name names who, for lack of a better word, their approach and their terminologies had a sense of racial profiling or racism that put a real ugly tone into the whole process because it moved the discussion away from, ok, we've got this valuable resource and maybe there's some issues that we have to address about its use and dealing with its availability, especially at the very early morning and late hours of evening, into we're a lily white community and we don't like this kind of ethnic, predominately Hispanic entity in the park.

On all sides, most agreed that such tactics were ultimately counterproductive. As one individual explained, “they thought they could somehow garner support of the broader community with those kinds of fear mongering, if you'd like, which I think ended up torpedoing their own plans because the community is generally rather liberal.”

Residents also viewed the impulse to completely dismiss local concerns as racist and invented as unfair and unhelpful. The sarcastic suggestion that unhappy residents should “move to Montana if they don't like it”—as expressed several times during public meetings—was similarly rejected. In fact, many early opponents of the fence came to accept the need for greater controls as the debate progressed. The evolving views of the councilman's field deputy characterized this shift in perspective:

My position that these are just racist NIMBY types who don't want to deal with shifting demographics in Southern California started to switch because I started to talk to some of the younger homeowners in the area who didn't seem as so narrow minded and they would tell me I don't care that people come and play on the soccer field, but I have young children and at 11 o'clock at night when the park is technically closed to the public they are yelling and screaming and making noise. I was more sympathetic to that and I thought maybe we have to control the use of the field better and the whole, you're just being racist, was always a way to drown them out.

Adding pressure to the need for a resolution, the area councilman became increasingly concerned with the political ramifications of this brewing controversy, which he urged his field deputy to resolve before his looming reelection campaign. Around this time, the city and more formal neighborhood organizations became involved in trying to settle the dispute, which they also felt was casting a dark shadow on their positions in the community. The political process (Roberts 2004; Silverman 2009) pushed the extremes toward the “center” and resulted in a fence compromise.

The city's approval and support of a fence certainly facilitated the decision. It also became apparent that many of those locally involved were in fact open, or resigned, to the functional need for a fence, but were concerned about the form it would take. Once the city secured funding, energies shifted to negotiating a community-sanctioned plan, rather than arguing whether or not the field should be enclosed, a debate all agreed had gotten way out of hand. After more deliberation, a $450,000 publicly financed enclosure plan was adopted in September 2010, one that came to include a jogging path, exercise stations, and ornamental plantings.

When residents now refer in local meetings and everyday conversations to the new and elaborated fence, they generally present it as a park improvement and a symbol of community cohesion. They rarely mention the heated debates and divisions that preceded its completion, much less the then 5-year-old battle to remove the original fence and the control and exclusion it enabled. For example, a newsletter celebrating the Mar Vista Community Council's 10-year anniversary in 2012 described the fence as a “cooperative, creative, and problem-solving effort on behalf of the community.”

The introduction of the conflict into the political arena pushed out the extremes and mitigated some of the pressing obstacles, thereby making compromise likely. Once a city-backed political solution was put in place, the controversy died down. There were really never any practical issues to work out, as few of those involved in the conflict over the field actually used it and most of the concerns and objections were ultimately peripheral to the field itself. Indeed, as discussions shifted to administrative matters from competing concerns over the image of the park and neighborhood in the eyes of imagined others, the gridlock and animosity subsided substantially.2

External pressure from political leaders ultimately helped to resolve a community controversy that all sides came to agree had spiraled way out of control, with serious ramifications for the reputation of the neighborhood. Many early fence opponents grew to accept the need for greater controls, despite their initial concerns over racism and exclusion. While park administrators advised this from the beginning, local residents came to this realization through the recognition that the conflict was self-defeating. However poorly the soccer players reflected on the area's reputation, the conflict had an even more negative effect.

CONCLUSION

  1. Top of page
  2. “Cercando un Lugar: Otros Imaginados en el Proceso de Conflicto sobre un Parque en un Barrio”
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. METHODOLOGY
  5. SOCCER AT THE MAR VISTA RECREATION CENTER
  6. THE ABRUPT INSTALLATION AND REMOVAL OF A PARK FENCE
  7. LOCAL OPPOSITION TO THE OPEN FIELD
  8. THE ROLE OF IMAGINED OTHERS IN BROADENING SUPPORT FOR THE RETURN OF A PARK FENCE
  9. THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO DEMANDS FOR A FENCE THROUGH IMAGINING OTHERS’ RESPONSES
  10. RESOLUTION: HOW CONFLICT LED TO A NEW FENCE
  11. CONCLUSION
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. REFERENCES

This study of a contested and symbolically charged park in West Los Angeles follows a long line of case studies on parks at the center of intergroup tensions in the city. In this case, the implications of park life for the surrounding neighborhood made this conflict so consequential and meaningful for local residents. Yet, few parties to the conflict actually claimed to use the facility or interact with field users. While some initially mobilized in favor or against greater controls, the debate quickly came to symbolize much more than installing a fence around a soccer field. It symbolized the challenges and contradictions of exclusion and diversity in the contemporary city.

This paper shows how local residents constructed a sense of self and community by anticipating the standpoint of others like themselves at all stages of the conflict. This distinctive kind of interaction, in which individuals argue face-to-face as each invokes imagined views of others who are not present, has not been sufficiently analyzed in earlier studies of conflicts over parks. But, as this paper shows, the perceived concerns of others is a critical contingency, powerful although changing in its meaning and significance for the life of the conflict: first setting it off, then escalating the conflict, then spurring its resolution. The substance of the conflict and the interests on both sides were less important than imagining how others would think about and react to it. This led to shifting emotions and changes in position over the course of the conflict.

As this case study demonstrates, neighbors’ relationship with area parks and local public space is delicate and volatile. For example, some parks are relatively well resourced and cared for by residents. Their investment, which is partly enabled by class privilege, also turns into feelings of ownership at times. Homeowners, especially those with resources and confidence, often assume that along with their house's property value are associated entitlements to public services and facilities, including local parks.

Yet proprietary claims on a public facility open to those outside the immediate neighborhood cannot be formally enforced. When “outsiders” violate local norms, it provokes resentment and resistance. Indeed, local attempts at restricting the park's public did not go as planned—as unanticipated problems surfaced with the new publicly financed soccer field. How to balance local attachments and investments with the rights of the larger city is no easy task, especially as neighbors’ concerns often extend beyond the use of the park per se to include more symbolic and indirect associations between public space and the meaning and quality of their lives, property, and neighborhood. Neighborhood public space has implications for identity and selfhood.

While these concerns are real and deeply felt, middle and upper middle class white homeowners who choose to live in contemporary cities find it hard to express them directly—often, because they think of themselves as liberal, tolerant, and cosmopolitan, as people appreciating the multicultural nature of today's urban world. Local residents’ seemingly wild reversals of position on the fence issue makes sense as they come to terms, over time, with the compromises that diversity requires of them. They cannot reverse demographic changes or the unequal distribution of park space across the larger city. They are not unanimous about excluding “outsiders.” The park administration has recurrent experiences with this type of conflict, leading to the solution of a fence, but for neighborhood residents, how to regulate public and community uses of a local park is always a new dilemma. In each neighborhood, the locals have to work through their own posture on these broader changes that they may welcome or resist until they have to confront them.

Threats and accusations of racism certainly complicated the matter. Using stigmatized labels undermines the legitimacy of expressing some kinds of concerns (Van Dijk 1992). The general embrace of tolerance and diversity in white middle class communities often clashes with desires to maintain status and order. In fact, the field controversy enabled the mobilization of some resentment of outsiders that had been potentially building informally for years but without a socially acceptable way to express them. Moreover, while “prejudice” accounts for some of the opposition to open use of the field, it is not simply the prejudice of the neighbors themselves. They also anticipated how others, including prospective homebuyers, would see them and the area in light of the park. On one side were neighbors who imagined outsiders would associate the diverse users of the field with a déclassé neighborhood, and on the other side were residents who wanted to be cosmopolitan and who thought excluding people with a fence would project a racist image of themselves and the neighborhood. Conflicting characterizations of the Latino players as, alternately, criminals and working fathers reflected contrasting views of the fence as either exclusionary and inclusionary. Invoking an imagined generalized other—in the form of public opinion, the housing market, or one's reputation and status—enabled people to change their minds and facilitated the ultimate resolution of these conflicting positions on the park.

Dramatic shifts in position are also indicative of the dynamic link between social context and the perception of disorder (Hipp 2010; Sampson 2009; St. Jean 2007). For example, while local residents may have acted as folk advocates of “broken windows” theory, what they perceived as in need of fixing varied and changed over the course of the conflict. At different moments, the Latino players, for example, represented sources of shame and pride for local residents. The fence similarly shifted from a sign of exclusion and conflict to one symbolizing inclusion and compromise. These changes were not so much motivated by selfishness or prejudice, but rather reflected the uncertainties and contradictions surrounding diversity, order, and homeownership in the contemporary city (Deener 2012; Fischer 1999; Gibson 2005; Kefalas 2003; Lyon-Callo 2001; Pattillo 2007). The serial putting up and taking down of the park fence is a tangible symbol of this struggle.

These tensions arose from the improvement of the soccer field, which attracted even more “new” users and overwhelmed other uses of the park. As Latino soccer players and enthusiasts continue to grow in Los Angeles, so too does the potential for conflict in urban parks. Ethnic contestations for control of public parks today look different from classic research on defended neighborhoods (Rieder 1985; Suttles 1968; Zorbaugh 1929) during the long stretch of U.S. history when immigration was effectively curtailed.

The Latino proportion of Los Angeles County, for example, officially grew from 18 percent in 1970 to 48 percent in 2010. Future research should consider the complex dynamics and status implications that shape local beliefs and responses of Whites to the ongoing Latinization of city parks, especially under conditions of minimal face-to-face interaction and unequal resources between groups. While struggles over public space are certainly not unique to White-Latino relations, this case study may signal more urban park disputes to come as the Latino immigration population continues to disperse from early, immigration gateway cities, such as Los Angeles, throughout the country (Modan 2007). These demographic changes will invariably raise new questions about how social classes and racial groups maintain and challenge privilege and segregation in the city. This contemporary case shows both the challenges and opportunities available to neighbors in their attempts to appropriate local public space as “their” property.

As in previous research, this study of the fence dispute illustrates how public parks still represent pivotal grounds for managing intergroup conflicts in residentially segregated cities. Exclusionary private property rights of homeowners collide with citizenship rights to the city. Indeed, cities are distinctive not for their conflicts in and over public space, but for how and the extent to which the conflicts get resolved. This case study shows that the sources of tension and trouble extend beyond the immediate material interests of nearby homeowners and the actions of park users. The conflict over fencing a field was also about more symbolic and indirect concerns of those who find their identities reflected in park use, and particularly in how they imagine “others” like them regard them.

Notes
  1. 1

    I identify the park and neighborhood so others can better evaluate and think about my findings (see Duneier 1999). It was not, however, necessary for the sake of clarity to identify those I interviewed, especially as I did not want to contribute to already contentious relationships (Deener 2012).

  2. 2

    Three years after its installation, the fence has not dramatically impeded field use, as it generally remains unlocked during facility hours—typically sunup to sundown. Disinterest in using the unlit field in the early morning and late at night further reveals the exaggerated nature of local concerns about incessant use. The future, however, is uncertain, especially as park officials now have formal means to restrict and control use.

REFERENCES

  1. Top of page
  2. “Cercando un Lugar: Otros Imaginados en el Proceso de Conflicto sobre un Parque en un Barrio”
  3. INTRODUCTION
  4. METHODOLOGY
  5. SOCCER AT THE MAR VISTA RECREATION CENTER
  6. THE ABRUPT INSTALLATION AND REMOVAL OF A PARK FENCE
  7. LOCAL OPPOSITION TO THE OPEN FIELD
  8. THE ROLE OF IMAGINED OTHERS IN BROADENING SUPPORT FOR THE RETURN OF A PARK FENCE
  9. THE RISE OF OPPOSITION TO DEMANDS FOR A FENCE THROUGH IMAGINING OTHERS’ RESPONSES
  10. RESOLUTION: HOW CONFLICT LED TO A NEW FENCE
  11. CONCLUSION
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. REFERENCES
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