Two years ago, construction crews worked late into the night around the perimeter of Echo Park Lake, putting up segment after segment of the chain-link fence as protesters clashed with police officers not far away.
At the time, that fence was described as a temporary barrier, which would allow the city to clear a massive homeless encampment and then begin work to clean up, repair and restore the park.
Now, Councilman Hugo Soto-Martinez is preparing to tear down that fence, just as the city reaches the two-year anniversary of the controversial camp operation. But the neighborhood remains, at least in part, divided by the fence and the future of the park, one of the most picturesque places in the city.
Soto-Martinez, who vowed to remove the fence during last year’s election campaign, described it as a symbol of the city’s “biggest failure of homelessness policy.” But he faces criticism from some in the neighborhood, who say the fence was essential in restoring order within the park, allowing families and older people to return.
Gil Mangaoang, a retired social worker, said he and his neighbors had a front-row view of the chaos that regularly erupted inside the park between 2019 and 2021, including shootings, fires and physical fights. Residents near the park, Mangaoang said, had their sleep repeatedly interrupted by late-night parties, loud music and shouts from the camp.
Four people died at the park, including an 18-year-old from San Diego County who drug overdose.
“Councilwoman Soto-Martínez’s campaign promise was to remove the fence. But you know what? The campaign is over,” said Mangaoang, who lives in a lakefront apartment. “Now he has to govern and represent all his constituents.”
Mangaoang, 76, and several other longtime park goers have asked Soto-Martinez to install a permanent fence, similar to those found at Los Angeles State Historic Park in Chinatown and Leimert Park in the South Los Angeles. They have described some of the incidents that took place when the camp was in full swing.
At one point, Mangaoang said, he saw a man outside a tent throwing punches at another man. “He was trying to punch the guy in the stomach, and the other guy tried to kick him in the groin,” he said. “I made a U-turn and left the park.”
Nancy Ochoa, 34, said she pulled her two children out of the park two years ago after she saw a man yelling and waving a gun. Andrea Martínez González, 73, said she saw a physical fight between two women, one of them partially clothed.
“I stopped walking in the park because of the camp,” he said. “And it was wonderful to get it back.”
Soto-Martinez has tried to address those fears, vowing to send homeless outreach workers to the park seven days a week, while having an unarmed response team available at night. Last week, he and Mayor Karen Bass’s Inside Safe program moved 64 homeless people, many from the streets near the lake, into temporary housing.
Forty-five went to the Silver Lake Hotel, nearly two miles away, while another 14 went to the Grand Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, according to a Bass aide. Five are at a motel that has not been identified, the aide said.
Soto-Martínez highlighted that work at two recent public meetings, both dedicated to the removal of the fence. He has blamed the park’s past public safety problems on his predecessor, former councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who lost to Soto-Martinez last year.
“The former councilman let the park fall into this position,” Soto-Martínez told a group. “The councilor is the boss, the one in charge. He let it happen. I won’t let it happen.
O’Farrell had no comment when contacted by The Times. Last year, while running for re-election, he said the park had become a “dangerous and deadly environment” for camp residents, requiring a major relocation effort.
Homeless advocacy groups have long rejected that narrative. In 2021, those groups released a statement calling the encampment a “beautiful and highly lauded outdoor community run by the homeless,” one that offered safety, stability, and “healing for drug addiction and mental illness.” Since then, they claim that the violence in the area was committed by police officers, who fired projectiles and injured the demonstrators who opposed the camp operation.
LA has poured resources into Echo Park Lake over the past few decades, undertaking a $45 million park renovation that added 4 acres of wetlands and other improvements. The park was repaired again in the wake of the camping operation in 2021, with repairs. estimated at $600,000. Since its reopening, the fenced park has offered around six different areas that visitors can enter each day.
Soto-Martinez has repeatedly refused to give an exact date for the fence’s removal, saying it will be removed when sufficient resources are available for the park. He said residents of the district, which stretches from Echo Park to Hollywood, cast their votes to remove the fence in November, when O’Farrell was ousted.
“The community made a decision when they elected me,” Soto-Martínez said. “I was very clear that this was a campaign promise.”
Santos Dávila, a 43-year-old street vendor, offered a different opinion. Dávila, who lives in Echo Park, said he has seen less trash and criminal activity since he put up the fence. He recently took his 8-year-old daughter, Sonia, for a bike ride in the park, an activity that “would have been impossible two years ago,” he said.
“I voted for Hugo,” said Dávila, when he appeared at one of the town hall meetings. “I feel like he’s one of us, and he knows this area. And I can’t believe that after seeing all this change in the last few years, he’s thinking about ditching the fence.”
Soto-Martínez is still working to win people over. She has recruited volunteers, including some from the LA chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, to inform residents about the work being done at the park. Those volunteers found that 50% support removing the fence, 18% oppose it and the rest are undecided or don’t care, said a Soto-Martinez aide.
Marissa Ayala, who has been knocking on doors for Soto-Martinez, said the fence has done nothing to address homelessness, mental health or substance abuse issues in Los Angeles. The fence supporters, she said, are “a small but very vocal contingent” of residents
“The fence does a lot more damage and there really isn’t a positive to it,” said the Mid-City resident, who sits on the DSA-LA electoral politics committee.
Some Echo Park residents haven’t needed convincing.
Bruce Embry, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1958, noted that Echo Park Lake did not have a fence for the vast majority of its existence.
“This has been an open park for most of its life,” he said. “It has to go back to that.”
Soto-Martinez’s plan also has the support of Valerie Zeller, one of the last homeless people to leave Echo Park Lake when it cleared in 2021.
Zeller recently agreed to move to one of the city’s small home villages, a facility started by O’Farrell. Standing outside a pickup truck just north of the lake, he said the fence removal was long overdue.
“It’s a park. You shouldn’t feel like you’re in jail,” she said. “When they fence off parks, it seems like they are excluding people or they don’t trust people not to follow the rules.”
It’s unclear if park rules will be enforced, or even if they’ll be necessary. City laws prohibit setting up tents in parks, regardless of the time of day. City park rangers have enforced that law in the past.
The app has been largely discontinued in Echo Park following the COVID-19 outbreak. At the time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that the spread of homeless encampments could increase the spread of COVID-19.
In February 2021, while the vaccines were being distributed, O’Farrell and then-Mayor Eric Garcetti continued to operate the camp, sending out community workers to persuade people to move into hotels, motels, and homeless shelters.
At one point, Garcetti’s office reported that nearly 200 people had accepted temporary housing, with roughly two-thirds agreeing to move into the LA Grand and Mayfair hotels. Those efforts were overshadowed by overnight clashes between protesters and police, who arrested some 180 people, including journalists.
A year later, the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy concluded that only a small fraction of those who moved from the lake received long-term housing. Soto-Martínez has denounced the fence ever since, calling it a “stain on the city’s history.”
Meanwhile, some in the neighborhood are ambivalent about what’s next.
Jackelyn Valladares, who lives near the site, said she is “not a fan” of the fence. But she is relieved that her mother feels safe to walk in the park again.
“Echo Park has been a paradise, especially for people who live in apartments,” he said.