Anchorage

In a dysfunctional Midtown Anchorage park, a microcosm of problems and possibilities

Plenty of kids live near Arctic Benson Park, a two-acre oasis of grass and trees in the asphalt expanse of Midtown Anchorage.

But you won't find children on the playground much these days.

The park, located near its namesake intersection at 750 W. 31st Ave., is occupied at most hours of the day and night by a revolving crew of dozens of adults who drink in public and use drugs, according to neighbors, police and parks officials.

Police have been called to the park 183 times since the beginning of 2017, according to call logs provided by the Anchorage Police Department. They have investigated reports of rape, stabbings, drugs, public drinking, a person found dead in a car and, this month, a shooting that killed a man.

Some people who live nearby say Arctic Benson Park feels completely given over to people struggling with addiction and alcoholism — depriving a neighborhood where 17 percent of people live in poverty of one of its green spaces.

"I never see kids go over there," said Elena Moralas, who lives just down the street in a trailer painted pumpkin orange, with a flower bed out front.

She's seen and heard of people defecating in public, having sex out in the open and other bad behavior at the park.

She says she feels compassion for people who are homeless and sometimes even asks her son to take them leftover pizza or other food. But she's exhausted with the stream of traffic that moves down 31st Avenue by her house. People knock on her door asking for money. After someone stole her shoes from her front step, she installed a surveillance camera.

The half-dozen kids who live in nearby  mobile homes play in the street instead of the park steps away, she said. On a recent afternoon, an adult woman slept in a playhouse meant for toddlers amid the park's play equipment.

Arctic Benson Park is a problem, said city parks superintendent Josh Durand. The situation there is unique in how serious the behavior is — to the point where people hanging out in the park are hostile to parks and recreation employees, he said.

"I want the public to know we're absolutely aware of the situation," he said.

But it raises questions applicable to lots of the city's 200-plus parks and countless green spaces: What happens when a space becomes a haven for illegal activity? And how can a neighborhood take it back?

Not a new problem

In 2011, an Anchorage Park Foundation polled users for a "parks report card." Arctic Benson Park got an F grade — across the board. People reported feeling "terribly unsafe" and intimidated by drug use, public drinking and "people living there."

After the bad report card, the city, the nonprofit Park Foundation and users took an innovative approach to improving the safety of the park, installing the first fenced dog park to draw a new constituency of users.

Bringing new users is really the best way to save a park from becoming a home for bad activity, said Durand.

"Positive activity pushes out negative activity. You can't be sitting out there drinking, swearing, doing drugs when there's five moms with cell phones standing around," he said.

For a time, it worked well. The park became busy with dog park patrons, driving some of the drinking and drug use out, Durand said. The better vibe at Arctic Benson lasted for about two and a half years, he said.

But when a new fenced dog park at Valley of the Moon — not far down Arctic Boulevard — became popular, users migrated there, he said.

This summer has been especially rough. A 48-year-old Anchorage man named Ian Ellison was shot in the park on July 4 during a dispute over the ownership of a bike, according to police.

Ellison died on July 19 of his injuries. Anchorage prosecutors say they are still mulling appropriate charges for Daren Barnhart, the man accused of shooting him.

The dog park is much quieter these days, too.

Kate Helfrich threw a ball for her German shepherd Ike on a recent afternoon. She comes to the park because it gets so little use.

"But I do have anxiety about coming here," she said.

Once she came at 6 a.m., thinking the park would be empty, but found people drunk and fighting. She wondered if she'd need to call the cops. She works in public health and wants people who are homeless or addicted to be safe and get the help they need, she said.

"It's a park for everyone," she said. "It does get complicated when there are obviously inebriated people being threatening to other people."

Bill Abbott, a neighbor and dog park regular with this mini-pinscher Chihuahua mix Roxy, said he recently observed someone smoking meth on the play equipment.

"I wouldn't say it's a safe park," he said.

On a recent afternoon, Abbott bought some grocery store sandwiches for a group of adults drinking and sleeping on the grass of the park.

Crystal Peterson sat with an empty fifth of vodka at her feet and a friend asleep on her lap, a knife nestled into the grass beside her. She was mourning the death of Ellison. He was a much-loved Arctic Benson regular, she said.

"He was good people."

Peterson said she and her friends pretty much live at the park. Sometimes police tell them to move on.

"But we're not trying to bother anybody," she said.

A safer park 

Park and police officials say they are actively working to make Arctic Benson feel safer. Trees have been trimmed to create better sight lines, and "park ambassadors" visit nightly to enforce rules and check on illegal activity, Durand said.

Anchorage police officials say there are higher-than-average calls for service to the park but point out that many of those calls were canceled or turned out to be nothing.

Police suspected a crime had been committed and filed a police report only 26 times from the beginning of 2017 though late July, said community action policing head Lt. Jack Carson. By comparison, Kincaid Park had 50 police calls and five police reports in the same time frame.

Parks are public spaces and people are allowed to sit and hang out in them, whatever their age, Carson said.

"That said, give us a call if you see illegal activity and we'll come and check it out," he said.

Parks all over Anchorage have seen dramatic turnarounds thanks to changes in design that changed user behavior, said Beth Nordlund, the executive director of the Anchorage Park Foundation.

There are "shining examples" of other troubled parks that have been rehabilitated with the right design and equipment, Durand said.

Similar problems kept families away from Balto Seppala Park on Wisconsin Street and Campbell Creek Playground on Lake Otis Parkway, until new inclusive playgrounds went in and changed the dynamic. The new equipment is "bright, vivid, you can see all the way through it."

In other words, it's not a great place to lurk and do drugs.

"We had amazing success at both parks," Dursand said. "Not only neighbors of the park; they draw people from around Anchorage to go there because we built something great."

There's plenty of hope for Arctic Benson Park, says Durand.

Designers are looking at ways to improve the park. Possibilities include more changes to the playground to make it a draw for families, not a hideout for drinking and drug use. Any kind of programming — from daycare groups to play dates to dog obedience meet-ups — helps a park, said Nordlund.

But making a playground inviting for families again doesn't fix the root problems that brought people there to drink or use drugs in the first place, Nordlund cautioned.

"It just moves the behavior elsewhere in society," she said.

Helrich, the dog park user and public health nurse, said she'll probably keep bringing her dog to Arctic Benson. But to make it more welcoming, the city has to keep tackling a problem that extends far beyond its boundaries, she said.

"What can we do to help people experiencing homelessness?" she said. "Once we figure that out, places like this will improve."

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