First town hall meeting held to address concerns with Echo Park Lake fence removal

Newly-elected councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez held his first town hall meeting Thursday for Spanish speakers in the Echo Park community to address concerns about his plan to remove the fence around the lake.

Soto-Martinez announced that the chain-link fence surrounding the lake will be removed. He campaigned on that message, and won.

"Tonight [Thursday] we're gonna have our very first public town hall to hear folks' concerns and we're gonna talk about our plan as much as we can about us taking down the fence at Echo Park lake. I know there's a lot of emotions behind this but that's my job now. I want to bring people together on this very polarizing issue," said Soto-Martinez.

It has been nearly two years since more than 180 people living in encampments at the park were removed. The removal efforts in March of 2021 were met with large protests, controversy and arrests. The park was then closed for repairs and then reopened with the fence.

RELATED: Residents voice concern over idea of fence around Echo Park coming down

"What it symbolizes, what fences have been historically for years, are band aids. If you look at any fences put up around different parks, it's truly the elected officials could not solve the root causes of why the fence went up in the first place," said Soto-Martinez.

However, many residents in Echo Park are concerned about what will happen if the fence is removed, and shared their concerns during the town hall.

"I'm really concerned. I'm worried about  the fence coming down from the park. I'm born and raised here in Echo Park and during the encampments, the crime rates went up, it was very challenging for the residents in the neighborhood to occupy the park, and we have a lot of kids here that don't have backyards so Echo Park is important to them. We are afraid that taking down the fence is gonna bring back crime and drug abuse and just everything else we had going on here a couple years ago. I think that we've been completely drowned out by activists and sadly, a lot of them don't live in this community," said Nancy.

Nancy said residents feel like their voices are not being heard.

"We feel powerless. We're afraid that this new administration is not listening to the community but moving an agenda, an agenda to further their political career so we're very concerned. For Hugo, do what's right for your community, for the constituents that pay your salary, for the people here that pay taxes," said Nancy.

Gil Mangaoang, a resident who lives directly across the street from the lake, also has concerns.

"During the period when there was the homeless encampment, our unhoused neighbors had a lot of activity going on that was really detrimental to the quality of life for people who really do live in this neighborhood and live around the park. Four people died there. We'd hear people screaming and yelling. It was horrible," he said.

Mangaoang said the park has been peaceful since the fence went up.

"It returned back to what it was prior to the encampments and it's such a thriving opportunity. A fence does not divide people. A fence keeps an area secure, safe and clean for everyone," he said.

Resident Suzanne also shared her concerns at the town hall.

"I think that the fence is incredibly important for safety reasons, for everyone who lives in the neighborhood, who comes to enjoy the park in the day, afternoon, and evening. It's really important for the animals. It has been troubling to see how the park is not cared for when we don't have the fence so this is a safety issue and it's an issue for everyone. I think it's divisive to not have the fence," she said.

There was a large encampment directly outside of El Centro Del Pueblo, where the meeting was held, and several residents asked Soto-Martinez about how he plans to prevent more at the lake, if the fence is removed.

Soto-Martinez said when the fence is removed, if unhoused residents appear, he plans to have services for them.

"The plan is to have people ready. If someone does show up at the park because of whatever got them to be unhoused, then we're gonna have the team ready to lead with services to make sure that person gets into housing as soon as possible. People remember the state of the park before the fence went up so I'm saying I completely agree with you, that should never return and we're gonna present a plan and that's gonna be a collaboration with all of the people who can make sure that's not gonna happen," said Soto-Martinez.

The councilmember said he does not have an exact date for the fence removal, and will be holding another town hall for English speakers on Saturday.