Bell turns former gang hangout into a fit place for families

By Ruben Vives (Chicago Tribune)
December 2, 2009
It’s common for people to do a double take when they enter Ernest Debs Park in Bell.

Children frolic on the grass field, teenagers play pickup basketball and people chat on benches.

Then there is the cluster of treadmills, rowing machines and air walkers at the front of the park.

City officials didn’t know what to expect a year ago when they opened a free outdoor gym.

But it’s become a big success, drawing droves of residents in the working-class town who cannot afford gym memberships. By the summer, people were lining up to use the equipment.

Officials said their makeshift gym is making residents healthier and also making the park — once a gang hangout — much safer by drawing more families and exercisers.

Residents “can’t afford to go to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, but they can go to picnics and parks. We’re providing entertainment and for some cities that’s just not what they do,” said Bob Rizzo, chief administrator officer for the city of Bell.

One evening about four months ago, Alejandro Montes, 43, and his girlfriend, Iliana Diaz, 33, were driving past the park when they noticed people exercising outdoors.

The couple said they returned to the park to investigate. “We found out it was free and now we come here,” Diaz said.

“There’s no need to sign anything,” Montes added.

Edwin Subdiaz, 19, and his girlfriend, Gisela Flores, 19, who live around the corner, said they come to the gym about three times a week when the park opens at 4 p.m.

“It’s pretty cool,” Subdiaz said. “It’s a free little gym.”

The gym opened in January, and now that word has spread, all 49 cardiovascular machines are in full use, officials said.

The gym has become most popular with parents who bring their children to soccer practice, park supervisor Jose “Rockero” Torres said.

“Culturally, it was interesting watching how the crowd grew, and how at first women kept to the aerobic machines and the men to the weights,” Torres said, adding that now that is no longer the case.

City officials said the gym is part of an ongoing effort to upgrade several parks and meet the demands of the city’s changing demographics. At least 40,000 people live in Bell. Latinos constitute 98% of the population, many of them immigrants. The median household income is a little over $29,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and city officials.

“The thing we have tried to do is see what the needs are and try to match those with the facilities,” Rizzo said.

Some residents, however, said working out along a busy street has its downside.

Exercisers find themselves under the eye of motorists stopped at a light near Orchard and Gage avenues who laugh and make inappropriate remarks.

“They yell out things that are clearly directed at the women,” said Jose Gomez, 56, who comes to the gym with his wife. Gomez said he would like officials to increase privacy by covering the fence.

Diaz said she heard one man yelling “gordas!” (“fat women”).

“I ignore them of course,” Diaz said. But she said it keeps some people from using the gym. “I’ve invited friends but they get embarrassed because people are staring and laughing at them,” she said.

Rizzo said he hasn’t heard any complaints from residents, but said he and his staff would address issues brought to his attention.

Some have taken a Zen approach to the noise of the traffic, ignoring it and concentrating on their workouts. Others bring iPods. “If anything it should motivate them to work out,” Elizabeth Gonzalez, 32, said of the drivers. “There should be more of these. I love it!”

Gonzalez said she discovered the park a few days ago when she and her sister were walking by the park. Now they plan to come with their children.

The ability to observe their children while they work out was another reason the sisters say they have come to love the park.

“It feels safe here,” Gonzalez said. “There’s no other place like this.”

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