South LA councilman Bernard Parks reflects on 50 years of public service

At ease behind a desk in the conference room of his Crenshaw district office, Councilman Bernard Parks sat down recently with Intersections South LA, in shirtsleeves and a tie, surrounded by poster-sized District Eight maps from yesteryear and took stock of his career and legacy of service in Los Angeles.

In July of next year, Parks’ third and final City Council term will come to a close, marking five decades that he has served the City of Los Angeles.

Parks began his career in public service as a Los Angeles Police Department officer. He worked in various capacities for the department for nearly 40 years before he was appointed chief of police, a position he held for six years. He said he never considered running for office until his term on the police force ended.

He has now dedicated the past 10 years to city politics as councilman for District Eight in South L.A. There, he discovered a resilient community in one of LA’s traditionally neglected neighborhoods.

“We have a community that is constantly evolving,” said Parks. “And certainly a community that is not willing to give up on itself.”

Parks serves one of the most densely populated areas in South L.A., representing more than 250,000 people in Crenshaw, West Adams, Jefferson Park, Chesterfield Square and neighboring communities.

When he took office in 2003, most of Council District Eight was teetering on the brink of poverty, and yet it lacked free programs.

Parks worked to change that, creating resources such as an annual jobs and career fair for youth. He also launched the Prevention Intervention and Education program at Crenshaw High School, designed to “bridge the divide between black and brown students.”

And just a few months after taking office, Parks initiated the annual Fourth of July fireworks show at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Soon after, at his urging, a jazz festival, a Christmas toy drive and an extension of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Parade became regular staples on community calendars.

Kimberley Briggs, a spokeswoman for Parks, described him as a “legend” in terms of his drive to take action to better the community.ParksPullquote

“It’s really nice to work for someone who speaks his mind and backs up what he says,” Briggs said. “He’s not afraid to go against the grain, even if it’s an unpopular opinion.” By the same token, Parks has expressed pride in the growing number of community activists that are willing to speak out about the issues close to their hearts.


Heading to the finish line

For the final 15 months of Parks’ term in office, he said his priority is to solidify legacy projects, like ensuring the Metro’s Crenshaw/LAX Transit line is funded, well designed, and benefits the community.

Council District Eight contains a surplus of government buildings that are no longer in use, which the city has permitted non-profits and other organizations to occupy. Unfortunately, Parks said, making these buildings available has created a large liability for the city. He wants to put up the buildings in the district for sale so that the revenue can be used for economic development or other purposes within the community.

Another major issue in South L.A. is coping with stray animals and proper housing for lost pets. Parks said he looks forward to the completion of the largest animal shelter annex in the city by the end of the year, located near the intersection of Slauson and Western Avenues.

Meanwhile, the district still leads the city in several grim statistics: District Eight ranks among the lowest in the city for academic scores, average earned income and job distribution.

“There are only 15,000 jobs that are actually in our district,” Parks said, adding that forty-thousand positions once in District Eight were “lost” after redistricting changed the area’s boundaries.

As well, District Eight’s rates for crime and foreclosure of multi-family dwellings are among the highest in the city.

Parks said new councilmembers for years to come will need to follow through with projects to help district residents improve their lot.


The ideal District Eight candidate

Parks said he hopes his successor will demonstrate independence and keep the community’s best interests in mind when casting a vote. He said the ideal individual would not have a one-point agenda but rather address a variety of community needs while carrying on the legacy programs already in place.

Parks said he would also advise the next councilman to be open and honest.

“Know that everything [you do and say] is in the public” sphere, Parks said. “Live in a way that people know you can be consistent with the philosophy you have, and that you’re also conducting your own personal life using the same parameters you’re asking others to live by.”

A resident of Baldwin Hills, Parks is married, a father of three, and a grandfather of eight.

Upon retirement, Parks said he plans to spend time assisting low-income residents in South L.A. He also hopes to encourage more people to dedicate their lives to public service.

At least one person has already caught on – Parks’ son, also named Bernard Parks. He has been his father’s chief of staff since Councilman Parks was elected in 2003. The younger Parks said his father’s steadfast political outlook has made him an ideal local official.

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