Until recently, many residents in the unincorporated community of East Los Angeles were not aware of their civic center. It consisted of hard-to-locate and inaccessible buildings, which housed several law enforcement agencies. Most residents, in fact, did not even visit the facility unless they were dealing with criminal issues. Los Angeles County officials wanted to create a central space where residents could access services. So, in May, county officials dedicated a new civic center, which has not only become a destination for residents and tourists, but also is a space that is unifying the community.

For many East Los Angeles residents, the old civic center was anything but welcoming. Housing the community's police station, a fire-ravaged courthouse, probation department and health center, the site also included a park and lake, both of which were poorly maintained. As a result, residents said they felt the area was unsafe. “[The civic center] had some county services but they weren't the kind of county services that really served the residents, and they weren't accommodating,” says Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina.

The county's vision for a new civic center began in 1999 with a plan to renovate the center's existing buildings. For the next three years, county officials listened to residents and businesses. “You can basically say that the community were the architects,” says Angie Castro, Molina's spokesperson. “They said, ‘This is what we want to see. We want a place where we can, not only access county services, but we also want it to be a community gathering [place] where we can come with our families and feel safe.’”

The new $30 million complex, which adjoins the area's historic Belvedere Park and which Castro likens to an oasis, is now a central point where residents can go for county services and recreation. The courthouse was demolished, and the old library was converted into a county hall building. In addition to an on-site health center, the newly revitalized site also includes a bi-lingual library with materials in English and Spanish. With computers and areas designated for children, teens and adults, the library — the only such facility in the county — also includes a Chicano Resource Center with information on Mexican-American history and life. “Anytime you go there [at] anytime of the day, [the library] is really full,” Molina says. “To me, that's one of the exciting things.”

The site includes an outdoor amphi-theatre, fountain courtyard, retail and green space. Public art from local artists can be found throughout the entire complex. Visitors can fish at Belvedere Lake and enjoy recreational facilities, such as a skate park and outdoor fitness center, in Belvedere Park. A new courthouse, and the sheriff's and probation departments still remain onsite. In 2009, a transit center will open. “It's really a tourist destination,” Castro says. “If you need to do business, you do business. But, if you want to hang out with the family for the day, it's just a wonderful little place to hang out.”

Coinciding with East Los Angeles' 150th anniversary celebration in May, the civic center's dedication included health education workshops and screenings, food and concerts, and a fireworks display. For county officials, positive reactions to the new civic center show that community pride is returning to the area. “We're trying to change the face of East L.A. [But, we're also trying] to lift up the whole area, upgrading it without gentrifying it and so, I want people to know that it's a neighborhood community, it's a safe community and, more importantly, that it has a unique beauty and opportunities for almost everyone,” Molina says.