There’s a foul smell in Pershing Square. Well, several foul smells, really. Most prominently, there’s the smell of urine. It wafts in all directions, emanating from a dozen dark, hidden recesses spread throughout the square. There’s the smell of the fountain, a giant purple modernist abomination that every so often belches a tiny stream of liquid into a stagnant brown pool below. There’s the smell of a small colony of homeless, who have made this place their bathroom. They occupy nearly every bench in sight, baking and sweating in the treeless glare of the unforgiving sun. At noon, in the largest public space in the downtown business district of the country’s second largest city, these men and women are the area’s sole occupants.
Illustration by Ronald Kurniawan
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A rendering of a re-imagined Cornfield
Meanwhile, two blocks away, a group of businesspeople in sleek skirts and tailored suits enjoy a quiet lunch at the packed Café Pinot in the L.A. Public Library’s Maguire Gardens. Next to the café, a multiethnic band of children play in and around a series of three tastefully tiled fountains. More than a dozen homeless congregate nearby. Some inevitably work the grounds, meekly asking for change, but most take quiet naps in the shady grass. Others read library books on benches. The wealthy and the destitute, young and old, black, white, brown and yellow — coexisting and enjoying the day in peace.
Not all spaces are created equal.
That’s especially true in Los Angeles, where, when it comes to public space, the Maguire Gardens are the exception rather than the rule. The most park-impoverished major city in America, Los Angeles devotes only 4 percent of its land to public greenery. By contrast, parkland comprises 17 percent of New York City and 9 percent of Boston (where 97 percent of the city’s children have immediate access to a park — as opposed to one-third of kids in Los Angeles). Even in San Diego, often dismissed as L.A.’s cultureless, beer-buzzed little brother, parks make up 16 percent of the landscape.
Of the parks L.A. does have, many are caught in varying states of detritus. The jewel of our system, Griffith Park, is less park than wilderness area, and subject to the wildfires that devastated it last year. Elysian Park is beautiful but isolated and underused. And not only have Echo Park’s famous paddleboats been sporadically removed from service due to budgetary woes, but Echo Park Lake has become so foul that the park’s stunning lotus flowers have all but disappeared.
“Los Angeles isn’t just park-poor,” says Marta Segura of the public-space advocacy group Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, “many of the parks we do have are failed spaces. They’re completely abandoned.”
Pershing Square is one of the worst, but it wasn’t always that way. In the 1920s, the square was lush with trees and walking paths. News kiosks had set up shop, and the elegant Biltmore Hotel had its main entrance overlooking the grounds. The square was alive. Unfortunately, a little too alive for some. City officials claimed it was a site for gay cruising, and in 1950, they bulldozed the park to make way for an 1,800-car underground parking garage. The once beautiful square was left barren, and the Biltmore moved its entrance to the Grand Avenue side of the building.
Though it received a brief face-lift in time for the ’84 Olympics, Pershing Square stayed as it was until 1993, when a public/private partnership was established to refurbish the grounds. The Community Redevelopment Agency, the Pershing Square Property Owners’ Association and Maguire Thomas Partners — the same development firm that years later built the Maguire Gardens — collaborated to build the purple nightmare we’ve come to know today.
So how is it that the Maguire Gardens and Pershing Square, two parks located only blocks apart, catering to the same patrons and built by the same developer, can have such drastically different results? Clearly, the nature of a space impacts its success.
What defines good space?
“Most importantly, permeability,” says landscape architect Mia Lehrer, designer of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan. “For instance, you can go to Olvera Street at any time of night and feel safe — it’s well lit, it’s open, it’s easily accessible. Pershing Square is completely isolated from the street. It’s elevated and hidden behind those huge walls.
“You don’t need bells and whistles to make a park work,” Lehrer adds. “Look at Bryant Park in New York. It’s pretty simple — trees, grass and places to sit.”