By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
And while the city recently commissioned a needs-assessment plan for parks, it only did so after the embarrassment of discovering it was sitting on $130 million in Quimby funds — fees collected from new developments for the express purpose of building new parks.
But most telling is that neither smart growth nor transit-oriented development even mentions the construction of new parks among their core principles. The truth, despite the green rhetoric, is that as Los Angeles continues its density craze, the business of actually building new parks appears to be an afterthought.
“The effort to build a greener Los Angeles has more support in City Hall than ever before,” says Mia Lehrer. “But support isn’t enough. We need that Robert Moses figure who can get things done.”
The Beautiful Vision, Circa 1930
In the fall of 1926, Mary Pickford stood before an assembly of Los Angeles’ most influential real estate barons and industry titans and offered them a challenge: “We must become beautiful. ...” She was referring to Los Angeles, which, at the time, was experiencing a massive population boom and was being developed in the haphazard, sprawling fashion contemporary Angelenos have come to expect of their city.
Pickford, America’s first screen “sweetheart,” the most popular actress of her day, was addressing the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the most powerful body of its time in Southern California. It was a collision of two titans, and Pickford came out on top. Starstruck, the chamber’s director conceded that after decades of unabated yet immensely profitable sprawl, “our approach to this city is vile.” And something needed to be done about it.
Of course, this was nothing new. The history of L.A.’s failed quest for parks, compiled most comprehensively in the book Eden by Design,written by USC professors William Deverell and Greg Hise, is less Shakespearean tragedy than it is an Orwellian study in bureaucratic bungling. In 1895, Los Angeles civic boosters decided to turn Elysian Park into the most beautiful public space in America. Who better, they figured, to complete such a transformation than Frederick Law Olmsted? What the boosters failed to consider was that a man of Olmsted’s immense talent expected to be paid accordingly. After Olmsted rejected the city’s low-ball quote, Elysian Park, it was determined, was just fine as it was.
More than a decade later, with city officials predicting population explosion, Los Angeles once again began to consider its inadequate plan for park space. However, with the city’s finances occupied by the construction of the L.A. aqueduct and the port, Los Angeles made another halfhearted bid to get an Olmsted on the cheap: this time, Frederick’s brother John C. Olmsted, who was working on a project in San Diego. Again, the city failed to develop a plan, and during the next two decades, L.A.’s population skyrocketed nearly ten-fold, to more than a million people.
By the time Pickford made her plea, the situation was desperate enough that radical action was needed. In the months that followed, the chamber shelled out tens of thousands of dollars to commission the Olmsted sons to create their plan. The brothers’ resulting report was an intensive study of the ecology of the entire Los Angeles watershed, and included plans for park space, flood control, traffic abatement, recreation and the city’s overall sustainable ecological development. The report was celebrated for its vision, clarity and beauty.
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Park Mesa Heights playground: Open but empty — and smelly?
It was abandoned almost as soon as it was finished.
The fact is, Los Angeles lacked the bureaucratic infrastructure to accommodate such a monumental vision. A park authority would need to be formed, appointed by the county board of supervisors, one with enough cross-jurisdictional power to allow it to cut through the bureaucratic red tape that would invariably be put up by competing agencies and land interests.
“Imagine completely restructuring the government around the ecological realities of the city,” explains Eden by Design co-author Deverell of the body’s mandate.
Environmentalists today would kill for such a rational approach to government. But with the local economy already geared toward speculative real estate, the notion of ceding sweeping cross-jurisdictional planning authority to a wholly civic-minded governing body struck many in the Chamber of Commerce as a businessman’s nightmare. Many of the same people who commissioned the study now suddenly proclaimed its implementation a costly extravagance and dismissed the Olmsteds’ vision in its entirety.
Even though, years later, the Great Depression brought millions of WPA dollars for public-works projects, that money was instead used on turning the Los Angeles River into a flood-control outlet. Decades in the making, Los Angeles’ sustainable future vanished practically overnight. While contemporary urban planners have resuscitated its memory, the Olmsted plan should be a reminder of just how quickly visions unnourished can fade away and die.
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