The $850,000 Crosswalk, a.k.a. the Island of Dr. LaBonge

“What’s this all about?” I ask a photographer. The two of us are standing on a low wall, watching a man in a suit talk to a crowd of 20 dignitaries on an island crosswalk separating Prospect Avenue from the angled intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and North Vermont Avenue.

“It’s a dedication of a park,” replies the man, around 65, with a Band-Aid on his nose covering what I presume used to be a melanoma.

“Where’s the park?” I ask.

“You’re standing in it,” he suddenly snarls like I’m an idiot.

“Oh, yeah, what’s it called?” I reply.

The photog, who claims to be shooting for himself, lowers his camera, glares at me and then barks, “It’s a pocket park. It doesn’t have a name.”

“Who’s that speaker?” I ask referring to the round-faced sweating gent in his 50s working the dignified ones into a clapping frenzy.

“Guess,” grumbles the old man.

“Uh, Ernest Borgnine?” I offer.

“That’s Tom LaBonge, our city council­man,” he blurts out. “Are you even from Los Angeles?”

The photographer turns away and snaps wildly from the grassy knoll like he was backstage at a Rolling Stones concert.

I look over at the nearby Rite Aid parking lot and spot two of the grungiest-looking homeless guys I’ve ever seen rolling on the ground while gorging themselves, faces first, in a pile of garbage. I then look back at this self-congratulatory crowd, which is busy dedicating a cobblestone crosswalk as if it were the Statue of Liberty, and grow angry.

“When did you graduate from Belmont, Steve? ’79?” chortles LaBonge as he works the tiny audience like a carnival barker. He introduces one speaker after another, all met with applause for their tireless work in making a crosswalk into a city park. I glance back at the two homeless guys now eating carrots and sauerkraut out of a can with their fingers, and wonder if they also went to Belmont High School.

When I get home, three blocks away, I contact LaBonge’s office about the project and learn the following: What I witnessed was the “implementation of streetscape improvements at a problematic and pedestrian-unfriendly intersection.” This, according to a document titled “Barnsdall Transit-Oriented District.”

The construction on the corner began in January 2008. As I recall, the corner was ripped up and sat there masquerading as a dirt pile until two months ago, when, seemingly overnight, some designer rocks appeared as a foundation, a two-foot wall was erected and the miniature landmass was reopened as an island-hopping segment in the absurdly long journey from the northwest corner of Prospect Avenue and Vermont to the northwest corner of Hollywood and Vermont.

On August 27, 2007, the city awarded $412,177.50 to Thomsen Landscape for the construction of something. The total development cost of the “park” amounted to $850,000. According to the documents I have read, the new island crosswalk is called The Barnsdall Transit-Oriented District Streetscape Improvement Park. (I’ve taken the liberty of adding the word “park.”)

The project, which came out of the “Neighborhood Improvement Plan for Los Feliz,” written by a group called the Los Angeles Design Action Team, dates all the way back to 1989. No wonder so many people were applauding and snapping photos. It took 20 years for the city of Los Angeles to build an island/park/crosswalk.

For historical perspective, the excavation for another urban project began on January 22, 1930, and took only one year and 45 days to complete. The project was opened to the public on May 1, 1931, significantly ahead of schedule.

They called it the Empire State Building.

I believe it is still in use today.