Let's Keep DTLA's Pershing Square Weird

UPDATE at 12:26 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 22: A jury has named four finalists to vie to remake Pershing Square in Downtown L.A. They are "landscape starchitect" James Corner, who created Manhattan's praised High Line park, teamed with Frederick Fisher & Partners; Culver City's headline-grabbing wHY Architecture, teamed with Denver-based Civitas Landscape Architecture; Paris-based Agence Ter, teamed with SALT Landscape Architects; and DTLA firms SWA and Morphosis, also teamed. They sound great, but as we explain below, nobody should mess with Pershing Square.

No one loves Pershing Square. 

After all, who builds a park entirely out of concrete? Who puts a massive parking garage underneath, with freeway-sized entrance and exit ramps blocking pedestrian access? 

Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Hawthorne called it "a perfectly depressing symbol of L.A.'s neglected public realm." L.A. Weekly's Tibby Rothman dubbed Pershing Square "one of the most unpopular and unusable spaces in the city." 

A landscape architect friend of mine, when I asked her about it, replied, "It's pretty much unanimously agreed upon as a colossal failure in terms of public space design."

Yes, no one loves Pershing Square. Except me. 

I love it for the same reason that I love the Triforium, that weird colorful sculpture catty-corner to the backside of Los Angeles City Hall. I love it because it is odd, and quirky and different — and above all, because of its L.A.-ness.

Pershing Square used to be a park, a real park with, you know, trees and grass and whatnot. In the 1860s, it was known as St. Vincent's Park. It would later be called Los Angeles Park, then Sixth Street Park, and then, no joke, Central Park. A month after World War I ended, the park was renamed one final time, for General John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing, who led U.S. forces to victory in Europe. The general wasn't from here, he'd never even been here. He was just a really popular guy at the time. 

Pershing Square with DTLA in background looking like Oxford, 1922
Pershing Square with DTLA in background looking like Oxford, 1922

Throughout the Roaring '20s and the Great Depression of the '30s, Pershing Square was a tropical paradise of banana trees and birds of paradise and brick walkways. Couples went on romantic walks, socialists urged workers to take up arms and preachers preached the coming of the Lord. 

In 1932, a statue of Ludwig van Beethoven was added, according to the Times, "to honor William Andrews Clark Jr., founder of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, whose home — the Philharmonic Auditorium — stood across the street from Pershing Square." Why they didn't erect a statue of William Andrews Clark Jr. is anyone's guess. 

The much maligned parking garage was installed in 1952, as were the auto ramps. Lost were its popular and splashy three-tiered fountain and a row of cypress trees.

According to a 2007 piece in the Times:

By the 1984 Olympics, the park had become an eyesore. Beer cans and wine bottles floated in the fountains. "Drunks and a plethora of down-and-outers tarnished the Square," the Times reported. For the Games, the derelicts and pigeons were ejected for a few months, and the park was temporarily gussied up at a cost of $1 million.

In 1992, Pershing Square closed for a radical $14.5 million face lift. It reopened in 1994 with a 10-story purple bell tower, a walkway resembling an earthquake fault, a concert stage and a seasonal ice rink. At its dedication, then-Mayor Richard Riordan praised the park as "a breath of fresh air, a vision of hope."

The design was bold, different. It was art deco, full of bright colors. Its architect, Ricardo Legorreta, said "The concept is to make it humane, inviting and, I'd even go to romantic. So people feel very good there and react positively."

Positive reactions were hard to come by. In 2008, L.A. Weekly's Steven Mikulan wrote:

Of all the desecrations, disfigurements and civics insults, few things grate upon the Angeleno soul more than the transformation of Pershing Square over the past 50 years or so. What was once an oasis of tropical plants, benches and shade merely became the rooftop of an underground parking garage in the 1950s. In the early 1990s Pershing got its notorious PoMo makeover that qualifies the square for the Guinness Book of Records for "Eyesores."

The 5-acre square became a magnet for the homeless, a filthy concrete slab, little more than a giant ashtray. 

But downtown has changed a lot since then, and so has Pershing Square. Now, you'll find a fair share of the homeless, sure, but also tourists and businessmen and young couples. In the winter, there's ice skating. There are still protests, even pillow fights

Pershing Square pillow fight!EXPAND
Pershing Square pillow fight!

Now there's some vague plan to redesign, or renew, or do something with Pershing Square.

Private developers are in for $1 million, the city is in for $1 million, and there's nothing shady at all about that. For now, they're soliciting input and gathering ideas, but a quote from downtown Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar hints at what direction they're going: "It's not as inviting as it should be. It's got a lot of concrete, it's difficult to get to ..."

Now, I'm all for tearing out those giant auto ramps, making the park more accessible, or whatever.

But my fear is that they'll turn Pershing Square into just another park, another square block of environmentally sensible trees and low-water plants, pretty but unremarkable, a nice place to drink your coffee if you work down the block, but not a place you'd visit.

You know, like the perfectly manicured Grand Park, whose $56 million pricetag was picked up almost entirely by a private developer.

My plea to city officials is this: Keep Pershing Square weird. 

KPCC's John Rabe once said, of the square, "It has two statues to war dead, for some reason a statue of Beethoven, a cannon — there's no rhyme or reason."

But that's what is lovable about Pershing Square. It's the Mad Libs approach to landscape architecture: It's weird and it's random and let's face it, so is L.A. What with the Play-Doh colored chunks of concrete and the grime and, yes, even the auto ramps, it may be ugly but it's unique and instantly recognizable, even iconic.

I would never take a visiting friend to Grand Park. But I have taken a visiting friend to Pershing Square.

Los Angeles has lots of little parks. We only have one park made entirely of concrete and filled with art deco nonsense and random statues commemorating people who've never been here.

Let's not lose it.

The purple stucco wall, a Pershing Square landmark.
The purple stucco wall, a Pershing Square landmark.

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