Best Words Carved in Stone

Stucco may be the vernacular of Los Angeles architecture, but this city still has its share of marble, stone, terra cotta and brick. And where there is rock, there are inscriptions. Some salute long-gone businessmen — strangely familiar names like I.N. Van Nuys and Isaac Lankershim. Others try, usually too hard, to teach us something.

No inscription holds a candle, however, to the one in Pershing Square, a place whose disastrous 1994 face-lift was salvaged only by the construction of a curving wall featuring a passage by Carey McWilliams — California’s preeminent historian, the father of Chicano studies and a disciplined thinker of the left. McWilliams moved to Los Angeles from a ranching town in Colorado in the 1920s, and spent three decades writing about racial prejudice, farm labor and California history. The inscription in Pershing Square captures his realization, walking through the park after a debauched night on the town, that he didn’t hate Los Angeles after all.

I first read the inscription a decade ago and found its description of the city eerily accurate. The passage described a football star accused of a crime — shades of O.J.! It mentioned predictions of doom for Los Angeles. That pretty much summed up the city in the mid-1990s — what with an earthquake, a riot and fires. The passage still holds up. A few weeks ago, I sat in a courtroom where a grand jury accused a former city commissioner of bribery. A day later, I reread McWilliams’ words. Sure enough, he spoke of a public official charged with bribery.

The McWilliams passage is too long and too good to run in its entirety here. And besides, no sense in putting other writers to shame, myself included. Best to stop by Pershing Square, that most oddball of parks, where you will find these concluding words: “I stopped to watch, a little self-conscious of my evening clothes, a typical Pershing Square divertissement: an aged and frowsy blonde, skirts held high above her knees, cheered by a crowd of grimacing and leering old goats, was singing a gospel hymn as she danced gaily around the fountain. Then it suddenly occurred to me that, in all the world, there neither was nor would there ever be another place like this City of the Angels. Here the American people were erupting, like lava from a volcano; here, indeed, was the place for me — a ringside seat at the circus.”

South end of Pershing Square, ?532 S. Olive St. (between Fifth and Sixth streets), downtown

LA Weekly