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.”
If building beautiful and functional public space is so simple, why doesn’t Los Angeles have more of it?
Look No Further Than Paris
When was the last time you made out in your front yard? I mean really went for it — tongue, teeth, sweat — neighbors be damned. Has it been a while? Has it ever even happened? Until fairly recently, public green space in Los Angeles has been dismissed as an unnecessary luxury. After all, our single-family homes have yards and gardens. What more could one possibly want?
But the yard, for all its virtues, is neither sexy nor romantic. It’s a rare Angeleno, I would imagine, who would trade a stroll along the Seine for an evening at home in a lawn chair. There’s something undeniably sensual and exciting about the anonymity of the commons — being surrounded by people and yet alone. All the world’s great cities have this feeling. Of course, New York, the ultimate source of Los Angeles’ civic anxiety, has it — but nowhere is it more profound than in Paris.
Relatively speaking, Paris’ global reputation as a city of romance is an entirely modern one. Only a century and a half ago, Paris was widely considered a slum-infested pit — rotting from its core. Under Napoleon III, the city underwent sweeping urban renewal, aimed primarily at revitalizing its public sphere. In just two decades, from 1850 to 1870, Paris’ network of parks jumped from 45 to 4,500 acres, and the city went from a filth-strewn collection of alleyways to one of majestic boulevards and promenades.
Paris’ rise to global cultural dominance was achieved through the use of space and the creation of parks. Like 19th-century Paris, Los Angeles is in the midst of a similar cultural ascent. But for all the strides this city has made in the worlds of art, theater, music and cuisine, the final impediment to Los Angeles’ arrival as a world-class destination — one capable of competing with the likes of the City of Light — is still the city itself.
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Mia Lehrer, architect of the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan
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Union Pacific “piggyback” yard
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“Imagine a 100-acre park this close to downtown. This can be our
Central Park.” —Lewis MacAdams,
founder, Friends of the Los Angeles River
As anyone involved in a long-term relationship knows, romance requires effort, and, historically speaking, Los Angeles has been a lazy lover.
Of course, L.A.’s development failures haven’t entirely escaped the notice of City Hall. After decades of unceasing sprawl, the city is finally attempting to rebrand itself through the use of space. Since Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa took office in 2005, backed by the likes of council members Jan Perry and Eric Garcetti, smart growth and transit-oriented development have been touted as the city’s new urban-planning panaceas. Under the rubric of these strategies, Los Angeles, it is promised, will become walkable and dense — its citizens reliant on public transportation, just like in Paris.
To help market this philosophy of density, the promise of green space has never been far behind. “Under my leadership,” Villaraigosa promised in 2005, days after he was first elected, “we will create an emerald necklace of parks along the [Los Angeles] river, and dot our neighborhoods with new emeralds — neighborhood parks.”
Villaraigosa’s words were an overt reference to Frederick Law Olmsted, the pioneering American landscape architect who designed Boston’s famed Emerald Necklace park system, New York’s Central Park and dozens of other notable green spaces across the country, and to the legendary plan that the sons of Olmsted drew up for Los Angeles in 1930 — a plan that was subsequently abandoned and that urban theorist Mike Davis famously labeled, “a window into a lost future.”
Since the mayor’s initial pledge to reinstitute L.A.’s lost green vision, the name Olmsted has become a fashionable signifier in city-planning circles — with everyone from Garcetti and fellow councilman Jack Weiss to anyone else wanting to sound visionary name-dropping the plan. City Councilman Tom LaBonge keeps a copy in his office.
Such rhetoric couldn’t come at a better time. Los Angeles stands at a historical crossroads: its push toward density, opening up large tracts of land for redevelopment, land that could be used for parks and civic space.
Unfortunately, rhetoric and action are distant cousins.
The irony in all the Olmsted referencing is that nearly 80 years after the original Olmsted plan was released, and three years into the green mayor’s term, Los Angeles still lacks both a master plan and a general maintenance routine for its park system. Neither the Department of Recreation and Parks nor the City Council parks committee has a master list of city-owned property that could be converted to park space. The Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan, much lauded and doted on by the City Council, still hasn’t been signed off on by either of the major players who control the L.A. River — the Army Corps of Engineers and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
L.A.’s supposedly new “Central Park,” in the Grand Avenue redevelopment project (of which 13 of the 16 acres are already public green space), may be our next Pershing Square. World-renowned landscape architect Laurie Olin, brought on to create a “Ramblas” on Grand Avenue, has dropped out; the developer, Related Companies, is crying poverty; and such critics as theL.A. Times’ Christopher Hawthorne have called the design uninspired.
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.
A River Runs Through It
High atop the parking garage of the downtown Los Angeles County Jail, Lewis MacAdams leans precariously over a 4-foot-high guard wall and points to the Los Angeles River below. “Try to find the river on foot from here,” he says. “You can’t. It’s practically impossible.”
He’s right. Live railroad tracks line both of the river’s concrete banks, and barbed wire blocks access to the channel from almost all directions. Short of getting locked up in L.A. County Jail itself, this parking garage is pretty much the only place to get an unobstructed view of the downtown section of the Los Angeles River. And so we’re trespassing. MacAdams and I had snuck in, hoping his reputation and weathered, beyond-expired press credentials, would bail us out if need be.
Vision is a difficult thing to have if you can’t see, and MacAdams needs to show me something. He singles out a giant plot of land, cluttered with empty railcars, on the east bank of the river in Lincoln Heights, directly across from where we’re standing.
“That is the future of Los Angeles,” he assures me.
The “piggyback yard,” as MacAdams calls the plot, is an active Union Pacific–owned rail yard, covering more than 100 acres of prime centrally located real estate. Eight years ago, MacAdams led a team of students from the Harvard Graduate School of Design to conduct an ecological survey of the rail yards. Minutes after their arrival, however, police descended upon the group.
“I almost got everyone arrested,” MacAdams says, laughing.
The students were told to leave, but that didn’t stop them from completing their survey. With the help of their professor, George Hargreaves, architect of the yet-to-be-completed Cornfield park nearby, and Mia Lehrer, who organized the study, the students determined that, from a needs-based perspective, no other site along the Los Angeles River has as much potential for green space as the rail yard and its environs, which include a 2-acre pile of concrete aggregate. They devised an entire studio book of park designs for the area.
“Imagine a 100-acre park, this close to downtown Los Angeles,” MacAdams says. “This can be our Central Park.”
Part Olmstedian visionary, part Pickfordesque booster, MacAdams has been preaching the gospel of green space along the river since 1986, when he founded the celebrated advocacy group Friends of the Los Angeles River (FOLAR). After years of fruitless screaming from the outside, under the Villaraigosa administration, MacAdams’ ideas have finally found traction in City Hall — and efforts to green the Los Angeles River, once equated with lunacy, are now considered the city’s best hope for a greener future. On a 2006 tour of Asia, Villaraigosa was so impressed with the Seoul, Korea, government’s efforts to turn the Cheonggyecheon River into green space, he declared, “the Cheonggyecheon has shown that, ‘Yes, we can unpave paradise.’”
Villaraigosa’s we, however, is a wholly subjective term. Much like what the Olmsted brothers once faced in implementing their master vision for the city, plans to green the L.A. River are mired in jurisdictional quicksand. Though Los Angeles has taken the important step to commission and certify Lehrer’s exceptional master plan for the river, the city has no final say in whether much of it will actually be built. The people who can unpave paradise, the Army Corps of Engineers, have primary jurisdiction over flood-control efforts for most of the channel. Other sections of the channel are controlled by L.A. County, which can also unpave the river with consultation from the Corps.
In cases where alterations to the channel don’t affect flood control, jurisdictional responsibility is far murkier. Authority over the river’s “right of way,” the channel itself and the access roads that line much of its banks is divided among county officials, as well as the dozens of municipal governments that span the river from Canoga Park to Long Beach. That chaos hasn’t stopped individual politicians from attempting to impose their personal will on the river.* Earlier this year, County Supervisor Gloria Molina inexplicably ordered that a popular county-permitted mural be removed from the concrete walls of the confluence of the L.A. River and the Arroyo Seco. She then sent the bill for the whitewash to the mural’s backers, FOLAR and a team of internationally renowned graffiti artists led by L.A.’s own Man One. The confluence has returned to being a barren, concrete wasteland. Why? Because Molina said so.
In short, the Los Angeles River is a jurisdictional Wild West, with a trigger-happy posse enforcing its own private law at every street corner. Despite the endorsement of the City Council, the centerpiece of Los Angeles’ green future is still an amorphous dream — one that could be fully realized, radically altered by petty political infighting, ignored because of flood-control concerns or pushed aside amid the city’s perennial budget woes.
To its credit, City Hall is prescient enough to try to resolve these jurisdictional issues before they become a problem. The city has proposed the creation of three new bodies to serve as custodians of the river: the River Authority, a county/city partnership with the Corps; the River Foundation, a nonprofit that would help raise private funds for greening efforts; and the River Revitalization Corporation, a CRA-guided entity that would lead efforts to develop the areas along the river’s banks but outside its right of way.
While the consolidation of power along the river is an important first step in preventing a repeat of 1930, no amount of jurisdictional meandering can circumvent the Corps’ authority over the flood-control channel. Any plans that alter the river’s capacity to drain water — either through the removal of concrete, planting of vegetation, or purely aesthetic design changes in the shape of floodwalls — must meet the Corps’ safety standards.
And in the post-Katrina world, the Corps is taking no chances. “This is the largest drainage area in the United States,” says Catherine Shuman, lead planner of the Corps’ L.A. River study, “and flood control and public safety are our primary concerns. If the engineering is possible, we can start the bulldozers tomorrow and tear up the concrete. But right now, we just don’t know. It may be sometime before we do.”
“Sometime” could mean five years, it could mean a decade, or it could mean a lifetime.
The main problem, of which there are many, is that since the river was canalized, thousands of homes have been built in the natural floodplain — mainly in Long Beach and the areas closer to the river’s mouth. Remove concrete in sections upriver, and the water slows down. When water slows down, it begins to rise, and if it rises too much, it can top floodwalls farther downstream in the danger zones. Any changes to the shape of the channel can potentially have this effect — even simply terracing the floodwalls can pose problems.
“We’ve had several models that were successful, but we’ve had others that breached,” Shuman says.
For now, the point is moot. Though Congress recently budgeted $25 million for the Corps to conduct intensive studies of the river, that money has not yet been allotted, nor have the rules been established for how the money should be spent when and if it’s granted. Greening the river may not even be on the feds’ radar — they may simply want a review of traditional flood-control efforts.
Perhaps the most feasible green option in the immediate future may be to keep the concrete channel intact but to rely on a series of pumps to push water outside the right of way for use in the creation of riparian park habitats in the areas surrounding the river. As a consequence, the majority of river greening would fall to the River Revitalization Corporation. In theory, this should be a good thing. Because these new green spaces are outside the river’s right of way, and would not play an active role in flood control, it means they would fall exclusively under city jurisdiction, and MacAdams’ vision for a new, 100-plus-acre piggyback park could be realized without tortuous cross-agency oversight.
But the entire area is zoned for industrial use, and under a directive from the mayor, the Planning Department has labeled it a “job-preservation” site. The CRA has no plans to green the piggyback yards, nor anywhere else on the east bank of the central city corridor.
“The mayor not only wants to keep all this land for industrial use,” says MacAdams, shaking his head, “but he wants to expand industry down here.”
“I was shocked when I heard about that,” says Lehrer. “But I guess if you’re the mayor, you get rid of jobs at your own peril.”
Still, MacAdams says, “You would think acres of prime riverside land could have better use than a rail yard and an aggregate pile. Every other major city in the country is moving yards like this away from downtown. Five years or so from now, this rail yard is going to get pushed to the outskirts somewhere, and people are going to start trying to find a new use for this land.
“If we want this land to be park space, we need to jump the gun and start the conversation now,” he adds.
As MacAdams and I continue to survey the landscape, two L.A. County Sheriff’s deputies suddenly approach us from behind. “You can’t be here,” one of them tells us. “How do we know you’re not terrorists, planning your escape route?”
MacAdams and I look at each other perplexed, but decide not to push the issue. As we get in the car to leave, MacAdams lets loose a stifled laugh. “Wow,” he says. “Now I’m a terrorist just for looking at the river. It’s the perfect example of the invisibility of downtown.”
If it’s this difficult to get park space in the central city, the focal point of urban renewal, just imagine what the rest of Los Angeles is like.
Bound and Gagged by Red Tape
While there’s no excuse for a city trying to become the “greenest” in America not to have a holistic master plan for its park system, in fairness, there are other issues at play. Obviously public space costs money — money the city historically hasn’t been willing to spend, and, because of its record $405 million deficit, money it doesn’t have. Yet L.A.’s lack of green space is a significant impediment to economic growth. Despite the money being poured into projects like L.A. Live and the rebranding of the area around the L.A. Convention Center, “Los Angeles is considered a second-tier convention city,” says Jack Kyser, senior vice president of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. “Civic amenities like parks and promenades are a major criteria for convention consideration, and we simply don’t have them.”
According to Kyser’s most recent economic forecast, Los Angeles is in for several rough years. One potential growth industry is tourism. So, as Paris did more than a century ago, why doesn’t the city adopt a parks-based approach to economic growth in order to lure visitors?
“Parks are not self-sustaining enterprises,” Kyser explains. “Unless you have revenue-generating programming, they’re a drain on the general fund.”
Indeed, instead of public space, Los Angeles’ urban-renewal investments have historically been retail oriented. Angelenos have plenty of municipally funded spaces — they just need to bring their credit cards to go there. But shopping malls do not an emerald city make, and it’s tough to imagine Hollywood & Highland competing with Central Park or the Champs-Élysées.
“I think Los Angeles’ insistence on programming is completely misguided,” says Lehrer’s business partner, Esther Margulies. “People really need to re-evaluate the role parks can play in education, gang prevention, public health, environmental sustainability … the list goes on.”
“Of course,” Margulies notes, “L.A.’s emphasis on retail is undoubtedly influenced by Proposition 13.”
Prop. 13, the infamous third rail of California politics, puts a 2 percent cap on the amount a property’s assessment can increase. The tax itself is then levied at a maximum of 1 percent of that assessed value. Though in many ways the measure is a homeowners’ dream, Prop. 13 strips cities of a primary source of revenue. The results speak for themselves: New York’s world-class park system is backed by a general fund of more than $62 billion. Los Angeles, with roughly half New York’s population, has a general fund of only $7 billion and a massive deficit.
California voters ratified the measure in 1978. L.A.’s park system has been deteriorating ever since. Though other California cities face the same budget crunch, most already have adequate park space. They simply need to maintain.
In the rare cases where L.A. has built new parks, it has been forced to stem the financial bleeding with bond measures — Prop. O, Prop. K, Prop. 12, as well as several others, each with their own laws and regulations that govern the distribution of those funds. For instance, the well-funded Prop. O can only be used for water projects, which explains why plans for new, so-called “water parks” have been popping up across South Los Angeles.
And, of course, there is the infamous Quimby program — Los Angeles’ best and most bungled hope for new green space. The city is sitting on nearly $130 million of these funds, collected from the developers of new housing complexes, for the express purpose of building new parks. Though kept separate from the general fund, the management of these fees is nonetheless left to the city Department of Recreation and Parks, which, to quote Lewis MacAdams, is historically known for attracting a staff of “slouch-shouldered ticket punchers.”
Senior city planner Alan Bell, who is helping to revise L.A.’s Quimby policy, paints a more complex picture. “The program is understaffed,” he says. “You’ve got two or three people overseeing the distribution of hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Even if it were properly staffed, Bell explains, there are limitations as to where money can be directed; for instance, the city can’t hire more park staff. The state law governing the Quimby program dictates that the fees must be spent explicitly on parks that are located within a “reasonable distance” of where those fees were collected. There is some discretion in that phrase, but it’s typically understood as walking distance. So it’s difficult to pool the funds in one area for a massive project.
“On top of that,” Bell says, “by law, these funds can only be used for the creation or refurbishing of a park, not for general maintenance.”
In other words, Quimby can build a park, but it can’t take care of it once it’s constructed. The responsibility for that funding is left either to the appropriate bond measure, if one can be found, or to the paltry, deficit-ridden general fund, which is already struggling to keep up with its measly existing number of parks. This leaves the Recreation and Parks Department in the unenviable position of building new parks with the distinct possibility that they’ll be left to rot.
Despite hundreds of millions of bond and park-fee dollars at the city’s disposal, bureaucratic red tape makes the construction of municipally controlled public space a nightmare.
If They Smell It, Will They Come?
Ted Thomas stands at the corner of 67th Street and Eighth Avenue in the Park Mesa Heights neighborhood of South Los Angeles, indulging in a brief moment of nostalgia. “I did my bacheloring right there,” he says, pointing to the second floor of a corner three-story apartment building. “Some wild times around here.”
A soft-spoken man in his 70s, with a gentle demeanor and the lingering drawl of his Alabama youth, Thomas might come across as folksy were it not for a wireless headset permanently attached to his right ear — a high-tech-looking gadget that belies his grandfatherly air. Thomas isn’t fresh from the sticks; he’s a retired UAW organizer and has lived in and around this neighborhood since he was 17. He’s president of the Park Mesa Heights Community Council, and a force in local politics — determined to get his community more parks.
This primarily black, working-class community of 36,000 has just one functional park, Van Ness Playground, which it shares with its neighbors to the east. From where we’re standing, it’s a two-hour bus ride to Griffith Park and an hour and a half to the beach — both figures subject to the whims of traffic. Van Ness is only a mile away — not too far, but “you have to cross three different gang territories to get there,” Thomas explains. “A lot of kids are scared to do it.
“Even if there wasn’t a gang problem,” he adds, “Van Ness is already crowded by the people who live around there. Kids from this area have nothing to do after school, no place to exercise. We need more parks.”
Thomas shifts his attention across from his old pad to a fenced-in facility with spacious lawns and a large, mostly empty parking lot.
“When I lived here, this was a Lutheran school,” he says. “Now it’s a charter school for kids with learning issues. But it hardly gets any use.”
Indeed, though school is in session, there’s hardly any noise coming from inside. The empty parking lot suggests little activity.
“This is what we need,” Thomas says. “It’s got enough space for playgrounds, athletic fields, a gym, and we’d have a building to hold community meetings.”
Thomas can dream, but he knows obtaining such a facility will be an uphill battle. There’s no way the deficit-ridden general fund will have the cash to transform this kind of space, and Thomas’ neighborhood lacks enough development to tap into Los Angeles’ $130 million pool of Quimby money.
So what can Park Mesa Heights expect?
Thomas smirks: “Come on, I’ll show you.”
A little more than a mile away, he and I pull up to the site of a former media circus — a recently built pocket park that, one month ago, brought half of City Hall down to the neighborhood. Mayor Villaraigosa, days after his announcement on Charlie Rose that he’ll be running for re-election, used the occasion to take a rather large share of credit for the creation of this park, as well as to announce a bold new plan to build 45 new parks in Los Angeles by 2011.
Seeing the space gives the impression that Villaraigosa deserves all the credit he took that day. A towering and impressive playground structure rises from behind a polished silver fence that encloses the area. The park is even more remarkable, considering what came before it.
For as long as Thomas and everyone else in the neighborhood can remember, this land was an abandoned patch of dirt and a significant source of neighborhood blight — the city of Los Angeles its deadbeat owner. A center for garbage dumping, drug dealing and prostitution, it also happened to be one of the only open spaces in the neighborhood that kids could use to play.
It doesn’t take long to figure out, however, that, despite the transformation, things aren’t as great as they seem. Though school is about to let out for the day, the gates to the fence are locked. The park is closed, as it has been since the day it was built. “No one’s hopped the fence to mess with it yet,” Thomas says, “so that’s good at least.”
As we talk, a young mother holding her infant son glides by behind us.
“When’s the park going to open up?” she asks Thomas.
“Not sure yet,” Thomas replies. “Kids were complaining about the smell.”
“There’s a big, exposed sewer pipe in the back of the park,” Thomas explains. “No one wanted to pay to have it dealt with, so it’s still there.”
For all Villaraigosa’s media play, as it turns out, the city’s main contribution to this new park was to donate an acre of blighted land with an exposed sewer line.
A Murky Green Future
Today, the Park Mesa Heights playground is open, and the sewage smell isn’t too bad, insists Marta Segura, who’s managing the playground for the L.A. Neighborhood Land Trust. (The city is no longer involved.) And if it becomes a problem, she says, “we’ll find a way to deal with it.”
If and when that need arises, however, it remains to be seen exactly how Segura’s going to pay for the job. “The city didn’t put us into the budget this year,” she admits.
Segura remains upbeat that the park will be a success. Of course she has no choice but to stay positive — she’s doing the best she can with what the city has given her. But the people of L.A. deserve better than a sewage-scented acre.
The Olmsted brothers gave us a heroic vision for what this city can become. People like Lewis MacAdams and Mia Lehrer do what they can to keep that dream alive. But such a monumental task requires the will to act upon inspiration. The mistakes of the 1930s are once again upon us.
For decades, scholars from Mike Davis to Norman Klein have posited Los Angeles a city of fiction — caught between opposing narratives of dystopian noir and booster-backed land of sunshine. Parks and public space offer a third way — a collective lens we can use to view our city, and a gauge to see how far we’ve progressed.
The answer: not very far at all. Los Angeles is still searching for its Robert Moses — someone capable of turning Emerald City fiction into tree-lined reality.
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* Editor's note, July 29, 2008: In this story, reporter Matthew Fleischer stated that City Council President Eric Garcetti had ordered park rangers to ticket people fishing or feeding ducks in the L.A. River. Garcetti’s office points out that the ban on fishing and duck feeding stems from L.A. County municipal code 41.22 and that the extent of the Council President’s involvement is a plan to put up signs reinforcing the code.
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