Pity Pershing Square. It’s been put through more makeovers than Joan Rivers, and the results haven’t been nearly as presentable.
Other cities brag about their urban parks. Ours -- except for the big glamor-pusses like Griffith Park -- we tend to try to keep tucked out of sight.
Here’s Pershing Square, supposedly the green heart of downtown, and the city seems to want it walled off from sight, a place kept so bare and stark that you could hose it down at night like a prison yard -- with just enough landscaping, as a Times colleague once wrote, to serve as a “cheap wig” for the parking garage below.
Once again, an energetic, public-spirited group -- this one called Friends of Pershing Square -- has announced that it too wants to make over Pershing Square into a real park, an inviting civic key to downtown's public life.
Oh, how we need it. Los Angeles is the biggest park-poor city in the nation, and the city leaders have known it for nearly a hundred years.
City fathers may have calculated, calculatedly, that nice, middle-class Angelenos already had pretty backyards, and we can all see the mountains and go to the beach, so we didn’t really need a lot of parks. Which is why I’ve sometimes seen poor people picnicking and sunning on grassy medians and the parkway land between sidewalks and streets.
Pocket parks, which the city began asking for back in 1928, have sprung up on odd bits of public land, and they look nice enough, but they’re often not big enough to play a ballgame. A pickup game of miniature golf, maybe.
The sense is that public parks are dangerous places. Pershing Square was once the place for a fashionable foot-ramble, and a Hyde Park Corner forum for all manner of ideas. In one incident in 1928, L.A. Police Chief James Davis’ officers did a sweep of Pershing Square -- what their boss called a gathering place for “communists, Bolsheviks and other radicals” who handed out fliers. One of the firebrands was the silk-hatted millionaire socialist Gaylord Wilshire -- of Wilshire Boulevard. In time, the thin-skinned city leadership -- probably unconstitutionally -- barred such speakers.
There were big plans for Pershing Square once upon a time: for a campanile taller than New York’s Woolworth building; for an urban garden. Pershing Square at one point was a demi-jungle of lush, semi-tropical plants. But as you read in decades’ worth of news stories, unseemly people could hide in the green shade, the homeless and the homosexuals, and sordid things went on. Better to cut down the greenery and turn it into yet another concrete vacuity.
Each redo just got worse, like plastic surgery to fix plastic surgery. And the tempting blank canvas of a makeover tempted officials to want to make it more than just a park. My colleague Gale Holland pointed out the uninviting forced-art adornments of the 1990s: Big concrete adornments in “strip-club purple and canary yellow,” giant, burnt-orange balls rolled goofily onto the concrete. A dog park corner uninviting even to dogs. This is a park?
Why are we afraid of our own parks?
A new Grand Park now tumbles down from the Music Center to City Hall, cobbled together from bits of public land into something bold and imaginative if not yet thronged by the public. Can you blame them, given the official attitude toward public parks as a kind of expensive, burdensome necessary evil?
How has L.A. allowed these parks to become the kind of places officialdom just wants to hose down?
Let’s tell the Pershing Square story as a cautionary tale.
In 1850, it was far from the city’s hub in the old pueblo -- so far that a 120-by-165-foot lot “way out there on Hill Street,” on Block 15 of the city’s Ord Survey, went for $60, and had no takers. The Arroyo de los Reyes flowed through it. It was a far, wild place.
It was designated a public square in 1866, but it wasn’t worthy of the name park: treeless, grassless, flat. A German immigrant planted flowers and trees for shade out of his own pocket; $1,600 was spent on trees and fencing. A 1910 fountain perked up the place.
By then downtown had grown into its spaces, and locals welcomed the breathing room. Freelance saxophonists serenaded sandwich-eaters on benches.
It began as just a “public square,” then St. Vincent’s Park, for a nearby school. Then, Los Angeles Park, Sixth Street Park, Central Park, Central Square and, in 1918, was renamed Pershing Square after the World War I general, “Black Jack” Pershing.
Maybe it’s time to open up the naming-rights bidding on the place, or sell park cleanup naming sponsorships the way they sell highway cleanup naming sponsorships. Who can forget the Bette Midler “adopt-a-highway” stretch of the 134 Freeway?
The name change didn’t much improve the 4 1/2-acre park’s appeal. It was overall about as attractive as a military parade ground, which is to say, not much. The Times mocked the notion that tourists would flock there in homage to Pershing as they do to the Arc de Triomphe and Trafalgar Square.