When a Public Park Becomes a Private Preserve

The gathering was to be a celebration of Charlie Stone's third birthday and the nation's 209th, in short, a Fourth of July weekend family picnic.

But the gathering last Saturday also turned out to be a celebration of another sort--the right of the public to use a public park--and raised some disturbing questions about the management of the Hollywood Bowl by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., and the responsibility of Los Angeles County for its park lands.

A week earlier, a decision had been made to hold the celebration picnic in a public park. With three infants, a smattering of toddlers, parents, grandparents, a great-grandmother and friends, totaling 18 persons, it was felt that no one's home should be subject to such a crowd.

Because it was near a grandmother's house, central to all and easy to find, a sylvan spot on the western slope of historic Whitley Heights was selected. And because of the recent heat wave, the picnic also was scheduled for 4 p.m., a little later than usual in the hope that it would be cooler.

The spot is in Milner Park, which had been the site of 23 houses when the land was condemned nearly 30 years ago for a movie industry museum. Ironically, among the homes eventually demolished were those of former movie stars, including one which a studio had built for Bette Davis, replete with a thatched roof and spider-web windows.

As various plans for a new museum were bandied about, the site on the east side of Highland Avenue was declared a park by the county. In time, the county turned most of the land into a large, raw parking lot for the nearby Hollywood Bowl, while the remaining hilly section adjacent to Whitley Heights was graded for picnic areas--a gesture to the neighborhood that was never happy with the condemnation.

However, when we arrived at 4 p.m., the parking lot adjacent to the picnic area in the southeast edge of the park, the farthest one from the Bowl and a steep mile away, it was blocked by security guards. They said the lot was needed for patrons of the concert scheduled for 8 that evening.

Shrugging our collective shoulders, we drove off to deposit our cars in the Heights, and innocently descended on the park on foot through another entrance, the food and drink in arm and the infants and toddlers in tow.

No sooner had we settled down at two of the 14 tables in the picnic area and begun giving out party hats to the children, than four guards arrived to inform us brusquely that the area was reserved for Bowl patrons and that we had to leave. There is nothing like the hint of authority backed by identification badges to bring out the worst in fledgling bureaucrats, even if only parking attendants for an evening.

Incredulous, we protested, making Milner hill our Bunker Hill, and asked that the guards or their superiors produce permits or leases to support the claim that the public area was for the private use of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Assn., its friends and patrons.

"This area has been reserved by the Bowl for eight years," snapped a guard who identified himself as Bill Carr, as if the lapse of time made it legal and gave him and the other guards the right to threaten to bodily remove us.

It appears not everybody has to sit beside the paths leading up to the Bowl or in their seats to enjoy a supper alfresco before a concert, in keeping with a Los Angeles tradition. (As I learned later, all you have to know is to phone the Hollywood Bowl at 850-2060 to reserve a table; at least that was the policy before this article was written.)

As for the permits we requested to see, none of the guards or their superiors could produce anything--one wouldn't even show his identification badge.

However, subsequent inquiries have disclosed that the county has leased the land at no cost to the association for its use on days concerts are scheduled. Presumably, this was for the parking, but in time has included the picnic areas, as well as by default, the operation of the park for the entire year. It seems that Milner Park, in effect, has become the private domain of the Philharmonic Assn. Give an institution an inch and it will take a mile, especially when a compliant public agency strapped for park maintenance funds is involved.

The lease and subsequent withdrawal from the park's management by the county seems oddly magnanimous, considering that the land was acquired with public funds through a public process for a public purpose, in this case as a museum.

It was bad enough that the park was an afterthought to rationalize a particularly harsh condemnation, but worse than that, most of the park really is just a parking lot, with a little green strip left over only because it was too hilly to grade for more parking spaces to serve the Bowl. And now it seems even the strip is being gobbled up or, as a Whitley Heights resident commented, "bowled over."

As for the party, it went on as scheduled with a few Bowl employees looking on. Six other people did sit for a time at two of the 12 other tables, but left when friends told them they were having dinner elsewhere in the park. A few other persons also came and left.

When we finally policed the area and packed up to leave at about 7 o'clock, a total of nine persons in addition to our party had used the area, nowhere near the 50 for which the area had been reserved, according to the guards.

We also noticed as we left, that the sprawling parking lot nearest the picnic area was vacant, except for an ugly large blue steel container. The container is said by Heights residents to store equipment used by the Police Department for motorcycle practice it holds most Sunday mornings in the parking lot, waking up nearby residents in the process. This the Bowl management allows.

The use of Milner Park is very much an urban-design issue. Public parks are vital to the well-being of any city and its residents; a place where people should be able to relax, play and be reminded that before the city, there was a wilderness, if only just open space in which to stretch out and feel free.

They should not be used as storage areas for vehicles or as private preserves. For the county to allow such uses under whatever arrangement it might have with the Philharmonic Assn. is an abdication of a public trust.

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