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MacWestlake : MacArthur Park’s Renovation Should Include Restoration of Its Historic Name

THERE IS GREAT civic virtue in the Otis / Parsons Art Institute’s efforts to upgrade “the current bad image” of Westlake Park.

In a recent story, The Times reported that Otis / Parsons has prepared a proposal for its renovation called “MacArthur Park Design Guidelines.” It contemplates a $5-million face lift to be financed by various sources, including private sponsors.

Ironically, the report says, its goal is “to inform the public about the rich and valuable history of the park and the surrounding Westlake district.”

Ruth Kimball of La Canada Flintridge is outraged that the plan can refer to the “Westlake district” but continue to perpetuate the name “MacArthur Park,” which no one in the district honors (although it was the name of a hit song some years ago).

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She points out that Otis / Parsons suggests that some of the money for its rescue might come from the new Metro Rail station to be built across the street from the park at Wilshire Boulevard and Alvarado Street. Ironically, again, the station is to be called the Westlake Park Metro Rail Station.

Kimball commends my effort of several years ago to have the historic name restored, but adds that “it has since come to seem a lost cause.”

Indeed, I lost it myself. I whipped up so much sentiment for the name change that the then-president of the board of commissioners of the Recreation and Parks Department put it on his agenda. Alas, I came down with the flu and was unable to whip up my troops--of whom there were evidently many--and too few showed up at the meeting. The motion died.

If the park is to be renovated, the first and cheapest step that can be taken is the restoration of its historic name. The naming of parks after generals is a common psychosis to which Los Angeles is especially vulnerable. The square-block park downtown began humbly as 6th Street Park, then became Central Park. During World War I it was changed to Pershing Square, in honor of Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force.

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Westlake Park fell victim not so much to wartime patriotism as to the political agitation to promote Gen. Douglas MacArthur for the presidency. William Randolph Hearst, who had boasted of starting the Spanish-American War, decided to put MacArthur in the White House. He assigned his best political reporter to put pressure on then-Mayor Fletcher Bowron to change the name of Westlake Park to MacArthur Park. The machinations went on for weeks. At first the commission voted the proposal down. Two months later, without a public hearing, they approved it. Then a large group from the Westlake district appeared in protest. Their identity had been stripped away. At that critical hour, a radiogram arrived from MacArthur, who had been notified. With customary eloquence, the general accepted, asserting that the name change was actually a tribute to his “gallant soldiers.”

Two days later a parade with several bands and military units marched down Wilshire Boulevard from Union Street to the park, where Rise Stevens sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the program was closed by the firing of a 17-howitzer salute to MacArthur.

Oddly, the name change never caught on. If you walk through the neighborhood today, you will find the Westlake Cleaners and the Westlake Outlet Store and the Westlake Theater, but nothing named MacArthur.

I honor MacArthur’s memory. He was a great soldier, and no one can blame him for being a bit vainglorious. But he never even saw Westlake Park. He never even went a few blocks out of his way to see it when he made his famous “old soldiers never die” speech at the nearby Ambassador Hotel.

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Kimball argues: “The new park plan hopes to ‘define MacArthur Park’s historic boundaries.’ Why can’t it begin by restoring its historic name?”

I probably should not take up the cry again. My crusades have fallen in the dust, but I think it’s time we reversed a cynical piece of political chicanery.

I’m not asking that the name of East Lake Park be restored to Lincoln Park, or that Pershing Square revert to Central Park, or that Lafayette Park be given its original name of Sunset Park.

But Westlake is something else.

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