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Turning an Odor of Sin Into the Smell of Roses

Whatever the pop philosophers may tell us, there has always been a substantial number of Angelenos who thought that speed, sex and a cold beer were better for you than just stopping to smell the roses.

Before the turn of the century, such crowds gathered south of Downtown at Agricultural Park, which filled the site now occupied by Exposition Park’s celebrated rose garden. There, folks could watch horse, camel, dog, bicycle and auto races, get a drink at the city’s longest bar and--if they were so inclined--repair to one of the city’s more stylish brothels.

For 40 years, beginning in 1871, Agricultural Park flourished on a 160-acre parcel, bounded by present-day Exposition and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards, Figueroa Street and Vermont Avenue.

Two pyramid-like towers bearing the name Agricultural Park stood at the facility’s main entrance on Wesley Avenue. Under a four-story brick grandstand stretched the bar down which schooners of beer slid to customers of all ages.

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In the middle of the park stood a fashionable white clapboard hotel that housed many visiting racing fans and big gamblers until it began operating as another sort of sporting establishment. Some male students from nearby USC were known to help boost its clientele.

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But a young reformer who took a particularly dim view of sin and corruption decided that Agricultural Park might be more aptly called Sodom and Gomorrah. In 1898, a stern, sharp-eyed 37-year-old attorney and devout Methodist named William Miller Bowen quietly followed his Sunday school class of young boys across the street to the park.

Absenteeism was a serious problem at the University Methodist Church and, suddenly, he knew why.

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Pushing his way through the jostling crowds of spectators, Bowen found a track where horses raced and a separate course where greyhounds chased rabbits. At times rabbits were torn apart by the dogs as delighted spectators looked on. Between the races and dismemberments, Bowen saw open drinking, gambling and prostitution.

“It became clear in a very short time that the vicious influences here were more than undoing the work we were trying to do in our Sunday School class. . . . This is a plague spot, infecting the entire community, and if left alone it will bring us all into ill repute,” Bowen said.

Thus, Bowen began his decade-long campaign by enlisting the help of other ministers in organizing the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

By the turn of the century, dog races were outlawed in Los Angeles.

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In 1901 Bowen was elected to the City Council and in 1903 he became its president. From that position, he introduced measures to end gambling and racing at the park.

That same year, however, more than 10,000 speed-crazy residents watched Barney Oldfield race a Winton Bullet around Agricultural Park’s one-mile dirt oval track in a world-record 55 seconds. The novelty of automobile racing captivated the populace--and the press.

The front page of The Times read: “Barney Oldfield’s attempt to commit suicide at Agricultural Park yesterday only resulted in a compound fracture of the world’s automobile record.

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“It would seem simpler and easier for him to hire some one to brain him with an ax than suffer this lingering destruction.”

On Sept. 10, 1906, Agricultural Park became the scene of a real demolition derby. Before a cheering crowd of 25,000, two steam locomotives began huffing and puffing, building up steam for a head-on collision. Promoters had a mile of track laid for the staged event. Ads were placed weeks in advance in all the papers and 200 police officers were hired for crowd control.

The two engineers jumped to safety only seconds before the engines crashed at 50 m.p.h. After the dust settled, the crowd began collecting souvenirs from the wreckage and the promoters complained about losing $7,000 on the event.

A newspaper story the next day read: “A fire at night in the city is vastly more exciting.”

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More outraged than ever, Bowen embarked on a marathon lawsuit--at his own expense--to make Agricultural Park public property. He succeeded in 1908, and went to work to convert the site to more sedate, albeit less colorful, recreation.

The saloons and brothel that once brought gamblers and a seedy clientele to the park were torn down in 1910. Long-awaited plans were finally laid out for the National Guard armory, an exposition building (now the Museum of Science and Industry), the Museum of Natural History and later, a seven-acre sunken rose garden with 15,000 rosebushes.

The park’s opening ceremonies in November, 1913, included breaking a bottle of Owens River water from the new aqueduct on the cornerstone of the National Guard armory. Bowen died in 1937, after dedicating a quarter of a century to the project, which ultimately included the Coliseum.

You can’t get a drink or place a bet in Exposition Park anymore, but you can stop and smell those roses.

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