A Park With No Name (Yet) but Plenty of History

The Cornfield, Chinatown Yard or Zanja Madre State Park--whatever this plantain-shaped piece of land at the very heart of Los Angeles' history will come to be called--is currently a construction site. A rattling bulldozer pushes up great mounds of earth. A giant pile of broken concrete awaits grinding for fill. Stacks of new train rails warm in the sun.

The building of a segment of the Pasadena Blue Line light railroad is underway in earnest on a seven-acre ribbon that runs through the land. The line is to be up and running in July 2003.

By which time the development of the new, as-yet-unnamed state park on 32 acres adjoining the rail line should be far advanced.

Such an eventuality looked impossible to us pessimists only two years ago. The land, farmed for 100 years and a railroad yard for 100 after that, seemed destined for a sadder and more typical fate. Majestic Realty Co., the developer of Staples Center, announced it had acquired an option to buy the land from the Union Pacific Railroad for $18.5 million, and would build an $80-million warehouse and industrial complex on the site, which borders Chinatown just northeast of downtown.

Environmentalists, preservationists and neighborhood groups--optimists all, and fighters--quickly formed the Chinatown Yard Alliance to battle Majestic, a company with a reputation for relentlessly pursuing its goals.

Marvel of marvels, the alliance won. Majestic agreed to buy the land and resell it to the state for a park. Gov. Gray Davis included in his new budget $30 million to buy the land and $10 million to clean it up. Without having to sink a footer, Majestic made $11.5 million, probably chump change by its standards, but a tidy enough sum by mine.

There's been no end of proposals for what the land might become after Union Pacific stopped using it as a rail yard about 15 years ago. In the past decade, a City Planning Department workshop, a Friends of the Los Angeles River seminar, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Assn., the Latino Urban Forum, and North East Trees have worked up proposals. These have included everything from new housing, a lakeside park, a Chinese-American World Trade Center, a historic trolley line and a combination Ferris wheel/water wheel. A more recent comprehensive plan was put forth by the Chinatown Yard Alliance. Drafted by architect Arthur Golding, for whom the park has become a fiery passion, it foresees a new magnet school, soccer fields, stretches of forest, bike paths, a Chinatown cultural center and a museum devoted to the history of the site. The State Parks Department commissioned a very preliminary study that, in more general terms, included much of what the alliance has proposed. The department recently held the first of what will be numerous public hearings to learn what nearby residents desire for the park.

Whatever is ultimately decided, it will certainly include grass, trees, walkways, bike paths--respite from the city's numbing tableau of asphalt and stucco.

It's difficult to overstate the historical significance of the site. Across it ran the Zanja Madre, the Mother Canal, the aorta that supplied water and, therefore, life, from the then-wild L.A. River to the tiny, fragile new organism called the Pueblo of Los Angeles. Archeologists last year discovered an exposed section of the Zanja at the western end of the new park site. More is thought to lie entombed in dirt and time at the site's eastern end, closer to the river.

Preserving the property's openness serves a distinct purpose in a city where rapid development and constant redevelopment have largely obliterated any sense of an anchoring past. Looking south from North Broadway, on the bluff above the park site, you can see the river, the reason the Spaniards settled here, to your left. Below, you can detect the beginning of what was once an easily irrigated flood plain that became the settlement's first farmland. To your right, a 10-minute walk away is the pueblo and the downtown that grew from it.

In short, with the site left open you can envision the organic imperatives that drove early Los Angeles to evolve as it did. The famously unreadable city becomes a little more legible.

Joel Reynolds, the Natural Resources Defense Council lawyer who was a key member of the Chinatown Yard Alliance's legal team, calls the alliance's victory "one of the most important things to happen in the history of L.A."

If we're lucky, his words won't prove to be an overstatement. The alliance overcame a tendency that has afflicted this place ever since the railroads opened it to development 120 years ago, namely, an ethic that views every last square inch of the land as valuable only to the extent that every last dollar can be wrung from it.

This ethic is why Los Angeles today is a paved-over monstrosity poorer in parkland than any other major city. Its defeat in this instance is why The Cornfield or Chinatown Yard or Zanja Madre State Park deserves to be looked upon as a heroic monument, and maybe even a symbol of hope, if it's not too late to speak meaningfully of hope in this regard.

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