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An urban harvest of ideas

THE CORN IS NOW higher than an elephant’s eye in downtown L.A. -- to paraphrase the song from “Oklahoma!” -- and you’ll need at least a small giraffe to see over it. I hope no one driving by has crashed. There, growing very fast on 32 acres between the Chinatown Gold Line stop and the Broadway bridge over the L.A. River, is a deep-green, buzzing, drip-irrigated, waving-in-the-wind cornfield -- or “Not a Cornfield,” as creator Lauren Bon calls her public art piece.

I know this piece of land well, but as a dusty, toxic brownfield and future Los Angeles State Historic Park. I began to write about it five years ago, when Friends of the Los Angeles River spearheaded the David-like battle to wrest it from a Goliath L.A. real estate developer. Soon after, I began to lead tours of the river with my friend Alan Loomis, and we’d always stop here to ponder the significance of the empty, weedy lot under the downtown skyline.

So why a cornfield -- a “living sculpture” that Bon plans to harvest in November? To begin with, this place is called the Cornfield, and while no one seems to know why for sure, the pueblo did grow crops here for the first 100 years. The Zanja Madre, the town’s lifeline, delivered water from the river across this spot. As the Southern Pacific rail depot for the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Cornfield continued to be crucial to Los Angeles’ heartbeat.

And then, just as the Cornfield was about to fade into an anonymous future as a warehouse complex, Friends of the L.A. River assembled allies to wage the all-out battle. Los Angeles, they argued, has always notoriously shortchanged public parks in favor of private development. And the Cornfield just happens to sit inside the city’s major downtown center and beside the city’s big concrete sewer-like river -- the two places where the absence of parks symbolizes L.A.'s failures of public space.

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The Cornfield became the site that augurs the coming of parks to L.A. neighborhoods. Yes, we treasure L.A.'s wild mountain parks, but we sorely lack the smaller, interstitial parks where everyone can play, walk, run, breathe, picnic, gather -- the places that are vital to any city’s social and environmental health. Community, equality, sustainability -- could L.A. use more of these? We go to the wilderness parks to get away from the city, but these parks create and sustain the city we want. The Cornfield became the spot where environmentalists, social activists, politicians and business and neighborhood leaders joined together to demand that the city make public parks a priority. Their victory marked a turning point for the revitalization of downtown, the L.A. River, and therefore, Los Angeles.

Until Bon planted corn this summer -- and began to bring people back in for tours and events -- the Cornfield was also a dusty, surface-of-Saturn-like scape. On paper, State Parks had built walking trails, bike paths, sports fields, picnic areas, heritage gardens, grand entrances. On the ground, the Cornfield remained a fenced-off no-man’s land. Alan and I would bring people here and say, “OK, now imagine it’s open and really green.” That was the genius, after all, of the early boosters of river restoration who went to the place where Schwarzenegger fled on a motorcycle from an alien in “Terminator 2" and envisioned a 51-mile greenway through the heart of L.A. County. It was as if they were wearing special glasses, while the rest of us were just using our eyes.

“So imagine,” Alan and I would urge at this epic battle site, “a great central meadow filled with people, and a grand descending staircase from Chinatown.” We would try to get the people on our tours to look through the fence across the dust and desolation and say, “Wow.”

And now, I walk the path up the middle of this field, my ears brushed by corn tassels, and say, “Wow.” Who wouldn’t? It’s a cornfield. In downtown Los Angeles. Ten feet from the Metro tracks. Which to me is the point and the brilliance of Bon’s colossal art project. All that unexpected corn calls attention to this piece of land. It evokes the past, but points to the future, in the moment when we take a breath in between.

It says, look at this place that’s been called the Cornfield. It hasn’t always been a cornfield. It’s not going to be a cornfield. But let’s remember its historic role in this amnesiac city, and let’s begin to re-enter this space and celebrate it. And then, we’ll harvest the corn and deliver this spot to its future -- to L.A.'s spirit of place, its heartbeat, for the 21st century.

In late July, I brought a large group here. “Imagine,” I was about to begin, but though the corn was about as high as an elephant’s toe at that point, a few people began to sing the “Oklahoma!” song. At least one person took in the sight of the corn beneath the skyscrapers and said, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” And all said together, “Wow.”

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Jenny Price is the author of “Flight Maps: Adventures With Nature in Modern America.”

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