Arthur Ballard was sitting quietly on a bench in downtown’s Pershing Square, halfway through a paperback copy of James Clavell’s “Shogun.”
Nearby, homeless people were camped out under liquidambar trees, a couple canoodled in the grass and two security guards made the rounds, asking one man to take his feet off a bench and another what the clear liquid inside his soda bottle was.
Ballard ignored the activity. He’s the kind of person who likes a routine, and his midday sojourn into the city’s central park is a habit he’s kept up for almost 60 years, despite the changes in the park -- and park-goers.
When Ballard first started visiting Pershing Square, the park was full of palm fronds and soapbox speakers, and nearby streets were crowded with streetcars, wooden double-decker buses and men in dapper suits and hats. Ballard’s father owned a jewelry business in one of the buildings overlooking the square. As a young man, Ballard would walk through the teeming lunchtime crowd, hoping to meet a young woman who might be amenable to a little conversation and perhaps a ride home after work.
From an office high above Pershing Square, and from a ground-level bench, Ballard has watched his beloved park ebb and flow.
In a city in which little is permanent, Pershing Square has been a model of civic reinvention. The 4 1/2-acre park has gone by eight names and had almost as many face-lifts as a series of renovations -- one every two decades or so -- has tried to keep up with downtown’s changes.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, it was our version of New York’s Central Park, a meeting place in a bustling city that inspired writers such as John Fante and Carey McWilliams. By the 1960s, the drugs and crime underscored downtown’s rapid decline. And in the early 1990s, the park was remade again to reflect the new L.A. -- with a design centered on a Mayan amphitheater meant to celebrate the region’s Latino roots and discourage the homeless from hanging around.
“It keeps going through these phases where it has to be altered, to dress it up,” said historian Tom Sitton, adding that none of the more recent iterations has worked. “But the homeless and less fortunate keep coming back to it.”
Now, L.A. is about to take the scalpel to Pershing Square again -- this time, to better serve the residential population that has moved downtown. Plans call for more grass, less concrete and perhaps space for residents’ dogs to run.
When looked at from above, Pershing Square resembles a kind of village, with a 125-foot, bright purple bell tower at its center and “streets” emanating from there.
But it’s at ground level that the park’s problems become clear. Low walls surrounding the park separate it from the busy downtown streets -- and the division isolates rather than insulates. Inside the walls, areas of the park are divided by steps, grades and other low barriers. And under a noonday sun, the glare off an expansive stretch of hardscape makes it taxing to linger anywhere -- even next to a shallow, circular pool.
Benches are pushed against the park’s raised outer walls. Cafe tables clutter the inside of the space, but few chairs are available. A stage at the north end of the park, where concerts play during the summer and movies have been shown in recent months, is off-limits most of the time.
Alexandra Leh, who lives a few blocks away, said she has tried to use Pershing Square or walk her dog there. But the park, she said, “isn’t a welcoming environment.”
“I know they probably spent millions on the redesign,” she said, “but they need to go back.”
For Ballard and others, the idea of another renovation comes with both interest and weariness. They agree that the park could be better than it is but question whether it can ever return to its glory days.
Connie Humberger began visiting Pershing Square in the 1940s, when the park was a leafy refuge. Each day, as she crossed the park on the way to her job at Pacific Telephone at 6th and Hill, she found it teeming with “lots and lots of people -- on soapboxes or benches, talking about politics or religion,” she said recently.
But since then, she has watched as the park has foundered. Pershing Square, Humberger said, “seems not to have found itself. Or maybe the city hasn’t found it.”
As with so many things in Los Angeles, Pershing Square began in part as a real estate deal. In 1866, that section of downtown was mostly residential. Acreage came cheap. The owners of land adjacent to the dusty parcel were looking to protect their property values.
At first, the park was largely an open space ringed by a white picket fence, which helped keep livestock out. As the city grew, trees were cut down and flowers and a bandstand were added.
But soon, city fathers decided on something grander and more sophisticated for the big city that Los Angeles was rapidly becoming.
In 1910, architect John Parkinson, who would go on to design City Hall and Union Station, laid out a design with clumps of bamboo and cypress trees, wide paths crossing diagonally from each corner and a three-tier fountain adorned with four cherubs at the center. In 1918, it was rechristened with a name that stuck: Pershing Square, after Gen. John Joseph Pershing, commander of U.S. forces in World War I.
And in 1923, the Biltmore Hotel opened across the street, adding to the feel that Pershing Square was the crossroads of L.A.
That ended with the rise of the automobile.
Hoping to keep downtown competitive with suburban shopping malls, officials in 1955 built underground parking with large concrete ramps leading into the garage. The cherub fountain was taken out. Later, a number of trees were removed, which Walt Disney took to his theme park in Anaheim.
But that didn’t go far enough.
By that time, downtown was in major decline. Department stores closed; the trolley that brought people into the city stopped running. Pershing Square suffered the most, becoming a magnet for crime, drugs and homelessness. John Rechy described these days, when the park was also a center for gay cruising, in his novel “City of Night.”
By the late 1980s, the Biltmore Hotel had literally turned its back on the park; a renovation moved its entrance from Olive Street to the other side of the building on Grand Avenue, a block away.
Embarrassed, city leaders opted for another overhaul. Architects Ricardo Legoretta and Laurie Olin promised it would be “an inspiring symbol of affirmation for the future of Los Angeles.” Grass gave way to decomposed granite and stenciled concrete, materials chosen to discourage camping out in the space and enhance security. In many ways, the park’s spartan design matched downtown’s landscape at the time; few people called the city center home.
These days, the park again seems one step behind the changing downtown. Over the last decade, more than 20,000 residents have moved into the city center -- and one of their biggest complaints has been a lack of park space.
Councilwoman Jan Perry and other city officials are considering changes to the park to better serve the new residential population. Already, officials have agreed to make improvements to the Palm Court area, and there is talk of reserving space for dogs.
“It is becoming a community park because we have more people living here,” Perry said. “They not only want the space, they need the space.”
Bigger changes could be coming. David Houk, developer of the proposed Park Fifth condominium towers across the street, has agreed to set aside $10 million for park improvements if the towers are built. Houk said his vision is simple: “As much grass and trees as possible.”
As Arthur Ballard closed his paperback, he said he’s not sure what to make of Pershing Square anymore. Many of the nearby buildings he visited as a youth -- the Philharmonic building, the old Union Pacific, the Biltmore Theater -- are long gone. Others, such as the Title Guarantee and the Subway Terminal, have been redeveloped as pricey loft spaces.
The only constant is change itself.
Long ago, “downtown was a place to come to,” Ballard said. Then, for a long time, it wasn’t. Now, he said, “there are restaurants around, and shops, and people walking dogs. It’s good . . . the people living here want to see changes.”
Previous Column One articles are available online.