Pity Pershing Square. It’s been put through more makeovers than Joan Rivers, and the results haven’t been nearly as presentable.
Other cities brag about their urban parks. Ours -- except for the big glamor-pusses like Griffith Park -- we tend to try to keep tucked out of sight.
Here’s Pershing Square, supposedly the green heart of downtown, and the city seems to want it walled off from sight, a place kept so bare and stark that you could hose it down at night like a prison yard -- with just enough landscaping, as a Times colleague once wrote, to serve as a “cheap wig” for the parking garage below.
Once again, an energetic, public-spirited group -- this one called Friends of Pershing Square -- has announced that it too wants to make over Pershing Square into a real park, an inviting civic key to downtown's public life.
Oh, how we need it. Los Angeles is the biggest park-poor city in the nation, and the city leaders have known it for nearly a hundred years.
City fathers may have calculated, calculatedly, that nice, middle-class Angelenos already had pretty backyards, and we can all see the mountains and go to the beach, so we didn’t really need a lot of parks. Which is why I’ve sometimes seen poor people picnicking and sunning on grassy medians and the parkway land between sidewalks and streets.
Pocket parks, which the city began asking for back in 1928, have sprung up on odd bits of public land, and they look nice enough, but they’re often not big enough to play a ballgame. A pickup game of miniature golf, maybe.
The sense is that public parks are dangerous places. Pershing Square was once the place for a fashionable foot-ramble, and a Hyde Park Corner forum for all manner of ideas. In one incident in 1928, L.A. Police Chief James Davis’ officers did a sweep of Pershing Square -- what their boss called a gathering place for “communists, Bolsheviks and other radicals” who handed out fliers. One of the firebrands was the silk-hatted millionaire socialist Gaylord Wilshire -- of Wilshire Boulevard. In time, the thin-skinned city leadership -- probably unconstitutionally -- barred such speakers.
There were big plans for Pershing Square once upon a time: for a campanile taller than New York’s Woolworth building; for an urban garden. Pershing Square at one point was a demi-jungle of lush, semi-tropical plants. But as you read in decades’ worth of news stories, unseemly people could hide in the green shade, the homeless and the homosexuals, and sordid things went on. Better to cut down the greenery and turn it into yet another concrete vacuity.
Each redo just got worse, like plastic surgery to fix plastic surgery. And the tempting blank canvas of a makeover tempted officials to want to make it more than just a park. My colleague Gale Holland pointed out the uninviting forced-art adornments of the 1990s: Big concrete adornments in “strip-club purple and canary yellow,” giant, burnt-orange balls rolled goofily onto the concrete. A dog park corner uninviting even to dogs. This is a park?
Why are we afraid of our own parks?
A new Grand Park now tumbles down from the Music Center to City Hall, cobbled together from bits of public land into something bold and imaginative if not yet thronged by the public. Can you blame them, given the official attitude toward public parks as a kind of expensive, burdensome necessary evil?
How has L.A. allowed these parks to become the kind of places officialdom just wants to hose down?
Let’s tell the Pershing Square story as a cautionary tale.
In 1850, it was far from the city’s hub in the old pueblo -- so far that a 120-by-165-foot lot “way out there on Hill Street,” on Block 15 of the city’s Ord Survey, went for $60, and had no takers. The Arroyo de los Reyes flowed through it. It was a far, wild place.
It was designated a public square in 1866, but it wasn’t worthy of the name park: treeless, grassless, flat. A German immigrant planted flowers and trees for shade out of his own pocket; $1,600 was spent on trees and fencing. A 1910 fountain perked up the place.
By then downtown had grown into its spaces, and locals welcomed the breathing room. Freelance saxophonists serenaded sandwich-eaters on benches.
It began as just a “public square,” then St. Vincent’s Park, for a nearby school. Then, Los Angeles Park, Sixth Street Park, Central Park, Central Square and, in 1918, was renamed Pershing Square after the World War I general, “Black Jack” Pershing.
Maybe it’s time to open up the naming-rights bidding on the place, or sell park cleanup naming sponsorships the way they sell highway cleanup naming sponsorships. Who can forget the Bette Midler “adopt-a-highway” stretch of the 134 Freeway?
The name change didn’t much improve the 4 1/2-acre park’s appeal. It was overall about as attractive as a military parade ground, which is to say, not much. The Times mocked the notion that tourists would flock there in homage to Pershing as they do to the Arc de Triomphe and Trafalgar Square.
Yet people were so desperate for a few moments of air and sunshine that they poured out of the office buildings at midday to eat lunch in the open. The biggest story of Pershing Square in the 1920s wasn’t the anarchists with pamphlets but the pigeons with appetites. The anti-pigeonistas lamented “the great damage done to valuable properties” by pigeon, ah, byproduct.
The city hired a frontiersman to trap the pigeons, $6 a half-dozen. Bird lovers were incensed. The mayor vetoed a pigeon ban. The council overrode him.
In 1923, “tattered men sunning or dozing” populated the place. Bootleggers and dope peddlers and wooing couples sought it out. True believers harangued about monkey glands and the Wobblies and the flat tax. The park was where capitalists and communists crossed paths among the pigeons. During a 1924 partial eclipse, an entrepreneur made a tidy sum setting up a telescope and offering a two-minute look at the skies for 15 cents. (Telescopes the city installed stopped working years ago, but still sat there with their blind gaze, disappointing park-goers more than if they weren’t there in the first place.)
In sum, said one visitor, the park was home to “the kindly and the brutal.”
Isn’t just about every park a temptation to that? Why does L.A. seem to throw in the towel so readily and cede the field to the brutal?
By 1927, a Chamber of Commerce-commissioned report scoring the city’s woeful lack of parkland was skillfully buried by real estate interests that didn’t want to give up a single profitable square foot to public use if they didn’t have to.
Nearly 40 years later, Times urban critic Art Seidenbaum decried the civic tight-fistedness and narrowness of vision that made L.A. a poor park performer even compared to the concrete-canyoned New York. What was the city’s idea of a swell park? The square over an underground mall next to City Hall, its chief attraction a huge, three-legged lighted jukebox whose idea was whimsical enough, but it soon wah-wahed to a halt and fell expensively and finally silent. That’s not a park, that’s a punchline.
The flowers and trees that seemed to pop out of the ground on any open soil in Southern California were grimly missing from Pershing Square and other parks. Yet the dedication of one of the periodic makeovers of Pershing Square, in 1964, was met with public boos, and the landscape designer took the stage to a big noisy raspberry. The “open look” was meant to “prevent loiterers from harassing citizens trying to enjoy the park.” But with the “open look,” there was nothing left for citizens to enjoy.
They dolled up the place for the 1984 Olympics, but within six months the flowers had died -- it had been more Potemkin than plaza anyway -- and the place was an off-putting urban desert once more.
If the attitude is that any open space is a park, then they’re supposed to run on autopilot. They don’t. People want parks, but they need help and support -- they need a civic effort -- to claim them and keep them. Pershing Square needs those saxophonists back. It needs plein aire painters and coffee carts and maybe a quick-repair stand for broken shoes and handbags, and a flower vendor and a news ticker. And regularly cleaned picnic tables for brown baggers. It needs the Christmas ice rink every year and maybe summertime pickup volleyball matches. It needs volunteer tour guides telling the history of the place, like the fabulous Biltmore Hotel, the place where the Black Dahlia was last seen alive and where the Beatles stayed in 1964. And I love Beethoven, but we don’t need his statue in Pershing Square.
And the city has to help locals claim the park too -- keep someone on site to handle problems and invite locals to report them. If people know there’s someone right there to handle difficulties immediately, they’re likelier to come back to the park. If problems go unaddressed, people will give it a wide berth, and all the landscaping and picnic tables in the world can’t fix it.
The new Pershing Square friends group, emulating a past when merchants donated fountains and landscaping, has pledges from groups like AEG, according to the Downtown News and LAist. Among the group’s recommendations: a Reagan-like call to tear down those walls to invite the city in. It likes the idea of chess and ping-pong tables too, and a cafe.
It needs to be what it wasn’t when downtown emptied in the 1950s: a central place for the new downtown and its new residents.
What is so damn hard about keeping a park a park? Every midsized city in America has been able to more or less figure it out. Of course the homeless will show up, and the scam artists, and the dog-poop scofflaws. Figure it out. This is Los Angeles. What’s our problem?
Heck, we can even go Hollywood. Let’s hire Leslie Knope from Pawnee’s parks and rec department. I’m sure she’d have some great ideas. She could hardly do worse.