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elysian park, 1909 (image credit: Los Angeles Public Library)

The rise of modern Los Angeles since the late nineteenth century has been inextricably connected to its reputation as a place of recreation. It might seem likely that a city sold as the playground of the world, with an economy and identity so closely linked to fun in the sun, would ensure the preservation of beaches and open space, and create urban parks as recreational amenities. Such was not the case. The result was a city and region with less parkland than almost any other major metropolitan area. The history of parks in Los Angeles can tell us much about the history of the city, how the city was planned, what residents wanted the city to be, and how issues of race and class have played out in geographic and social space.

As cities in the American West grew, they gradually developed park systems similar to those of eastern cities. In some western cities, politicians and promoters realized that residents and tourists might be as enamored by surrounding scenery as by green spaces in the cities themselves. One example was Denver, which began buying tracts of land in the Rocky Mountains in the 1910s, creating a system of “Denver Mountain Parks.” In San Diego, the development of an urban park system was accompanied by the purchase of vast tracts of desert and mountain landscapes in the 1920s and 1930s. These were ultimately incorporated as Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. [1]

The early growth of modern Los Angeles was not accompanied by similar park development, or purchases of open land. One reason for this was the city”s rapid expansion. What had been a town of barely 11,000 people in 1880 was a city of 1.2 million people by 1930, and 2.4 million by 1960. Nevertheless, rapid growth was not the only reason Los Angeles lagged in park development. Modern Los Angeles was conceived to be the exact opposite of eastern cities, with their teeming slums and congested downtowns. Beyond selling fertile land, sunshine, and a balmy climate, Los Angeles sold a lifestyle. This was to be a place where retirees could enjoy an old age of leisure, and families might live in a bungalow surrounded by a garden and citrus trees rather that on an isolated farm or in a crowded tenement.

Dispersed communities were connected by Henry Huntington”s Pacific Electric interurban train system, allowing the development of a sprawling, suburbanized landscape, neither city nor country, which seemed to combine the best qualities of both. The automobile only accelerated this process, and also allowed residents to escape the city for recreation. The car, like the bungalow and the citrus orchard, became an essential component of the projected Los Angeles lifestyle. Los Angeles itself was a park, a city in a garden. It was thought that this new type of city would have no need for an elaborate park system. Residents could simply hop in their cars and ride to the beach, or out into open countryside. At home, they could enjoy their own yards and gardens. Civic leaders ignored the fact that continued growth would undermine this urban Eden, and that many residents were either excluded from it or lacked the resources to enjoy it.

Critics of Los Angeles have condemned it as the epitome of unplanned sprawl. Nothing could be further from the truth. Los Angeles was intricately planned. The city was placed under a comprehensive zoning ordinance in 1908, the first in the nation. New York City would not pass a similar ordinance for another eight years. The 1908 ordinance, and others that followed, delineated the city into different areas. Industry was separated from recreation, and whites from nonwhites. The Westside was classified as “higher class” residential only, with some allowances for commercial establishments. A linear swath of south Los Angeles, adjacent to the LA River, was classified as industrial. “Residential only,” in reality, meant white, Anglo Saxon and usually Protestant only, and realtors and white homeowners associations maintained this color line. [2]

los angeles river and the area north of elysian park, 1900 (image credit: Los Angeles Public Library)

In contrast to its careful zoning and planning in other areas, Los Angeles only haphazardly accumulated a parks system. The first public space in Los Angeles was the Plaza, created when the pueblo was founded in 1781. Though the settlement had to be relocated due to flooding, a space for the Plaza remained at the pueblo”s center. Several other city parks were carved out of unsold communal pueblo lands in the late nineteenth century. These included Pershing Square and Elysian Park, then the largest park in the city, which was created from several hundred acres of hilly terrain north of downtown. [3]

Other early parks were given as donations. By far the most significant of these came in 1896, when local magnate Griffith J. Griffith deeded 3,500-acre Griffith Park ñ the largest urban park in the nation ñ to the city in perpetuity. The response of local political leaders, however, was underwhelming. The new park lay outside city limits and far from streetcar lines, surrounded by large expanses of undeveloped land. Moreover, Griffith was hardly an ideal philanthropist. In 1903 he shot his wife in a drunken rage, convinced she intended to use his fortune to fund Catholic schemes for global domination. She survived, but the city did not accept the $700,000 Griffith had set aside for the park”s improvement until after his death in 1919. [4]

Los Angeles did not strive to secure parkland, but it excelled in another area of recreation. In 1904 the city was the first in the nation to create a Department of Playgrounds. This was a landmark in the national Playgrounds Movement, a reform effort of the Progressive Era, which aimed to provide children ñ particularly urban, immigrant children ñ with recreational spaces where they could exercise and socialize, and be “Americanized” in the process. As with city planners who divided LA by race and separated residential and industrial areas, the Playground Department took as its mission the separation of spaces for safe, productive play, removed from the dangers of urban life. For its personnel, children”s play was serious business. This was reflected in a motto emblazoned on some of its publications: “The test of whether a civilization will live or die is the way it spends its leisure.” [5]

Though the city led the nation in playground policy, it consistently lagged in the acquisition and development of parkland. Parks were treated as an afterthought in comparison to streets or sewers. City and county officials tried to impose a system, similar to ones in some other cities, to force subdividers to devote land for parks and playgrounds. Many developers simply refused. In coastal areas, some developers asserted that the beach was the only recreational space future residents would need. Others offered land for parks, but demanded they be ornamental only, precluding recreational areas or playgrounds that might draw “undesirables.”

griffith park and glendale peach orchards, ca. 1900 (image credit: Los Angeles Public Library)

Aside from these limited efforts, the city of Los Angeles did little to alleviate its parks shortage, even though a succession of studies and surveys demonstrated the growing problem. Perhaps the single most significant of these reports was the 1930 Olmstead ñBartholomew plan, “Parks, Playgrounds and Beaches for the Los Angeles Region.” Its authors called for the creation of vast urban parks, parkways, beach recreation areas, scenic drives, and a variety of other amenities which, if enacted, would have created a very different city and region from the one that came to be. Yet the authors did not propose the construction of some fanciful arcadia. They planned for a vast urban area, complete with a network of traffic arteries that foreshadowed later freeways. The report pointedly gave primary consideration to lower-income residents, who made up a majority of the city”s population, and had less leisure time and available recreational space than the more affluent. Nevertheless, fears about taxes, the plan”s cost, and the worsening Depression prevented its adoption. The report was shelved without even being released to the public, and remained little-known until rediscovered by historians and urban planners. [6]

The ordinances that governed Los Angeles city parks, playgrounds, and other recreational areas in the early twentieth century made no reference to race. Indeed, it appears that these recreational areas were initially integrated, though not necessarily always welcoming. By the time the 1920s arrived, however, matters had changed. All city pools were segregated. Revealing swimming attire, and the sharing of public locker rooms and showers, permitted a degree of interracial physical intimacy that a significant number of whites found troubling. [7]

Yet pools were just one place where people of different races might swim together. A far larger area of contention was 75-mile coastline of Los Angeles County. Local beaches were an important tourist attraction, and the premier recreational amenity for the entire region. In 1928, the Department of Playgrounds estimated that on summer weekends half a million people converged at area beaches ñ a figure equivalent to 25% of the county”s total population. Because of this, the city and county of Los Angeles began purchasing and managing beaches to ensure public access. [8]

All taxpayers in Los Angeles County paid for beach purchases and maintenance. African Americans, however, were banned from almost all beaches in Los Angeles County. Worse yet, they were forced to pay taxes to buy up even more beach land that would prohibit them. This segregation appears to have begun earlier, whether through explicit ordinance or enforced by hostile white beachgoers and local police. The same tactics served to keep some parks effectively white-only. [9]

At one time, the only beach African-Americans could visit was Bruce”s Beach, a black-owned resort area in Manhattan Beach. In 1924, city officials concerned about the resort”s growing popularity condemned it. Another African-American beach, called the “Inkwell,” was designated that same year in Santa Monica. It lay at the terminus of Pico Boulevard, and ran only the width of the street. [10]

African-Americans fought back against the restriction of beaches and swimming pools. Individuals filed court cases, and the NAACP even organized a “swim in.” At both beaches and pools, this resulted in the abandonment of explicitly segregationist policies in the 1930s. De facto segregation, however, would continue for decades more. Restrictive housing covenants also banned nonwhites from some area beaches, and as of 2003 some Malibu homeowners were still attempting to exclude all nonresidents, even though all California beaches are public under state law. [11]

The segregation of recreational areas is certainly the most obvious example of racial bias in the development of parks and recreation in Los Angeles. Yet the lack of funding for recreational spaces and amenities in nonwhite areas of the city also functioned as a pernicious form of fiscal discrimination. In Latino East LA, residents complained of limited parks and a shortage of playgrounds. In Watts, requests for more parks, playgrounds, and a community pool were repeatedly rebuffed.

As the city grew, and as racial housing restrictions were overturned by the Supreme Court in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the racial and ethnic geography of Los Angeles changed. Many Jews moved from the Boyle Heights neighborhood east of downtown to the Westside. White families moved in huge numbers to new subdivisions spreading across the floor of the San Fernando Valley. Parks that had once served whites were now increasingly used by African Americans, Latinos, and Asians, and drew the working class and poor as well. White civic concern for these parks suffered accordingly.

black family at a segregated beach, ca. 1925 (image credit: Los Angeles Public Library)

One example was Pershing Square, which stood at the heart of the downtown financial district. Its fountain and lush landscaping made it a favorite lunchtime gathering place for white-collar workers. As downtown declined, however, Pershing Square also lost its luster. The park became a focus of LAPD surveillance due to its popularity as a place for activists to make speeches and stage protests, and also as a covert meeting place for gay men. The city passed ordinances banning alcohol and vagrants, and ultimately gouged out the park in the 1950s, leaving only a sparse garnish of greenery atop a subterranean parking structure. The parking was intended for predominantly white professionals, and the removal of trees and foliage made it easier to police the park. It also made Pershing Square a far less pleasant place to linger. The Department of Recreation and Parks described the new design as a “see-through, walk-through park.” [12]

Other parks were also sacrificed for construction projects and urban development. Wilshire Boulevard was extended directly through MacArthur Park. Freeways sliced off the edges of Griffith Park. In Elysian Park, the construction of the Pasadena Freeway created tunnels and roadcuts which destroyed parkland, and split the park in two. Another section of the park was sacrificed for the Golden State Freeway. More acreage was lost to LAPD facilities and Dodger Stadium. In Exposition Park, the 1932 Olympic Coliseum, and later the Los Angeles Sports Arena and the expansion of the Natural History Museum, occupied ever-larger swaths of shrinking park space. [13]

There were geographic and monetary reasons to justify each of these construction projects. Yet it is an undeniable fact that by the time some of these projects began, many Anglos were moving away from downtown. The portion of Elysian Park cut off by freeway construction lay near Chinatown, and residential neighborhoods surrounding the rest of the park were increasingly Latino. Sacrificing portions of these parks was undoubtedly made far easier by the fact that so many of the people who depended on them for their recreation were no longer Anglo.

pershing square, 1939 (image credit: Los Angeles Public Library)

The Civil Rights Movement brought heightened power and aspirations to people of color and the poor in Los Angeles. Nonwhite areas did not receive large expansions of parkland, but some under-served areas did receive new community centers, pools, and expanded recreational programs. Unfortunately, some of the gains made in the 1950s and 1960s proved illusory, for subsequent events resulted in the gutting of park funding. The late 1960s saw the advent of new youth gangs and rising crime, and assaults and murders in parks frightened away residents, making them less interested in creating more park space. Though Los Angeles voters had approved park bond measures in the past, a proposed measure in 1971 was voted down. [14]

In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, which rolled back property taxes. The ballot measure proved popular among homeowners during an economic downturn. As a result, however, state, county, and city governments slashed spending. The LA park budget was gutted. Parks could not compete with law enforcement, education, and medical care for scarce government funds. [15]

Unsurprisingly, parks and recreation programs in poorer areas were devastated. Recreation centers and pools were closed. As the 1980s progressed, some parks were left derelict, abandoned by more affluent whites as terra incognita purportedly inhabited only by the homeless, drug dealers, and gang members. James Hadaway, director of the Department of Recreation and Parks, publicly stated that half of the city”s parks were located in gang territories. A survey found that half of city residents were afraid to enter parks in their own neighborhoods. [16]

Park staff in more affluent areas worked to maintain programs and facilities by raising fees and soliciting donations from their surrounding neighborhoods. “Quimby” funds, which assessed fees on certain construction projects, provided some park funding, but primarily benefited the Westside, where much more residential construction took place. A 1983 study demonstrated this growing “recreation gap.” It found that recreation centers in middle class and affluent neighborhoods, despite cuts, had 59% more staff, were able to provide 74% more hours of classes per week, and served 123% more children and adolescents than those in poor areas. [17]

pershing square, 1951 (image credit: Los Angeles Public Library)

Much of the expansion of parkland that did come after 1970 was not in the form of traditional parks, but instead in the form of “open space.” Tracts of undeveloped land, particularly in the Santa Monica Mountains, were set aside as natural areas to preserve habitat and provide hiking trails. Unfortunately, the state funding system which provided money for the acquisition of land for urban parks or open space often pitted advocates of one against the other. Open space proponents affiliated with environmental advocacy groups often proved more adept at securing these “Prop K” funds. Some proponents of open space also proved disinterested in the plight of poor, immigrant communities in Los Angeles, which lacked even small parks, and received marginal benefits from open space acquisitions in the Santa Monicas. [18]

Despite all the problems apparent by the end of the twentieth century, there are some signs of hope. A diverse coalition of community activists, environmentalists, and planners helped secure the purchase of the “Cornfield,” an area adjacent to Chinatown which had been slated for warehouse development, but will instead serve as a community park. A similar effort at Taylor Yard preserved another tract near the Los Angeles River. Likewise, supporters of park development fought back an effort to construct a power plant in the Baldwin Hills, which may eventually become a large oasis of urban open space and parkland to rival Griffith Park. [19]

A project such as the greening of the Los Angeles River seems especially promising. The river winds though neighborhoods that vary economically and racially. It cannot return to a fully natural state, but the river could offer large, linear swaths of open space for walking and bike trails. Community recreation centers, playgrounds, and playing fields could also be located alongside a reborn Los Angeles River, alleviating environmental and societal woes simultaneously.

Rejuvenating the river, or securing more urban parkland or open space, will never make Los Angeles again the edenic garden its boosters once proclaimed it to be. That past, such as it ever existed at all, is irrecoverable. Nor will any future plan completely alleviate the history of neglect and exclusion which has so long been a hallmark of park and recreation planning and policy in Los Angeles. It could, however, offer a better future for all of its citizens, rather than the limited prospects the city offered to so many in the twentieth century.

pershing square with underground parking garage, 1954 (image credit: Los Angeles Public Library)

Notes

[1] William H. Wilson, The City Beautiful Movement (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 184-85; Diana Elaine Lindsay, Our Historic Desert: The Story of the Anza-Borrego Desert (San Diego: Copley Books, 1973), 86-97.

[2] Becky M. Nicolaides, My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 50; Leonard Pitt and Dale Pitt, Los Angeles A to Z: An Encyclopedia of the City and County (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 93.

[3] Al Goldfarb, 100 Years of Recreation and Parks (Los Angeles: Recreation and Parks Department, 1988), 7; Mary Katherine Gibson, “The Changing Conception of the Urban Park in America: The City of Los Angeles as a Case Study” (M.A. thesis, University of California, Los Angeles, 1977), 29.

[4] Gibson, “Changing Conception of the Urban Park in America,” 29-32. Griffith published a work arguing for the value of urban parks and bemoaning the condition of his gift to the city. See Griffith J. Griffith, Parks, Boulevards, and Playgrounds (Los Angeles: Prison Reform League, 1910). Rare Book Collection, Huntington Library.

[5] George Hjelte, The Development of a City”s Public Recreation Service, 1904-1962 (Los Angeles: Public Service Publications, 1978); “Report, 1930-32,” City of Los Angeles Department of Playground and Recreation. Special Collections, Young Research Library, UCLA. For the history of urban planning and zoning in Los Angeles, see Greg Hise, Magnetic Los Angeles: Planning the Twentieth-Century Metropolis (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), and Hise, “”Nature”s Workshop”: Industry and Urban Expansion in Southern California, 1900-1950,” Journal of Historical Geography 27: 1 (2001): 74-92.

[6] The plan is reprinted in its entirety in Greg Hise and William Deverell, Eden by Design: The 1930 Olmstead-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000). Mike Davis also analyzes the plan in Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1998), 61-67.

[7] Andre Keil, “Swimming at the Park Pool: A History of Aquatics in the City of Los Angeles” (Los Angeles: Department of Recreation and Parks, 1994), 9; “Annual Report of the Board of Park Commissioners,” City of Los Angeles, 1928. Special Collections, UCLA; Los Angeles City Council Minutes, July 7, 1927, Los Angeles City Archives.

[8] Pitt and Pitt, Los Angeles A to Z, 41-42; beach attendance figure from “Annual Report of the Department of Playground and Recreation, City of Los Angeles,” 1928, 15. “Old Department History,” Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks Archives.

[9] Charlotta Bass, Forty Years: Memoirs from the Pages of a Newspaper (Los Angeles: Charlotta Bass, 1960),55; 69. Bass was editor of the California Eagle, one of the city”s two major African-American newspapers. Douglas Flamming Interview, October 31, 2002. Professor Flamming, an historian at Georgia Tech, is currently completing a book on the history of African Americans in Los Angeles, A World to Gain: African Americans and the Making of Los Angeles, 1890-1940.

[10] Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2002, “Resort Was an Oasis for Blacks Until Racism Drove Them Out”; Flamming Interview.

[11] Flamming Interview; New York Times, 25 August 2002, “Owners of Malibu Mansions Cry, “This Sand Is My Sand.”

[12] “Pershing Square Park.” Histories ñ P. Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks Archives. Also see William McClung, Landscapes of Desire: Anglo Mythologies of Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 142-153.

[13] Many of these construction projects are discussed in the minutes of the Los Angeles City Council. Concise histories of the major parks in the region can be found in Pitt and Pitt, Los Angeles A to Z. Los Angeles Times, August 18, 2002, “Park”s Paths Less Traveled” discusses the decline of Elysian Park, and its current state of disrepair.

[14] Letters from citizens concerned about crime in Los Angeles parks, as well as government reports on violent crimes in county parks, can be found in the Kenneth Hahn Collection, Huntington Library.

[15] For an analysis of Proposition 13, see “The Spirit of 13,” chapter in Peter Schrag, Paradise Lost: California”s Experience, America”s Future (New York: The New Press, 1998).

[16] Hit by the same budget cuts, Los Angeles County considered selling or leasing parkland for development. The county did allow the construction of a hotel and restaurant at Bonelli Regional Park, though a larger development plan was abandoned in the face of a public outcry. See Los Angeles Times, April 25, 1989, “”Dead” Urban Parks Need Revitalization.” Park gang statement from Los Angeles Times, April 17, 1984, “Parks That Pay Their Own Way.” Survey is discussed in Los Angeles Times, September 3, 1987, “The Dead Parks: Insufficient Funding, Drugs and Violence Drive Many Away from City Recreation Areas.” See also Los Angeles Times, March 19, 1989, “The Sad Decline and Fall of Urban Parks.”

[17] “City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, 1980 Annual Report.” Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks Archives. For the statistics on disparities in recreation, see Denise L. Lawrence, “The Recreation Gap: How Los Angeles City Recreation Areas in the Central Park Five Area and in Suburban Communities Have been Affected by Recent Budget Cuts.” The Urban Project, University of Southern California, 1984.

[18] For information on urban parks and open space preservation in Los Angeles in recent decades, see Jennifer Wolch, John P. Wilson, and Jed Fehrenbach, “Parks and Park Funding in Los Angeles: An Equity Mapping Analysis.” Sustainable Cities Program, University of Southern California, 2002, and “Cornfield of Dreams: A Resource Guide of Facts, Issues and Principles,” Department of Urban Planning, University of California, Los Angeles, 2000, online at www.sppsr.ucla.edu/… See also Davis, Ecology of Fear, 77-91, and William Fulton, The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles (Point Arena, Calif.: Solano Press, 1997).

[19] These current issues have been reported extensively in the Los Angeles Times. See, for example, July 30, 2002, “State Buys Rail Land for Riverfront Park.”

Lawrence Culver is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of History at UCLA, where he specializes in American cultural, environmental, and urban history, and the history of California and the American West. His essay is drawn from research for his dissertation, The Frontier of Leisure: Resorts, Recreation, and the Creation of Southern California. His research has been funded by fellowships from UCLA, the Institute for the Study of the American West at the Autry Museum, and the Historical Society of Southern California. [email: lculver@ucla.edu]
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