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On June 17, 2003 the collaborative LAH*UB [Los Angeles H* Urban Bureau] sponsored a panel discussion at Gallery 727 on the subject of public space in downtown Los Angeles, in conjuction with their Civic Park Proposals competition/exhibit (see Issue 5). The following conversation is an edited extract from the panel transcripts. For the full transcript, including audience comments, contact www.lahub.net.

Doug Suisman : We talk interchangeably, and I think mistakenly, about open space, public space, civic space. They’re not the same thing. They’re also other problems of terminology in our discussion that we should address, which is that the notion of civic is also sometimes equated with government. Government is often interchangeably spoken of as bureaucracy. Civic is not government, government is not bureaucracy. Civic fundamentally has to do with the city, and in particular with the citizens of a city. It may have to do with self-governance and democratic institutions, but not necessarily. Now, the reason I raise this is because my experience was as a member of the team that developed the master plan for the Civic Center, known as the ten-minute diamond.

There have been many, many plans for the civic center. One of the confusions of our downtown is that we don’t know whether we’re a north/south downtown or an east/west downtown. And partly that’s because of Bunker Hill – we’re always trying to get around it. Some of the plans have said that the main civic spine would run north/south along Main and Spring. That was early. Sometime around the forties, fifties, or sixties, there was an idea that actually the main civic axis should swing east/west up Bunker Hill. What is there now is a kind of failed mini Washington Mall – the National Mall. It’s very clear that at some point that was the conception – the Department of Water and Power is where the Capitol is, City Hall is the Washington Monument, and, I guess, City Hall East is the Lincoln Memorial? I don’t know what’s at the other end but there was clearly an idea of an axis and of a big open space. Right now it’s incomplete. There is a public space between the two county buildings that is owned by the county. It is public but it’s totally walled off, unlike the Mall in Washington, which is visible and accessible from all sides. Unless you’ve been a juror recently for a county trial, you probably don’t even know that that space is there. One block down, between the Archives Building and the County Law Library, there’s another space which is optimistically called El Paseo de los Pobladores de Los Angeles [The Route of the Settlers of the City of Los Angeles], and it is as mean a public space as you are likely to find in any American city. Hot, concrete, unused, unloved, but on axis. And finally, at base, right in front of City Hall is, well, perhaps it’s symbolically appropriate that there’s actually a private parking lot. That is what is currently arrayed along that axis. That’s what’s there now – a part of downtown that is uniquely dedicated to the functions of government, and particularly the bureaucratic functions of government – a government ghetto.

My particular task was to develop a concept for framing the Civic Center conceptually, that would tie together open space, public space, linkages for pedestrians. We came up with the name of the ten-minute diamond. The ten-minute diamond says: at least let’s finally complete the vision and create a continuous public green space up the hill. Some see it as a great lawn; some see it as a botanical garden. The idea was to link time and space: the diamond was the shape of the space that is defined by walking ten minutes in any direction from the rotunda of City Hall. It’s an enormously elaborate space – truly a civic space. It’s a symbolic space, symbolic of government and symbolic of representative democracy. And it sits directly underneath the tower of City Hall, which is our Washington Monument, our obelisk, our marker in space of some central point of meeting.

We debated long and hard, well, is the civic center a government center? It’s been in the historical plans and it was referred to as the administrative Center. Is it administration, is it government, is it civic, is it cultural? And while it is monumental in scale, and enjoys some attractive open space and green space, in my view it is deadening to civic life. Not just public life generally – animation in the streets, cafes, stores, hotels, all the excitement of urban life – but is also deadening to civic life, to the responsibilities of citizenship.

Why is that? Well, there’s almost no place for the citizens to gather and express the views and responsibilities of citizenship. And what we have in a representative democracy, instead of spaces for citizens to gather, are rooms in which laws are made. That is the City Council Chamber. The one truly significant space, in all of the Civic Center, is the City Council Chamber. Many of you probably have never even been in it, you probably don’t know where it is within the city hall structure, yet that is the space where your democratic representatives make the laws which affect civic life. So, the idea of a civic square is enshrined in the ten-minute diamond plan. We can talk long and hard about where it should be and what it should be, but it was always seen as part of a pair.

The idea is that civic gardens would go up the hill to the music center, along the axis from City Hall, past the county buildings, and terminating with the Department of Water and Power. That is a symbolic space of enormous power: city government at one end, water and power at the other. There are very few European cities or Latin American cities that have such an absolutely clear statement of where power is concentrated as in the metropolis of Los Angeles. Electricity, water, and government. Oh, by the way, on the corner is the Los Angeles Times. So, the idea was that that much space was appropriate for civic gardens because of the topography. We talk about locating a civic square on the west face of City Hall, but in the history of the building itself… from the opening day of City Hall, the south face, the narrow south face – if you look at City Hall from the west, it’s wide and massive, but the view from the south is tapered (much closer in form to an obelisk) – that’s where the opening ceremonies of City Hall are. That is where mayors are inaugurated, on the steps. That is where janitors, who feel they are unfairly paid, gather to protest, and where other groups protest.

So, there is already a civic space and it’s called City Hall Park, unofficially. I assume you all know about City Hall Park. It’s that little space directly south of City Hall. And it is supposed to function in ways that I think the civic square is intended to function. Let me close and let others talk and we can come back to this in our discussion. But for the idea of the civic square, that space was insufficient. One, it’s mostly grass; two, it’s blocked by trees; three, there’s a statue right on the axis – and it’s completely unused as civic space except on rare occasions. The idea was that by taking the block south of City Hall where the Caltrans building is now, and removing it, we could open up the space that would truly serve as the central, symbolic, and civic space of Los Angeles for all Angelinos. This isn’t just any civic space, the idea is that this would be the civic space… where New Year’s Eve is celebrated, where Presidents come to visit and address the public.

Julie Eizenberg : I’m not sure if that’s being really characteristic of LA… the idea of authority and belonging to that big a group… isn’t a compelling way for how I see myself in the city. So, I never saw the civic layer until you mentioned it, Doug. I’m completely confused by what the purpose of this “park” as a zone is, and what you were talking about as public space. Because I feel that a lot more of this place belongs to me, no matter what the actual ownership is.

I don’t know if anybody looks at those 1789 Nolli maps when they study architecture anymore – what they did was they colored all the space that was considered public space black, and everything that was considered private space was white. And black space included the streets and it extended into the churches. Now, I would extend that into the stores, into the libraries, I would extend it into a number of things like that – but for me that’s what public space is. So, that’s my response to “what do you mean by public space?” I think it’s everywhere. It’s not to do with who owns it, it’s to do with if you’re allowed to use it, and there’s a sort of implied contract that you can go in there and use it… that’s public space.

John Given : I’m going to focus my initial remarks to my own journey in public space in Los Angeles. As a native Angelino, my first introduction to Los Angeles, truly, was a walk down Broadway and Spring Street in 1980. I just was blown away, because there was this amazing city and an amazing public space, which was Broadway. That a native could grow up here and completely miss it – was a tremendously new perspective on Los Angeles that has fueled me ever since.

One of my next ventures was in ‘80s, trying to figure out the framework for a residential community originally conceived in 1972 by The Silver Book [a plan for downtown sponsored by business leaders and the precursor to the central business district redevelopment plan]. The Silver Book proposed South Park as a community formed around a nine square block park with a lake in the middle of it. It’s that same area that the football stadium was being talked about, this last year. That was an impetus to the central business district re-development project, and an impetus to the concept of creating a community in downtown. It dwindled to what I think was a very real and practical concept of Hope Street as a great civic space. It’s this wonderful street that ties all the way up to one of the most beautiful buildings in Los Angeles, which is the library.

Later on, Roger Sherman and I met, trying to create a grand civic space for the West Hollywood Civic Center in West Hollywood Park. It was fostered by the vision that a city needed to have a great space, a very great space. So, what do you do when you build a park in a city that’s starving for open space, and everybody wants to use it, and everybody wants to use it for purposes that probably are going to drive another group of people crazy? And how do you deal with a small amount of space, given those constraints? And yet the need to use it and have it be a success? What we learned is that perhaps that no matter how grand the vision was, that really wasn’t where the people of West Hollywood were at and the project didn’t go forward for a number of reasons. But I think it does raise that question of open space being Mom and apple pie for everybody. One can promote endless projects and endless visions around the need to have more. You can always have more of it, there’s never enough. We can do studies about whether there’s a need for it or not, and there’s never enough. We never really quite know what it is we need the open space for, and it’s often civic space that’s attached to that. We all conjure different ideas about what civic space is.

Back to Forum Issue 6: A Note on Downtown