The Day Angelenos Lost Elysian Park…Almost

Photo courtesy The Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park Archives

March 10, 1965: The L.A. City Council votes in favor of a proposal to construct a convention center and exhibit hall in Elysian Park, on 63 acres of the park’s most popular play and picnic grounds, which include the recreation lodge and the Avenue of the Palms. At the Council Meeting, retired journalist Grace E. Simons vehemently protests the plan. Representing the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, Simons informs the Council that the main issue at hand is “whether Elysian Park…[will] be preserved inviolate for use of the people or plundered for private gain.”[1] Calling the park “irreplaceable,” she argues that if “downtown interests” are “successful in putting over this land-grab, they stand to reap enormous profits at no financial risk to themselves.” More importantly, the decision would set a dangerous precedent that would jeopardize both the rest of the park, and ALL parks in Los Angeles. No one, Simons argues, could measure the “cost in sociological terms, in the loss of a needed recreational area, in the blighting of a residential neighborhood and in traffic congestion.”[2]

The City Council’s vote in favor of the proposal, despite Simons’s protest, sparked an eighteen-month controversy over where convention center facilities belonged. Simons was incensed that the Council dared once again to encroach on public parkland. It was bad enough Elysian Park had lost nearly 30 acres to Dodger Stadium just a few years earlier. Nearby residents of the park–including Simons–were still stinging from the lost battle to keep the Dodgers out of Chavez Ravine. Simons often frequented Elysian Park and found the increased traffic on game days nearly intolerable. Not only did she believe adding a convention center to the area would make the problems of traffic and noise significantly worse, she was deeply concerned that the City Council’s view of Elysian Park land as merely ‘land in storage’ for commercial exploitation would have long-lasting negative repercussions for every park within city limits.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, Simons responded by founding the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park (CCSEP). She fought hard. She won.

Between the founding of CCSEP in February and the Council vote in March, Simons and CCSEP had enough time to begin building a coalition against the proposal and gather supporters to attend the March meeting in force to voice their opposition.

The controversy over the Elysian Park proposal would have serious repercussions for Los Angeles politics because it would play a role in determining the outcome of several City Council races in an upcoming municipal election. Councilman John C. Holland (14th District), for one, retained his seat. Prior to the Council’s March 10th vote, Holland proclaimed his vehement opposition to the Elysian Park proposal. In his statement to the Council, he invoked comparisons to Dodger Stadium: “the pressure to take 65 acres of one of our most beautiful parks for a convention center…smacks to me as the same type of deal as the infamous trade of 315 acres in Chavez Ravine for the White Elephant of Wrigley Field a few years ago.” He further noted, “it somehow seems significant that so many familiar names and faces are urging quick action again today.” Finally, he questioned the morality of circumventing the will of voters by obligating taxpayers for bonds without a vote.[3]

The Elysian Park proposal was approved with a vote of ten in favor, and only four dissenting votes from Council members Holland, Rosalind Wiener Wyman, new Council member Tom Bradley, and Council President L.E. Timberlake. The vote followed over six hours of public hearing and debate, the longest council session since 1958’s Chavez Ravine controversy.[4] It would take another eighteen months of protest before the Council finally decided to vote in favor of the Pico-Figueroa site for the new convention center.

Had Simons not sprung into action fifty years ago, Elysian Park would look very different today.

For more on Simons, visit the Historic Echo Park website.


[1]  Simons use of the word ‘inviolate‘ was a reference to the L.A. City Charter of 1925, Section 170 which stated all dedicated park land must “ forever remain for the use of the public inviolate.“ Sonenshein, Raphael J., Los Angeles: Structure of a City Government (Los Angeles: League of Women Voters of Los Angeles, 2006), 87–88. Section 594c of the current City Charter (1999) repeats this language: “All lands heretofore or hereafter set apart or dedicated as a public park shall forever remain for the use of the public inviolate.“

[2] Grace E. Simons, “ Statement Before City Council,“ March 10, 1965, CCSEP Papers, USC Special Collections.

[3] John C. Holland, Statement: Convention-Exhibit Center–Elysian Park, Oral Presentation (Los Angeles: Los Angeles City Council, March 10, 1965), Council File 122183, Los Angeles City Archives. Councilwoman Rosalind Wiener Wyman (5th District) supported Holland’s suggestion the Council adopt his minority report in lieu of the majority report’s recommendation to build in Elysian Park. Holland reportedly had also been against the decision to give Chavez Ravine to the O’Malleys for Dodger Stadium. See Robert Gottlieb and Irene Wolt, Thinking Big: The Story of the Los Angeles Times, Its Publishers and Their Influence on Southern California (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977), 268–269.

[4] City Council Meeting Minutes, March 10, 1965, Los Angeles City Archives.


The L.A. Convention Center in Elysian Park? The Importance of Studying ‘Never Built’ Projects

This week’s post was written for a guest blog post on American Planning Association-L.A. section’s blog, found here

What if the L.A. City Council had followed through with a plan to build a convention center in Elysian Park? What would the park look like today? How would it have affected traffic, especially during baseball season? And what about the park’s nearby residents? These are only a few of the questions that came to mind when I discovered that in March 1965, the L.A. City Council approved a proposal to build a convention center in Elysian Park. Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the plan was the choice to construct it on 63 acres of the park’s most popular valley and picnic grounds near the Avenue of the Palms, which included the old Recreation Lodge. Even worse, this plan came less than a year after the California state legislature allocated nearly $4.2 million to L.A. County for acquisition and improvement of public parks, under the 1964 California Park Bond Act. As a result, the City Council’s Recreation and Parks Committee formulated a strategy for creating new parks and improving older ones, a necessity in a park poor city with a rapidly increasing population.[1]

The Elysian Park convention center proposal would have been an interesting candidate for the A+D Museum’s 2013 “Never Built: Los Angeles” Exhibition, which explored the ‘what ifs’ of failed plans and asked Angelenos to ‘dream big’ again. Admittedly, the Never Built show included many visionary, grand plans that “had the greatest potential” to transform land use and the built environment of Los Angeles. Perhaps that is why the Elysian Park convention center did not make the cut—it was a modest design with very little in the way of architectural innovation. Yet, a convention center in Elysian Park would have made a stunning impact on L.A.’s built environment, with two possible results: if the project followed through with promised upgrades to the park’s design and facilities, Elysian Park might have become more widely used by the greater L.A. population, much in the same way as Griffith Park. More than likely, however, is that the destruction to Elysian park’s landscaped picnic areas and the increased traffic would have had a detrimental effect on park users and nearby neighbors.

Photo of businessman Neil Petree, architect Charles Luckman, and Mayor Sam Yorty presenting the Elysian Park convention center design (LAPL Photo archive)

Photo of the Elysian Park convention center model (LAPL Photo archive)

Another view of the Elysian Park convention center model (LAPL Photo archive)

Figure 1: Map of Elysian Park, Existing Facilities Photo Courtesy of L.A. City Archives, Marvin Braude Papers, Box D-434, F: Elysian Park Correspondence, 1955-66.

Figure 1: Map of Elysian Park, Existing Facilities. Photo courtesy of L.A. City Archives, Marvin Braude Papers, Box D-434, F: Elysian Park Correspondence, 1955-66.

IMG_4532 - Version 2

Figure 2: Map of Elysian Park, Proposed Improvements. Photo courtesy of L.A. City Archives, Marvin Braude Papers, Box D-434, F: Correspondence, 1955-66.


Further, any future expansion of the convention center would have continued to erode parklands and cause further traffic and park usage problems. And what would have become of the land where the convention center now sits? Might it have been a football stadium? Would Staples Center and L.A. Live exist had the convention center been built elsewhere? Studying a city’s ‘never built’ plans can offer urban planners a history lesson in land use, and remind us that studying what doesn’t get built is often just as illuminating as studying the projects that have succeeded.

In the case of Elysian Park, the effort to build a convention center there failed mainly because retired journalist Grace E. Simons founded the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park in 1965, and launched a well-organized and inventive campaign to block the plans, a story I recently alluded to in a blog post about Dodger Stadium. Throughout the 18-month battle, Simons and the Committee reminded elected officials that the convention center proposal violated the park’s protection under the 1925 L.A. City Charter, which stated all dedicated park land must “forever remain” for “use of the public inviolate; but permission may be given for any park purpose.”[2] Because events and exhibits at the convention center would be private and restricted, the proposal violated the Charter provisions that park land be reserved for park use and public use. The Committee argued that ignoring the Charter not only violated the public’s trust, but also “set a precedent which would endanger all public parks in Los Angeles.” Simons found it simply unacceptable that the Council viewed park space as “merely…[land] ‘in storage’ to be used for other purposes at the whim of…city officials.”[3]

In a speech to the City Council, Simons remarked that the park’s users were community groups and families who “do not own estates of their own, who cannot luxuriate in private swimming pools and who cannot afford to send their children to summer camps.” Where, she asked the Council, will youngsters go when the park is taken away from them; they “do not have chauffer-driven cars to take them to the hills and the spas. Elysian Park is their playground.”[4] One resident wrote to the Council that with the recent “population explosion,” the city needs “recreation centers with…efficient, trained leaders…to keep our children, especially those who do not have large yards…off the streets, [and] out of mischief.” Elysian Park, she noted, was “adjacent to a poorer section of the town where more often space and playgrounds are a vital necessity.”[5] One man recalled observing the generations of nearby families that used the park as “the backyard they didn’t have.”[6] These letters to the City Council certainly capture why the park was so important to the neighboring communities of Echo Park, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, and Elysian Heights—residents in these neighborhoods were typically working class families with small homes and relatively little disposable income to spend on leisure.[7] Simons and the Committee, in fact, spent several weeks researching and analyzing a year’s worth of Recreation Lodge permits, and applying anthropological methods of observation to get a true sense of who used Elysian Park.[8] As longtime residents of the Elysian Park neighborhood, Simons and other Committee members clearly understood what the park meant to the local community, and they made sure the Council members controlling the park’s fate did too.

The story of the Elysian Park convention center controversy underscores the importance of studying the habits and needs of the people most directly affected by urban planning. Simons and the Committee convinced the Council to ultimately reject the convention center plan, in part, because they were able to prove it would detrimentally affect the quality of life for the park’s neighbors and users, who were already suffering from increased traffic and noise since Dodger Stadium’s arrival in Chavez Ravine.

The Committee also succeeded, in part, because they operated within a national turn toward renewed interest in conservation, park preservation, and urban beautification. A slew of municipal, state, and national legislation passed during the 1960s indicated broader shifts taking place in the public lexicon about development and policy priorities. These policy shifts revealed the beginnings of an environmentalist perspective as distinct from mere conservation of resources and preservation of wilderness—and foreshadowed the power of its political presence. While the Citizens Committee saw the Elysian Park struggle as a preservation issue, and used the language of preservation and conservation throughout its campaign, the Committee was already making connections between the burgeoning environmental movement and concerns over urban renewal and the loss of green spaces. Their efforts would help pave the path for future interventions in urban renewal projects that might negatively impact open spaces and urban greenery in Los Angeles.

Recently, Elysian Park’s aesthetics have been threatened by a proposal to sell off park-adjacent land owned by Barlow Respiratory Hospital, a private hospital sitting on twenty-five acres at the park’s southwestern edge, close to the Avenue of the Palms. Built nearly a century ago, the hospital desperately needs to replace existing facilities as they are beyond upgrading to meet legal seismic requirements. However, the hospital cannot afford the cost of new construction, and has proposed to finance it through the sale of nineteen unused acres to a private developer. Not only would it require zoning and land-use changes, the sale would also threaten the park’s aesthetics and quality of life for nearby residents of Echo Park, Silver Lake, and Elysian Valley. According to the Los Angeles Times, development plans include the construction of high-density housing without adequate parking spaces. Barlow’s CEO states that rebuilding plans will take into account the needs of the community to enhance the neighborhood, offer valuable services, and provide limited job creation. However, new development would increase traffic and parking congestion in the area surrounding Elysian Park’s most popular grounds. A group of local citizens has organized a protest campaign that is clearly modeled on the strategies employed by Simons and CCSEP in 1965.[9]



Figure 1:Map of Elysian Park, Existing Facilities, Marvin Braude Papers, Box D-434, F: Elysian Park Correspondence, 1955-66, Los Angeles City Archives.

Figure 2:Map of Elysian Park, Proposed Improvements, Marvin Braude Papers, Box D-434, F: Elysian Park Correspondence, 1955-66, Los Angeles City Archives.

[1] Erwin Baker, “ Oratory Buffs Have a Treat in Store,“ Los Angeles Times, March 8, 1965; “ City Urged to Buy Land for 5 Parks; Commission Calls for Improvement of Two Others,“ Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1965. The $4.2 million was part of a $10 million state-wide measure. The 1964 California Park Bond Act is also known as the Cameron-Unruh Beach, Park, Recreation and Historical Facilities Bond Act of 1964, Public Resources Code Section 5096.1 – 5096.28.

[2] Elysian Park: New Strategies, II–16; Raphael J. Sonenshein, Los Angeles: Structure of a City Government, 87–88.

[3] Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, “ Elysian Park: What You Can Lose,“ n.d., Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park Papers (hereafter CCSEP), Special Collections, USC Library, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA.

[4] Grace E. Simons, “ Elysian Park Must Be Saved for the People,“ early 1965, Box 7, F: Speeches, 1965, CCSEP Papers.

[5] Anna L. Halfries to L.E. Timberlake, February 12, 1965, Council File 122183, Los Angeles City Archives.

[6] Jack Smith, “ Elysian Park,“ in The Big Orange (Pasadena, California: Ward Ritchie Press, 1976), 99.

[7] “ Elysian Park: History and Current Issues,“ circa 1982 or so, Box 6, F: Press Coverage, Mostly L.A. Times, CCSEP Papers.

[8] Frank Glass, “ Speech Given at Highland Park Optimists Meeting,“ December 8, 1965, Box 7, F: Speeches, Mostly Convention Center, 1965, CCSEP Papers. CCSEP studied Parks Department records for June 1963 and June 1964. See Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, “ List of Permit Usage,“ 1965, Council File 122183, Los Angeles City Archives.

[9] ;; “Editorial: Barlow Hospital’s overreach,” Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2013. See also: Andrea Thabet, “Elysian Park: A Century of Municipal Neglect.” Eden, Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society, 17:2 (Spring 2014): 3-9.

The L.A. Dodgers and Elysian Park

On Wednesday night, I was among the sold-out crowd of 58,000+ Angelenos who watched the Los Angeles Dodgers clinch the NL West title with a 9-1 victory over the San Francisco Giants. It was an exciting game that featured a high-scoring sixth inning and a few fancy tricks by Dodgers standout pitcher Clayton Kershaw. As you can see from this photo, our parking spot was so far–and high up–from the stadium that you could barely see the stadium. But you do get a sense of just how vast the parking lot is, and how uneven the topography. To the trained eye (or should I say trained historian?), however, this picture offers a glimpse into the history of Dodger Stadium and its place in L.A.’s built environment. The photo shows the stadium lights at left. To the right you can just see the downtown L.A. skyline, all lit up. What you may not know is that the city’s largest public park, Elysian Park, hugs Dodger Stadium on three sides, and the well-traveled Stadium Way thoroughfare runs directly through the park.

The view from Lot 5 at Dodger Stadium. Wednesday, September 24, 2014. Photograph by Andrea Thabet. Copyright Andrea Thabet 2014

The view from Lot 15 at Dodger Stadium. Wednesday, September 24, 2014. Photograph by Andrea Thabet. Copyright Andrea Thabet 2014

Elysian Park is arguably the city’s least known park space, yet its central location means most Angelenos have passed through it without even realizing it. The 575-acre park is located just outside of downtown L.A., accessible by the 5 freeway and the 110 freeway, which literally passes through the easternmost section of the park. The park itself is composed of landscaped picnic and recreational spaces, surrounded by steep hills, rocky terrain, deep ravines, and overgrown hiking trails. It also offers stunning views of the city from several prominent vantage points.[1]

Most people believe that the downtown-adjacent neighborhood of Chavez Ravine was eradicated in order to build the stadium, but that is incorrect. Chavez Ravine was actually designated as one of the city’s first slum clearance and public housing projects in 1949 in connection with the passage of federal public housing legislation. However, the public housing project slated for the Ravine became embroiled in controversy amidst accusations of socialism–led by the powerful Los Angeles Times–which led to the cancellation of the project. In what I would call a bait-and-switch, prominent Angelenos and government officials lured the Dodgers to L.A. through a land exchange deal that transferred Chavez Ravine—land already cleared for the now-defunct public housing project—from the L.A. Housing Authority to city ownership. This allowed the land to be turned over legally to team owner Walter O’Malley to construct Dodger Stadium. The clearance of the Ravine and its eventual giveaway to O’Malley resulted in lengthy legal battles that divided the city. Historian Eric Avila calls this widely publicized use of slum clearance land, “baseball as urban renewal.” He argues that the relentless pursuit of a baseball team stemmed in part from feelings of inadequacy that the nation’s third largest city had no major league ball club.[2] As Avila points out, stealing the Dodgers “right out of New York under their own noses” was a great psychological “boost to Los Angeles and the West.”[3]

What few people realize is that Elysian Park also lost roughly thirty acres to the stadium, which helped reinforce the view by many city officials that park space was merely undeveloped land that could be successfully appropriated for non-park purposes. The adverse effects of the stadium’s construction included damage to Elysian Park’s irrigation system and the development of six-lane Stadium Way drive, which brought high-speed traffic through the park’s most popular valley.[2] Despite the challenges posed by baseball traffic and the neglect of park grounds, residents from nearby Latino and Asian communities continued to heavily patronize the park.

Just a few years later, the L.A. City Council and Mayor Samuel Yorty would support an effort put forth by the city’s elite businessmen to build a convention center in Elysian Park’s most popular valley and picnic grounds. In response, retired journalist Grace E. Simons founded the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park in 1965, and ultimately stopped the City Council in their tracks. I discuss her efforts at length in my dissertation. It’s a fascinating story, and I’ll share more about it in a future post. In fact, the view of downtown L.A. shown in the blog home page is taken from a trail in Elysian Park. If you’ve never explored Elysian Park, I recommend spending a few hours hiking in the park and taking in the views. You won’t be sorry.

*You can read more about Elysian Park in an article I recently published: “Elysian Park: A Century of Municipal Neglect.” Eden, Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society, 17:2 (Spring 2014): 3-9.

[1] Elysian Park: New Strategies for the Preservation of Historic Open Space Resources (Los Angeles: UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, June 1990), VI–3; “ Elysian Park: History and Current Issues,“ May 1990. Elysian park was initially 550 acres, had grown to 600 by 1937, and is now 575 acres, although continued threats jeopardize its acreage. The park is approximately 1.2 miles northwest of downtown.

[2] Neil J. Sullivan, The Dodgers Move West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Eric Avila, “ Suburbanizing the City Center: The Dodgers Move West,“ in Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight. Sullivan calls attention to the fact that a sizable Chinese-American community also thrived within Chavez Ravine prior to the relocation of the Dodgers. See also Sitton, Los Angeles Transformed, 157–160, 165–69; Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, 156. Chavez Ravine was cleared between 1952 and 1953.

[3] Avila, Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight, 160.