The Impermanence of LA’s Built Environment?

What deserves protection?


The 6th Street Viaduct, Photo via L.A. Magazine

With every announcement I read about the construction of a new building, new museum, or a park redesign comes my inevitable questions: what was there before? Is there anything worth saving? And how will these new spaces shape L.A. in the 21st century?

My latest pondering of these questions has to do with L.A. Magazine’s recent discussion about the transformative effects the new 6th Street viaduct might have on Los Angeles. The viaduct’s architect, Michael Maltzan, believes the new design will help foster greater connections between communities, while still respecting neighborhood identity. The redesign looks pretty fantastic, and of course The High Line in NYC was one of the first comparisons that came to mind, in terms of the new viaduct’s potential to encourage both a sense of respite and a vibrant urban community. At the very least, I think it will inspire tourism from locals and visitors. But can it help create a new public identity for Los Angeles?

That question about the public identity of Los Angeles is one that I find endlessly engaging, and I’ve written about it at length. At the heart of the endless chatter about L.A.’s urban identity is the belief in reinvention. Maltzan himself argues that “the impermanence of L.A.’s built environment is no vice.” Rather, he sees it as a “real advantage” in a city that lacks a “longer history” of solving urban problems “in a particular way.” Instead, Angelenos have the freedom to approach contemporary challenges with fresh ideas without being hindered by the past. Yet, I found his statement rather glib. Should we be cautious about encouraging a sense of impermanence here?

L.A.’s reputation as a place of creativity, of innovation and experimentation, a place where you can throw off old ideas and start fresh, has existed for more than a century. These qualities are certainly what draws people here. There is nothing more exciting than imagining what new and untested ideas might spark a more vibrant urban life. But what deserves ‘permanence’ or protection? Who decides what built spaces are in need of reinvention? These questions touch on the complex issues historic preservationists deal with when determining whether a building or space is worth preserving. The work of the LA Conservancy comes to mind. 

As a historian, I can’t help but look to the past when I consider the reinvention of L.A.’s built environment. Some instances brought unquestionable benefits to the city, such as the Music Center and Grand Park. Other instances remain contentious moments in the region’s history, like Dodger Stadium, and the destruction of the Bunker Hill neighborhood. Were these tragedies or triumphs, and at what cost? The revitalization of the L.A. River comes to mind as an especially poignant example. And what about those spaces still up for grabs? Pershing Square is a perfect case study–the space has been reinvented many times over; what will its next incarnation look like? Is there anything currently there worth preserving? What even makes a ‘good public space‘? Maybe that’s a question for another blog post. 

In the case of the 6th Street viaduct, Maltzan “hopes it will be the symbol of a city bounding joyfully into the future.” It will be a modern landmark, to be sure. But does it have the power to transform Los Angeles? If not, what will?


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. 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.