What MacArthur Park’s History Tells Us About CicLAvia

September 3, 2010 at 10:40 am Leave a comment

MacArthur Park - undated postcard, from around 1950s

More than any other site, MacArthur Park is an anchor for the October 10th 2010 (10/10/10!) CicLAvia route. MacArthur Park is, in many ways, a very instructive example for the ups and downs that public spaces undergo in Los Angeles. We recently came across an instructive MacArthur Park essay, which was written 20 years ago, but still sheds light on the park and on how great CicLAvia can be. 

The excerpts below are from an essay entitled “What the MacArthur Park Project tells us about our own time” by the author Galen Cranz. It appeared  in the book How the Arts Made a Difference (1989) by Adolfo V. Nodal. Cranz has a great sense of the sweep of history of our parks and how they change over time. A few years ago she gave an excellent talk at Not A Cornfield. For more exploration of the subject, also check out her book The Politics of Park Design: A History of Urban Parks in America (1982.) 

MacArthur Park reflects the history of urban park design in the United States. It originated as a pleasure ground and has been successively modified with reform, recreation and open space system elements. 

 The American municipal park movement began in the mid-19th Century with the creation of “pleasure grounds.” Seen as antidotes to urbanization and industrialization, these parks were intended to simulate nature, using water and trees in an informal, “naturalistic” way, with curvilinear circulation and a minimum of statuary or geometric flower beds. When Westlake (MacArthur) Park was established in 1863, Los Angeles gardener Albert H. Hardcastle followed this notion, designing a naturalistic and rustic landscape intended to be “democratic,” or open to people from all walks of life. 

Despite Hardcastle’s intentions, glamorous hotels were built at the periphery of the park by the 1920s, making it a focus for the wealthier classes. This same phenomenon had occurred adjacent to other American pleasure grounds before the turn of the century, and helped stimulate the next era of park design. 

The “reform park” embodied a series of ideas about the role of parks that gained ascendancy from the turn of the century. The basic idea was that parks should be brought closer to the working classes, hence they were reduced in size and tucked into already built up inner-city districts. The idea of simulating nature was abandoned in favor of more symmetrical layouts and “practical” beauty. Whereas pleasure grounds had relied almost exclusively on outdoor activities, reform parks were notable for their fieldhouses, which accommodated community activities, crafts, civic meetings, and indoor gymnastic events. 

Many parks conceived and established in the earlier pleasure ground era were altered by ensuing models, and Westlake Park was no exception. A fieldhouse-type building was inserted into the park in the 1920’s to house the Fire Department communication switching station. 

A new mentality which gave rise to the “recreation facility” dominated American Parks from 1930 to 1965, and here again Westlake Park followed the national pattern. The facility took the emphasis off “passive pleasure,” the mental experience of refreshment, and instead emphasized physical activities. At the same time, the model abandoned any attempt to use recreation as a means of solving social problems. As Robert Moses said, “We make no absurd claims as to the superior importance and value of the particular service we are called upon to render…” Instead of using recreation to shape ideal versions of city life, recreationists relied on demand, claiming that they were simply fulfilling the need for recreation and no longer had to justify recreation as a public expenditure. 

These parks served the nation during the economic and political crises of the Great Depression and World War II. Often public works projects were built in parks with WPA funds from the federal government, and as the United States entered World War II, park administrators turned the park facilities to the service of the war effort, housing soldiers, providing entertainment, and using parks to boost the morale of workers on the home front. The architectural contributions of this period were mostly large physical structures like stadia. 

In Los Angeles, Westlake Park was bisected in 1935 by the Wilshire Boulevard viaduct, a WPA project. This was permissible because of the emphasis on meeting a demand rather than upholding any particular vision of recreation or cherishing any particular aesthetic entity. The earlier Fire Department building was turned into headquarters for the City’s civil defense system from 1940 to 1945, completing the picture of the park as handmaiden to national priorities. 

Westlake Park’s name was changed during this era. In 1942, the park was renamed for a World War II general, highlighting the practice of using the park for national service. Westlake was a topographic name, preferred by pleasure ground theorists like Frederick Law Olmsted, who felt that American cities relied too heavily on the grid system, that naming by letter or number was too abstract, and that peculiarities of location should be emphasized by giving place names that described these idiosyncracies. 

The “open space system” era began in 1965 and continues today [written 1989]. In this era, the recreational potential of any environment is considered more important than parks per se. The role of parks in such a system is to intensify, highlight, and focus recreational activity within a city. However, streams of recreational experience are meant to be threaded throughout the city, especially in its streets which have come to be viewed as the premiere recreational spaces. For the first time, Americans appreciate the street as an interesting place in itself, rather than as a means to get from one destination to another, and the see the experience of being in the street as potentially entertaining. 

Those last couple sentences sound like she was thinking about CicLAvia! Making our streets more lively and interesting and entertaining is a big part of what we’re about.

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