Piano Races and Prostitutes
"It became clear in a very short time that the vicious influences here were more than undoing the work we were trying to do in our Sunday school class. This is a plague spot, infecting the entire community, and if left alone it will bring us all into ill repute." -- W.M Bowen, 1898
Around 1871, a park was established just outside the boundaries of the city of Los Angeles, which until the late 1880s were at Figueroa and Exposition. Two fake pyramids guarded the entrance, but what took place on the grounds was more like something out of ancient Babylon than old Egypt. Called "Agriculture Park," the 160 acres did feature farmers marketing their crops, but the main yield was of a more human variety. A kind of perpetual State Fair of the Wild West, the park welcomed thousands of men and women of all classes looking to have a good time, and the speed freaks, bookies, prostitutes and jockeys who worked the park were happy to ensure they did.
A racetrack, surrounded by a large grandstand, featured every kind of race you can imagine. Top-rated horses from as far away as Kentucky competed in programs that one breeder called "the best offered in the west." Motorbike pioneer Earl Le Moine raced in exhibitions against the fastest horses he could find, and the Los Angeles Driving Club had membership that included the cream of SoCal society. Amateur cyclers competed in "piano races" for donated items which ranged from furniture to precious jewels. Races in the newfangled automobile featured early stars like Barney Oldfield, whose world-record 55-second mile prompted the LA Times to proclaim "Barney Oldfield's attempt to commit suicide at Agriculture Park yesterday only resulted in a compound fracture of the world's automobile record." One enthusiastic visitor reported:
"Los Angeles is a bustling city and the people turn out in great numbers. In fact, the attendance at Los Angeles is ahead of the state fair meetings while the light harness race has more friends in that city than in any other place in the west. The track is one of the best equipped in the country, and many famous contests have been held."
After a draining day betting and biting their nails, guests, from racetrack enthusiast Wyatt Earp, to neighboring USC undergrads, could relax at the city's longest outdoor bar. Later they could stay at the white clapboard hotel that went from being the home of park denizens to the local brothel. In the morning they could taste the park's other delights -- an amateur soccer game being played on one of the athletic fields, a walk around the barns; or they could view one of the park's nastier traditions -- brutal animal races and fights, which often ended in the creature's death.
A square lawyer and deacon by the name of W.M. Bowen pushed his way into the park one day, his Sunday School class in tow. Boys had been skipping out of Sundays at University Methodist across the street and he wanted to see why. Instead, he saw a rabbit being destroyed by a greyhound. From that day forward he devoted his life and his career to shutting down "Agriculture Park," and in the process made himself a lot of enemies -- and a career.
It took over ten years for Bowen to complete his mission. He became a city council member in 1901 and the president of the council in 1903. Victories, like the outlawing of dog races in 1900, were small, and in 1906 a demolition derby featuring two speeding locomotives (which attracted 25,000 spectators) sent him over the edge. He mounted a lawsuit to gain control of the park for the city. Notice was served on undesirable tenants, including a troupe of circus performers who were camping there for winter. Bowen said resistance to eviction would be met with "shooting." Johns, unsavory characters, and squatting farmers were seen packing up their wagons and heading into Chinatown under the watchful eye of armed deputy sheriffs. As the LA Times noted, "The new reign of Agriculture Park has begun."
After years of litigation, in 1911 the park was finally scrubbed clean. Renamed Exposition Park, the city was determined to make the once shameful tract the greatest public park of the Southwest, dedicated to the "perpetual enjoyment of the people." A state armory building was started, a Natural History Museum planned, and in place of the race track, a seven-acre formal sunken garden was designed by the firm of Howard and Smith. In 1915, as part of $400,000 campaign to beautify Los Angeles and exhibit state pride, the garden was slated to be planted with acres of California wildflowers, one variety per bed. Suggested native plants included poppies, cream cups, wild lupines, catalane cherries, sycamore, redwoods, baby blue eyes, verbenas, junipers, geraniums, and zinnias for summer, and calendulas for winter.
It seems the garden went through many different phases -- sometimes covered only in Bermuda grass, other times rich in floral delights. At the opening of the horticulture show of 1921, an orchestra played and girls danced traditional Spanish dances as visitors promenaded around the garden which featured a lily pond and 700 California specimens, including chrysanthemum, marigolds, and two acres of dahlias, planted in artistic panels. At night an electric light lit up a fountain which sprayed 40 feet into the sky, 100 colored balloons bopping in the spray.
Rivers of Roses
"Eastern Journals hold California as a model state in the outdoor beautifying of its homes. What better demonstration could we give of this rooted love of nature, how better could we justify this well earned reputation than by displaying to our visitors in the heart of our mightiest city the world's finest rose garden? -- The Los Angeles Times, 1926
By the mid-1920s, Los Angeles had come a long way from the unrefined days of the muddy tracks and dusty barns of Agriculture Park. Although corruption was at an all-time high, the veneer of gentility was treasured and a deep need to compete with the other great cities of America contributed to many of Exposition Park's wonders -- including the L.A. Coliseum, which opened in 1923. What better way to signal the city's refinement than with the world's fanciest flower? In 1926, the construction of $15,000 rose garden began in the sunken garden. Fred H. Howard was again called to design the space. When it opened in 1927 it was the largest in the country, and included more than 100 varieties of roses in formally planted beds, arbors, four white pergolas (perfect for clandestine meetings), a fountain that changed color at night, and night-blooming lilies in a central pond.
Angelenos again flocked to the gardens, but this time for more tranquil, and doubtless better smelling, recreation. Though existence was briefly threatened during the depths of the Depression, the rose garden survived and thrived. Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, who grew up a mile away during the '30s, recalled that her beloved rose garden was one of the only places her mother would let her walk alone. Throughout April and May, the flowers were at their peak, and by 1949 the rose garden was reported to boast 15,000 bushes, featuring over 150 species, many named after celebrities of the day.
The rose garden reached the cultural peak with a period of absolute hipness in that strange, artificially graceful and domesticated time known as the 1950s. In January of 1950, usually a dead time for gardens when roses lay dormant, the Parks Department held a pruning demonstration. The event was so successful that by 1955 over 3,000 "rosarians" attended the annual day which included panel discussions, a rose queen from Van Nuys High, and demonstrations of pruning on a large scale model rosebush. Leftover cuttings were handed out to recipients, an event so hectic that lottery numbers were given to all those entering the park to insure law and order. The 1958 show found a matron in a hat covered with plastic roses yelling "Snip, do not snap!" as a park employee pruned a giant rosebush on stage.
The park was also host to the popular "Camera Days," an annual Parks Department summer series for amateur photographers in different scenic locales. Pretty models (in gardening attire or frilly afternoon gowns), puppies, and kittens were supplied to leering lensmen in locations around the park. One hopes their shots were not ruined in 1954 by the 270,000 ladybugs released into the park to eat aphids, the juice sucking menace of many a gardener.
No craze lasts forever, and by 1973 only 600 diehard "rosarians" attended the pruning show, which was now called a quiet, "almost prayerful rite." As the decade progressed the area around the park became more and more depressed, but the park was still teeming with tourists visiting the park's museums or locals looking for a respite. In 1980, the NFL Raiders put in a failed bid to turn the garden into a practice field. In 1981, the Olympic Organization Committee announced a massive rejuvenation campaign, including the rose garden, in preparation for the 1984 Olympics. The committee promised to "leave this community with a heritage that will endure for many years."
The greater Los Angeles public's seemingly dormant love for the oasis-like garden was awakened in 1986 when a plan was proposed to tear down the rose garden to put up a two-story garage featuring a rooftop garden. The public was outraged, and a flood of furious letters to the editor caused the L.A. Coliseum Commission to withdraw the plan. The embattled commission president backtracked. "I was never a proponent of that concept! My position was whatever you plan to do with the rose garden people would be opposed." So the rose garden, featuring almost every National Rose of the Year since 1940, continued to quietly flourish, much to the relief of head gardener Orlando Alayu. He eloquently explained the magic that has inspired many a gardener for millennia:
"You don't do this for the money. Being able to come to work and see a bud become a blossom is a reminder of the mystery of nature ... We talk to them, we sing to them. Roses are like people, you have to treat them right for them to survive and thrive."
It is spring and the roses are still beautiful, though the smells of surrounding highways mute the subtle scents of the blossoms. The park is pleasantly populated with a diverse crowd. Local teenagers pair off in the bushes, lying in pathways while staring into each others eyes, leaning against backpacks while they kiss under tall oak trees. Parents take pictures of frolicking children, women sell rough paintings and pictures of the park, and a group of well-dressed, elderly ladies go on a guided tour. There is a man sound asleep under a blanket on a bench. A little boy gleefully throws a soda bottle into the already littered fountain; a reminder that however hard we try, Los Angeles can never really be scrubbed clean.