The good people of early 20th century Los Angeles - mainly white, middle-aged, and Midwestern - weren't interested in parks and playgrounds for kids. They knew they lived in a presumed paradise, where flowers bloomed all year long and where a patch of lawn with a single orange tree stood for all of the outdoors. Besides, parks are public, where troubling encounters with minorities and the poor are possible. Better, they thought, to putter in one's own garden or take a drive along one of the city's green boulevards than risk a walk in a park.
As a result, anxious voters regularly rejected ambitious proposals to expand the city's recreational open space. Despite the vastness of Griffith Park, Los Angeles remains notably park poor today. According to a Trust for Public Land report published in 2010, Los Angeles sets aside just 7.9 percent of its land area for parks, far less than the 10.2 percent average for large cities.
In place of a park in their neighborhood, Angeleños have the county and state beaches that extend along 75 miles of coastline from Malibu to the San Gabriel River. There are at least 30 locations in Los Angeles County where the public has beach access, along with other seaside recreational opportunities. Many more locations along the coast are available for public enjoyment (at least theoretically) under California Coastal Commission rules.
Beaches are the city's magnificent front yard and places where you can walk away from the "sell-scape" of L.A.'s for-profit recreational destinations. But beaches aren't a perfect substitute for a blanket on the grass beneath a native Sycamore or oak tree. Beaches are monotone. Nature is starkly laid out. And a certain amount of nakedness is assumed if you're going to have any fun.
Having fun at the beach is going to get harder next month, the result of California's creeping retreat from public recreation. Low-income parents and their kids, with little place to play in their own neighborhood and a long drive or bus ride to the beach, will find some restrooms at county beaches locked and others cleaned less often. Repairs and general maintenance of beach facilities will be a low priority for county crews.
"The curtailments are due to the state's historic budget crisis and the overall local economy severely hampering the department's ability to sustain beach maintenance services provided in the past," the county's Beaches and Harbor Department said in a press release. The service cuts, the department warned, "are intended to reduce the number of beaches subject to closure and further service reductions."
The impact on state recreational facilities may be even worse. Governor Brown instructed the state parks department to prepare a list of park and beach closures with the goal of saving $11 million this year and $22 million next year. The list of parks and beaches facing closure remains a tightly held secret.
Dirty restrooms, tattered facilities, and the threat of closed beaches are symptoms of an overall decline in the quality of neighborhood recreation in California. Cities and counties during the 1990s recession lopped off park staffing and cut operating hours, reducing some parks to unsupervised patches of green - sham parks that look presentable from the street but not much more. According to a 2010 Los Angeles Times story:
Local governments are laying off maintenance workers and slashing budgets for after-school programs. They are closing public restrooms, pulling fire rings off beaches and leaving trash bins to overflow. Fees for sports leagues, enrichment classes and parking are going up. Though most cities have stopped short of locking up public parks, the effect of tightened budgets has become visible to visitors and is being felt across the state.
The effect of tightened budgets has now reached L.A.'s beaches. The impacts are certain to linger and be even more destructive of public recreation.
D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles every Monday and Friday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.