From Plaza Abaja to Pershing Square: L.A.'s Oldest Park Through the Decades

Circa 1885 view of Pershing Square, then called Sixth Street Park and later Central Park. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Downtown L.A.'s emergence as a residential neighborhood has focused attention on the area's dearth of green park space and, with it, the perceived shortcomings of the city's oldest park: Pershing Square. In its 163-year journey from open pasture to urban park, Pershing Square has weathered nagging complaints and survived multiple, radical renovations. With its privileged position between the city's historic core and financial district neighborhoods, the five-acre public square remains downtown L.A.'s central park.

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Pershing Square was born as a rectangle named Block 15 in 1849, when surveyor E.O. Ord sketched an orthogonal grid of city blocks that extended southwest from the historic heart of Los Angeles. Like the streets -- 5th, 6th, Hill, and Olive -- that bounded it, Block 15 was little more than a cartographic fiction, created to allow the city to auction off some of the original land granted to the pueblo by the Spanish Crown. With no fences to delineate the tracts and few street improvements, much of the land still looked and functioned like open pasture, and for decades travelers ignored Ord's streets, crisscrossing the empty blocks as the terrain dictated.

Although Ord's grid optimistically extended all the way to 12th street, the city soon found itself in an economic slump that depressed land values and left many of the more remote tracts unsold. Block 15 was particularly unattractive; a stream named the Arroyo de los Reyes cut a channel across the block's southwest corner, while heavy wagon traffic crossed the block's northwest corner along the historic El Camino Real.

Pershing Square began as Block 15 on E. O. Ord's 1849 survey of Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Map collection on Los Angeles, California, the United States and the world; UCLA Young Research Library.

Circa 1880 panoramic view of Sixth Street Park and the surrounding area. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Circa 1888 view of Sixth Street Park. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Circa 1888 view of Sixth Street Park. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Circa 1883 view of Sixth Street Park. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Circa 1908 postcard of Central Park. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

And so in 1866 the city set aside Block 15 as a public square. The ordinance, passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Cristobal Aguilar, declared the tract "a public square or plaza for the use and benefit of the citizens in common of [Los Angeles]." With no funds committed to planting trees or improving the square as a park, however, Block 15 remained a treeless town commons. Livestock continued to graze on the land, and teamsters violated warning signs by driving their wagons through the public square.

Residents complained about the square's shabby condition, and in 1870 the city renamed it Los Angeles Park and authorized a committee of wealthy landowners to convert the square into parkland. The committee members, who stood to benefit from improved real estate prices in the neighborhood, raised $600 -- later supplemented by a $1,000 grant from the city -- to fence in the park and plant trees along its perimeter.

It was the first in a long succession of redesigns and renovations.

City engineer Fred Eaton's 1886 design for the park added a bandstand, and the square soon became a meeting ground and cultural center for the town's ascendant Anglo population. The public used various names for the park over the succeeding decades, including Plaza Abaja (Lower Plaza), Sixth Street Park, and St. Vincent Park, before settling on Central Park.

In 1910, the prominent architect John Parkinson, who later designed City Hall and Union Station, oversaw an $80,000 renovation that introduced a formal, symmetrical plan for the park. Parkinson's design kept a path around the square's perimeter and added bamboo, Italian cypresses, and other ornamental plantings. Diagonal walkways led to a circular plaza in the center, where a three-tier fountain replaced the bandstand.

Eight years later, in the excitement following the end of World War I, the city renamed the park in honor of General John Pershing, the commander of U.S. forces in the war. It was the park's sixth name (at least), but one that has now survived for nearly a century.

1941 postcard of Pershing Square. Courtesy of the Frasher Foto Postcard Collection, Pomona Public Library.

1939 view of the Pershing Square fountain, surrounded by tropical banana plants. Courtesy of the Dick Whittington Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Air raid warning lights were installed in Pershing Square at the beginning of World War II. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Over the years, Pershing Square gained a reputation as a venue for public preaching and outspoken oratory. Los Angeles Times writer Timothy G. Turner complained in 1951 that "all varieties of radicalism and of religion are shouted to the high heavens." The square's "human fauna," Turner wrote, "have so abused the right of free speech, giving offense to those who, having business, use the square as a short cut, and to those who wait for their busses and those who live in the hotels or have offices in the buildings facing the square. For the exhortations of the evangels of Karl Marx and the Gentle Nazarene are heard a long way off."

It also became known as a gathering place for the marginalized. Crowds of unemployed workers congregated in Pershing Square during the Great Depression, and after the World War II local businesses bemoaned the growing numbers of destitute who inhabited the park.

In response to complaints from local businesses, the city renovated Pershing Square in the early 1950s, building a subterranean parking garage underneath the square, while entrance and exit ramps emerged on the periphery. A narrow path around a sprawling, fenced-off lawn stripped the square of much of its park-like character, confining the public and discouraging the assembly of crowds.

The redesigned park opened to mixed reviews, and downtown's decline over the succeeding decades did nothing to temper the volume of complaints. Another dramatic redesign in the 1990s offered Pershing Square a fresh start, but now -- even as downtown's renaissance continues -- many hope for yet another iteration of downtown L.A.'s central park.

Construction of Pershing Square's underground parking garage, 1951. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Construction of Pershing Square's underground parking garage, 1951. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Aerial view of the nearly completed 1950s renovation of Pershing Square. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

Circa 1960 view of Pershing Square. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Examiner Collection, USC Libraries.

Model of a planned renovation of Pershing Square in 1964. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Pershing Square reopens after a one million dollar facelift in 1984. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Young Research Library, UCLA. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Construction of Pershing Square's current iteration in 1993. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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