How Did Los Angeles Lose its Not-So-Central Park?

This avenue of pepper trees was one of Central Park's charms. Circa 1890 photograph courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

This Central Park was anything but. When a syndicate of real estate investors led by architect Ezra F. Kysor subdivided 80 acres of orchards in 1887 -- reserving a ten-acre block as parkland -- their new Central Park Tract lay beyond the Los Angeles city limits in what was then the rural farming district of Vernon. Still, "Central Park" had a certain ring to it. The park did abut Central Avenue (its namesake) and that thoroughfare's electric trolley line. Its name also traded on the cachet of Manhattan's better-known Central Park, an Olmsted-designed masterpiece of landscape architecture.

L.A.'s Central Park -- located on the west side of Central Avenue between 49th and 50th streets -- was decidedly more modest. Its design wisely incorporated the mature fruit trees already growing on the site, adding beds of flowers, ornamental palms, and a picturesque allée of pepper trees through the center of the park. As Kysor's tract and neighboring developments merged to form the suburban boomtown of Vernondale, Central Park quickly became a favorite outdoor retreat among the area's new residents. Picnickers lunched beneath the park's orange and lemon trees. Children played on swings suspended from the pepper trees' branches, while older parkgoers rested on benches placed in their shade. The Times hailed it as the "pride of the whole Vernon countryside."

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Even as it served the local community, Central Park remained privately owned. The city of Los Angeles annexed much of Vernon in 1896 (the eastern portion eventually became an independent city), and soon after residents petitioned the city to buy the ten-acre site. Kysor announced that he'd let the city have the park for $4,500 -- by all accounts, a generous offer. The city demurred, however, insisting that Kysor had already disclaimed title to the land when his company filed a tract map that included a parcel named "Central Park." The ensuing litigation wended its way to the state Supreme Court, which ruled in Kysor's favor in 1899. By then, Los Angeles had chosen another site in its southern reaches for a private park: the 19-acre parcel that became South Park. (The city, incidentally, already had a Central Park at that time; present-day Pershing Square bore that name from 1893 to 1918.)

South Park's birth in 1899 ensured Central Park's demise. Though the park survived for a few years as a public meeting place, Kysor eventually carved the property into 52 individual housing lots. The end came on December 12, 1904, when workers dragged their saws into the old orchard to clear the site for development. Not even the avenue of peppers survived; the trees were hewn down and replaced by the paved roadway of 49th Place.

1905 map showing the subdivision of what was once Central Park. Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Office of the Assessor.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. 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.

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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