Prospect Park and L.A.'s Forgotten Borough, Brooklyn Heights

Detail of an 1877 lithograph commissioned by the Brooklyn Land and Building Company and advertising Brooklyn Heights' empty lots. Prospect Park appears in the foreground. Behind it, across the river, is central Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Big Map Blog.

This post continues a series looking at the origins of Los Angeles' oldest parks. Previous installments visited Westlake (MacArthur) and Eastlake (Lincoln) parks.

Partisans of Los Angeles and New York often exaggerate the differences between the two cities, sometimes to the point of satire. But in the late nineteenth century, one small part of Los Angeles resembled -- in name at least -- a slice of the Big Apple: Brooklyn Heights. Nestled in the hills on the eastern bank of the Los Angeles River, the suburban residential district centered on a teardrop-shaped park whose name also boasted a New York pedigree: Prospect Park.

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Brooklyn, New York's original Prospect Park was only a few years old in 1876 when a group of Los Angeles investors led by A.H. Judson formed the Brooklyn Land and Building Company. Purchasing 105 acres of hilly land on the city's east side, the investors subdivided the tract the following year and named it Brooklyn Heights.

The historical record offers no simple explanation for the name choice. Some have speculated that it was a ploy to attract New Yorkers to the growing City of Angels, just recently linked with the nation's transcontinental railroad line. Perhaps one of the development's founders hailed from Brooklyn. Whatever the reason, the motif governed other naming choices. The main street became Brooklyn Avenue, and a small, hilltop park in the middle of the subdivision earned the name Prospect Park.

Los Angeles' Prospect Park was nothing like the Brooklyn original -- a masterpiece of landscape architecture several hundred acres in size and built at a cost of $5 million. The Prospect Park of Brooklyn Heights, Los Angeles, measured only four acres in size and for its first dozen years sat unimproved, home to a solitary brick reservoir but nothing in the way of landscaping or visitor amenities. Though the real estate company had donated the land to the city in 1877, the city waited until 1889 to formally establish the teardrop-shaped lot as a public park. Finally, with the park's official founding, the city began to invest in improvements. Over the following year, it spent $1,560 on the site, grading walking paths, planting trees, and sodding lawns. By the end of 1890, the Los Angeles Times reported, it was almost ready to open to the public, "only needing a permanent fence to keep out [live]stock."

Prospect Park opened in 1891, but it never attracted the crowds seen at bigger outdoor retreats on the city's fringes like Westlake and Eastlake parks. Modest in size, it was also inaccessible to much of the city; until the 1899 opening of a streetcar line down Brooklyn Avenue, most visitors came on foot from the surrounding neighborhood.

In 1896, the city's superintendent of parks declared Prospect a hidden gem. "It is always in the best of shape, has good shade and ample lawns: if better known it would receive its share of public attention." Others praised the park for its sweeping views of the Los Angeles Basin and the San Gabriel Mountains. Prospect also boasted a collection of rare plant; until thieves stripped it of its bark, Los Angeles' only cinnamon tree grew in Prospect Park.

But without room for a band shell or a lake, Prospect Park could never host open-air concerts, boating excursions, and other activities sought out by parkgoers. In 1903 the park attracted only 11,000 visitors -- not much more than a typical Sunday crowd at Westlake. Though one of L.A.'s earliest parks, Prospect faded into relative obscurity as Westlake and Eastlake became tourist meccas and as the city added even larger tracts like Elysian and Griffith parks. Still, despite its low profile, Prospect Park continued to function as a local neighborhood park. Today it's a rare, green oasis of public space in one of the city's oldest residential districts.

Brooklyn Heights, meanwhile passed through several phases -- an early streetcar suburb, a working class Jewish community, a Mexican barrio. Eventually its name lost currency as the public began to associate the neighborhood with a suburb to its south, Boyle Heights. (Another nearby subdivision, Euclid Heights, suffered the same fate.) By the time the city renamed Brooklyn Avenue to honor labor leader Cesar Chavez in 1994, the name of tiny Prospect Park was one of the few remnants of L.A.'s forgotten borough.

Prospect Park in the Los Angeles suburb of Brooklyn Heights. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Photograph of Prospect Park from the promotional book 'Beautiful Highlands of Los Angeles.'

Though the name fails to earn a mention on most maps today, this 1908 topographic map includes Brooklyn Heights. Courtesy of the Map Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Three men in Prospect Park, ca.1947. Courtesy of the Shades of L.A. Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Though it faded into relative obscurity compared to other early city parks, Prospect Park continued to function as a valuable neighborhood retreat. Here, the Martinez family sits on a picnic table at Prospect Park. Courtesy of the Shades of L.A. 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, 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. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and 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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Hollywood connections: Prospect Park is featured in the 1995 film, Panther, directed by Mario Van Peebles. The scene is a community event hosted by the Panthers at a public park, which of course, is supposed to be in Oakland.
From about 1912 through the early 1920's there was a film studio one block away from Prospect Park, at 651 Fairview ave. Among others, Charlie Chaplin made several films here in 1915 when it was called Majestic Studios. It's noted in several sources, among them, in John Bengston's book, Silent Traces : Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin. A few photos of the studio are included.
There was also a second studio in the Boyle Heights area operating at the time as well - in the area known at the time as Hollenbeck Heights. See the link below from the Boyle Heights Historical Society blog for information on this studio:
http://boyleheightshistoryblog.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-bernstein-film-studio-of-boyle.html