Park-poor Los Angeles: perhaps it's no surprise that many of the city's earliest parks were born of refuse lands. Flush with public land inherited from California's land grant days, Los Angeles was practically giving away real estate in the latter half of the nineteenth century, donating lots to private individuals or auctioning off tracts to fill the city's coffers. But some lands eluded buyers.
Some were wetlands -- or, in the parlance of the time, swamps. One block of land, cut by the channel of the Arroyo de los Reyes, made a fine home for frogs but not, it was thought, for humans. It became the city's first park in 1866, known today as Pershing Square. To the west, a natural alkali lake made another tract of land unsalable. In 1887 the city refashioned it into Westlake Park, since renamed after General Douglas MacArthur.
Other land was considered too rugged for farming or settlement. In 1883, after the city failed to find a buyer for a 550-acre tract of steep hills and cavernous ravines northwest of the city, it turned the land into Elysian Park. Larger Griffith Park likewise owes its origins to its unsuitability for development. When Griffith J. Griffith donated the bulk of Rancho Los Feliz to the city in 1896, he kept the choicest, flattest parts for himself.
Repurposing unwanted land gave 19th-century Angelenos space for relaxation and recreation. And not all parkland was considered marginal; some was set aside to make new residential subdivisions more attractive, and the spirit of civic beautification doubtless inspired some donors. But today's paucity of parks -- particularly pronounced in older, poorer neighborhoods -- may be a legacy of the city's early failure to plan for public, green space in an effectively systematic way.
A series of posts about several of these parks will follow in the coming weeks. But for now, see Los Angeles' oldest parks in their youth through selected images from L.A. as Subject member collections. Judge for yourself whether they've aged well.
Dedicated in 1886.
Dedicated in 1886 as Westlake Park.
Dedicated in 1889 as East Los Angeles Park. Later known as Eastside Park and Eastlake Park.
Dedicated in 1889.
St. James Park
Dedicated in 1891.
Dedicated in 1891.
Dedicated in 1892.
Dedicated in 1896 as Sunset Park.
Dedicated in 1896.
Dedicated in 1899.
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 narrativein all its complex facetsof Southern California.