When L.A.'s Oldest Parks Were Young

MacArthur Park, then named Westlake Park, circa 1892. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

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.

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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.

Pershing Square
Founded in 1866 as Plaza Abaja. Later known as Plaza Abaja, Los Angeles Park, Sixth Street Park, and Central Park.

Pershing Square in ca.1880. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

The Plaza
Los Angeles featured a central plaza since its 1781 founding, but the city did not designate it a park until 1869.

The Plaza in the 1880s. Courtesy of the California Historical Society Collection, USC Libraries.

Exposition
Founded in 1872 as Agricultural Park and rededicated in 1913.

Entrance gate to Agricultural Park, the forerunner to Exposition Park. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Elysian Park
Founded in 1883, dedicated in 1886.

An early view of Elysian Park at its Buena Vista Street (Broadway) entrance. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

MacArthur Park
Founded in 1886 as Westlake Park.

Westlake Park soon after it became a public park. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Lincoln Park
Founded in 1889 as East Los Angeles Park. Later known as Eastside Park and Eastlake Park.

An early view of Eastlake Park. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Prospect Park
Founded in 1889.

An early view of Prospect Park in Brooklyn Heights. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

St. James Park
Founded in 1891.

An early view of St. James Park in West Adams. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Echo Park
Founded in 1891.

1911 view of Echo Park, looking northwest toward Hollywood. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Hollenbeck Park
Founded in 1892.

An early view of Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Lafayette Park
Founded in 1896 as Sunset Park.

Lafayette Park in 1913. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Griffith Park
Founded in 1896.

A man picks wildflowers on a Griffith Park road, circa 1900. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Collection, USC Libraries.

South Park
Founded in 1899.

An early view of Canary Island date palms in South Park, South Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust, and C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

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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Great piece! I'm used to seeing Los Angeles described as "park poor" and I'm all in favor for more but we also have one of the largest municipal parks in the world, Griffith Park, and I'm curious what percentage of the city's total area is made up of parks and how that compares to other cities. Do you have any idea?

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Thanks, Eric! I actually do have those numbers, which you can find in "Green Spaces in the Auto Metropolis" by Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, part of the 2012 book "Planning Los Angeles."

It would seem that Griffith Park does not make up for L.A.'s park deficit. 7.9% of Los Angeles' city area is parkland, compared with 10.2% in Seattle, 15.7% in Portland, 18% in San Francisco, and 22.7% in San Diego. On a per-capita basis, L.A. has 6.2 acres of parkland per 1,000 residents, compared with 6.7 in San Francisco, 9.1 in Seattle, 24.2 in Portland, and 36.1 in San Diego.