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Concrete Dreams: Restoring Pershing Square

Apparently, the "most hated" place in Los Angeles isn't the choked 405 on a Friday afternoon or the desiccated bed of the Los Angeles River on any day without rain. The most hated place is Pershing Square, at least according to both the Los Angeles Downtown News and the LA Weekly.

For critics of place making in Los Angeles, Pershing Square is a purple nightmare. (Although there's always a contrarian who thinks it's not.)

Originally an anchor for the city's expansion west in the 19th century, by 1910 the 5-acre park had become the front yard of downtown's hotels, boarding houses, and cheap rooms-by-the-night.

It was a welcoming place, but it suffered from the affliction of being a public space in a city that was more anxious than most about what the public might do there. Old duffers sat around the central fountain and tourists strolled the intersecting paths by day, but evenings brought out other people - Latinos, African Americans, and Asians, as well as gays and prostitutes. (Some of the park's urban community can be seen inthis 1916 film clip from Curbed LA.)

The Anglo ascendency of 20th century Los Angeles valued the city's garden-like landscape, but wanted the garden to be untroubled by radicals, socialists, labor organizers, street vendors, the poor, the marginal, and non-whites. Race and class mixing unsettled the fixed categories of Anglo society, which was often more southern than the South and more narrow-minded than even the caricature of Midwesterners.

The design of Pershing Square through its many iterations from 1866 through 1993 shows how political the landscape of Los Angeles has been. Nature has always been harnessed to the city's self-definition.The Cold War version of Pershing Square went from a leafy, semi-tropical public square in 1949 to a pool-table-like void in 1953 overlaying a three-story parking garage. The threat of mixing was entirely controlled. That park was a failure as a place.

A 1964 redesign wasn't much better. An X-shape of concrete paths connected the park's corners, shortening the walk, but nothing about the landscaping or lack of pedestrian amenities suggested that anyone should linger there. The park got another remake in 1993. But as landscape designer Wade Graham complained earlier this year, the application of more concrete to Pershing Square resolved nothing.

 

(I)t feels all wrong: the rows of standing pink stucco tubes the size of water heaters, the huge metal spheres placed here and there, and the strangely looming tower are inexplicable. A maze of proliferating walls chops its expanses of concrete into odd shapes and block access from the surrounding streets. In spite of ample lighting, past sundown the square feels unsafe. Outside of weekday lunch hours and weekend special events, it is mostly given to the homeless. In the midst of downtown's extraordinary revival, Pershing Square remains a perplexing failure.

 

In 2013, Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne - eyeing the park's program of oversize orange spheres and oversize tower - called Pershing Square "a perfectly depressing symbol of L.A.'s neglected public realm."

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Like the freeways and the Los Angeles River, the recent history of Pershing Square shows the limitations of concrete. And like them, something is underway that might break concrete's hold on the city's imagination.

Already, kids have made the space a bit more humane. Since early September, two playgrounds at the southern end of the park, jointly funded by the Department of Recreation and Parks and the Goldhirsh Foundation, have provided space for active 5-to-12 year olds. The $600,000 playground project is intended to be the start of even more changes.

In early November, if all goes well, Pershing Square Renew, a city-backed non-profit, will conclude the first phase of its design competition for the park's redevelopment. Four teams of designers will be chosen from among the competitors in December. Each team will be asked to provide a detailed redevelopment plan to be made public at a community exhibition in March of 2016. In April, the board of directors of Pershing Square Renew will name the winning design plan.

And that's where things begin to get hazy. Although redevelopment of the park could be completed by 2020, Pershing Square Renew hasn't yet proposed a construction schedule or a budget. And only $2 million in private/public funding has been promised so far. The last remake of Pershing Square (by noted Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta) cost $14.5 million, more than half financed by the owners of nearby properties.

When the park was rededicated in 1994, then-Mayor Richard Riordan praised its acres of concrete as "a special place for people and nature, a pause in a busy day's work, an open space among skyscrapers and hotels, a breath of fresh air, a vision of hope."

"The new Pershing Square," added Riordan, "is a bold statement of what Los Angeles is - a city that looks forward." Not many observers agreed - then or now.

In the typical irony of Los Angeles, Riordan's hope curdled into development politics. When funding for the park's redevelopment was tied to AEG's failed attempt to build a downtown NFL stadium, Pershing Square turned into another symbol of how a purely top-down vision for making public places will always be flawed.

At best, each of the designs of the "central park" that attempted to represent Los Angeles projected only an equivocal image of the city - an unhealthy blend of ordered nature and anxious vigilance. Even today, the sound of kids playing has a tinny quality, as if Pershing Square begrudged that intrusion on the abstractions of its barren platforms and mazy walls.

Something of beauty might grow from the concrete of Pershing Square's reimagining. Something there might be made to inspire a community's affection. And if it's particularly well considered, Pershing Square might even tell us something about who Angeleños wish to be.

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