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Enjoyment Under the Trees: The Chavez Ravine Arboretum in Elysian Park

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There is nothing quite as uplifting as a Los Angeles park on a holiday weekend. Under the shade of tall trees, clusters of Angelenos gather to cook, play, and relax. Barbeque smoke rises, and the smell of grilled food seems to season the air. Many folks play soccer, cornhole, horseshoes, and other communal games. The trees themselves are used for a wide variety of purposes -- piñatas hang from the branches, and children's decorations mingle with the leaves. Hammocks are strung between two strong trunks and swing gently in the breeze. Children dart and shriek around the hammocks, but they rarely seem able to disturb the adults lying in them.

On July 5, the sea of celebration at Elysian Park made it difficult for me to find what I was looking for. To the untrained eye, one rolling hill of green grass and trees can look much like the other, especially when it is covered in people. When I finally found the Chavez Ravine Arboretum (near the Grace E. Simons Lodge), it was not what I expected. It looked like every other part of the sprawling park, which hugs Dodger Stadium in the hills above Echo Park. But when I finally looked past the people and up to the trees, I began to appreciate the wide variety of specimens before me. I was standing in the oldest arboretum in Los Angeles, started in 1893 by a group of pioneering horticulturists who wanted to create an impressive "breathing space" for everyday Angelenos. The grounds may not be quite as exceptional and grand as they had dreamed, but one imagines that the sight of hundreds of people enjoying themselves in nature would make them very happy indeed.

Wild Waste Among the Hills

By the early 1880s, Los Angeles' leaders were already worrying about the city's lack of public parks. The massive economic boom had made open land scarce within the heart of the city. Urban parks, including Westlake Park, Echo Park, Central Park, and Hollenbeck Park, were increasingly packed with Angelenos desperate for fresh air and amusement. In 1886, a new park called Elysian Park was fashioned out of 500 acres of "unfashionable" land in the "unfashionable" northwestern part of the city. There were rumors that the park had been created simply because the city thought the barren land was worthless and saw it as a way to increase property value in the area. Many politicians denounced improvements made to the site as a waste of public money. However, the fledgling park had many powerful supporters, including former mayor Henry Hazard and the bullish editorial staff at the Los Angeles Times.

Postcard view of Elysian Park, early 1900s
Postcard view of Elysian Park, early 1900s

By the beginning of 1893, over 150,000 trees had been planted. On New Year's Day 1893, a triumphal procession of carriages traveled from downtown to the opening of the new Camino Del Burro (Elysian Park Boulevard), which ran through the length of park. The Los Angeles Times described the scene:

The Boulevard's construction had a dramatic effect on the park's popularity. Only ten days after Camino Del Burro's formal opening, the L.A. Times reported:

These carriage rides could be precarious journeys. The park was still mostly wild and ungoverned and hunters frequently stalked the grounds looking for mountain lions and other wild game. One man was shot in the arm by an errant bullet while out on a drive with his wife and children, and a Times reporter recorded that bullets had also whizzed by his head. Water, that constant thorn in L.A.'s side, also proved to be a consistent barrier to the park's success. In June, the Park Commission urgently requested $600 from the city council to water young trees in the park, who were in great danger of dying of thirst.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

But the Los Angeles Times continued to promote the improvement of the park, despite its problems. The usual L.A. insecurities were evident in the insistent boosterism -- if the East Coast and Europe had great city parks, then by golly, Los Angeles should too!

Every Known Plant, Shrub or Tree

In the summer of 1893, the Horticultural Society of Southern California began formulating a plan to plant an arboretum in Elysian Park. Many of the members had spent decades collecting exotic seedlings and cuttings from all over the world, and wanted a place to exhibit them permanently. On August 19, 1893, they met at the park to discuss the proposition. The Mayor and Park Commissioners were scheduled to attend but were forced to cancel due to L.A.'s most current water crises:

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Times immediately endorsed the society's proposition:

The society formally petitioned the Park Commission for the tract in September, 1893. The commission agreed to give the society ten acres, and to supply piped in water to the site as long as the costs "were not too great." In December, the commission accepted the bid of a man named J.D. Hooker to furnish 4000 feet of pipe for the botanical garden at a cost of $411.20.

The botanical garden was now a reality -- at least on paper.

Forgotten Eden

It appears the society began to plant rare trees at the botanical garden, though not on the scale it had hoped to. It seems seedlings were planted piecemeal, perhaps at the whim of individual society members. On a whole, the arboretum's subsequent history is rather mysterious. One fact is certain -- Elysian Park itself did not flourish as its supporters had hoped it would. Other parks, like the mammoth Griffith Park and the ever trendy Westlake, continued to eat up public attention and funds. By 1899, the Los Angeles Times had given up its fight to make Elysian Park a great city park, and began advocating for a "first class" botanical garden in Griffith Park. The paper did concede:

Who this "former citizen" is remains a tantalizing mystery.

Photo: Hadley Meares
Photo: Hadley Meares

Over the years, dedicated horticulturists continued to add trees to the little arboretum. By the 1920s, the arboretum included more than 50 species of trees. In 1947, the huge L.A. County Arboretum and Botanic Garden opened in Arcadia. The arboretum in Elysian Park was eventually renamed the Chavez Ravine Arboretum, and became a Los Angeles historic-cultural monument in 1967.

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In 1993, 35 saplings were planted to commemorate the arboretum's centennial. The Parks Department worked with the Southern California Horticultural Society to affix metal nametags to most of the trees. In 2005, a visitor listed some of the more impressive specimens:

Today, the arboretum boasts 140 species of trees from all over the world. They are magnificent to look at, but the shade and comfort they afford is even better.

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1 "Camino del Burro: Formal opening of Elysian Park Boulevard" January 1, 1893
2 Ibid.
3 "The people are beginning to understand" Los Angeles Times, January 10, 1893
4 "Elysian Park: As we have frequently pointed out..." Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1893
5 "Park improvements" Los Angeles Times, July 13, 1893
6 "Well Started: Horticulturists to establish a botanical garden" Los Angeles Times, August 20, 1893
7 "The movement by the Horticultural Society of Southern California" (LA Times, August 22, 1893
8 "The Elysian Trees" by Don Taylor, Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1955
9 "A botanical garden" Los Angeles Times, May 16, 1899
10 "The California Garden" Los Angeles Times, July 7, 2005

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