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L.A. State Historic Park: A Deserted Railroad Yard is Transformed Yet Unfinished


"On a deserted railroad yard north of Chinatown, one of Los Angeles' most powerful and tenacious real estate developers, Ed Roski, Jr., met his match," reported Jesus Sanchez in a front page article in the L.A. Times, on how activists fought city hall and prevailed. Community allies helped create what is now the Los Angeles State Historic Park at the Cornfield and stopped proposed warehouses in the last vast open space in downtown L.A.

Yes, the 32 acres could have been warehouses. Instead, it's a park. The L.A. Times Magazine called the victory "a heroic monument" and a "symbol of hope." The victory kicked off the urban greening movement that led to other green justice victories in Los Angeles, including community struggles for Baldwin Hills Parkin the historic African American heart of Los Angeles, and for Rio de Los Angeles State Park and the Sonia M. Sotomayor Learning Center along the River as part of the greening of the L.A. River.

A diverse alliance of over 35 community, civil rights, environmental, business, and civic organizations and leaders worked together to stop the warehouses and convince the state to purchase the site for a park. Environmental justice and environmental quality attorneys worked with grass roots, religious, and business leaders, including the chamber of commerce. Then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Andrew Cuomo in 2000 withheld federal funds for the proposed warehouse project unless there was full blown environmental review, including environmental justice laws, citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 its regulations.

Chi Mui, a Chinatown activist and later Mayor of San Gabriel, passed away in 2006 before his dream for a park came true.
Today, 12 years later, Los Angeles State Historic Park remains unfinished. Twelve years is a long time in the life of a child with no place to play; it's a long time for anyone to wait for a park to be finished on flat clean land. The 32 acre site is now used as interim park with 13 acres developed on the south side, while other parts lie fallow. The state allows flexible uses such as pick up games, kite flying, overnight camping on Earth Day and music festivals. The state drew the line at organized or uniformed sports or cleats because the traffic would cause too much wear and tear, and there has been no funding to maintain lawns, even in the interim park.

People get attached to their park and don't want to see it changed. This is a concern for any interim use, even for the 18 month period while the site is transformed through the permanent design. Memories have lingered on in the community of sheriff's deputies bulldozing away the people from the South Central Farm.

The Olmsted Plan called for a park at the Cornfield in 1930. Eighty-two years later, the site stands ready to be a park. The state now says it's time to start the process of creating the real Los Angeles State Historic Park. Public comments on the draft environmental impact report are due March 12, 2012.

Grand opening of the interim park | Photo courtesy of The City Project
Grand opening of the interim park | Photo courtesy of The City Project

An abandoned rail yard for over 12 years, the park is in downtown L.A. between Chinatown on the west and the L.A. River on the east, within walking distance of City Hall, and down the hill from Chavez Ravine. The site is the veritable Ellis Island of Los Angeles, and the park should tell this story.

  • The original Tongva/Garbrieleno village of Yaangna was located near the current site of the park, where native Americans played shinny, a game resembling soccer, on the flat lands along the river. 
  • Los Pobladores, the first settlers, included Spaniards, Catholic missionaries, Native Americans, and Blacks. Historically, the zanja madre or "mother trench" brought water from the Los Angeles River through the site to El Pueblo and beyond.
  • Mexican-Americans, including U.S. citizens, were deported from the Cornfield during the Great Depression because of discrimination and the struggle for jobs.
  • Chinese migrants, who began arriving in 1850 in search of gold, were relegated to living east of the Plaza, on "the bad side of the tracks." The city forcibly evicted them and razed Old Chinatown to build Union Station in the 1930s. The Chinese relocated to New Chinatown up the hill from the park.
  • Blacks in the twentieth century were forced away from the area by discriminatory land use policies and into South Central.
  • Italian and French immigrants, some of whom planted vineyards that graced the area, assimilated into the broader culture. The Women's Building that has empowered women artists stands near the park.
    Park site before construction | Photo courtesy of The City Project
    Park site before construction | Photo courtesy of The City Project

According to 2000 census data, the community within a five mile radius of the Cornfield was 68% Latino, 14% Asian, 11% non-Hispanic white, and 4% African-American. Thirty percent of the population lived in poverty, compared to 14% for the State of California as a whole, and 18% for Los Angeles County. The median household income was $28,908 - just 60% of the $47,493 median household income for the State.
The park exemplifies the struggle by low-income people of color for equal justice, democracy and livable communities. In addition to creating green space in a neighborhood that has virtually none, the park will improve health and quality of life; create local green jobs, including youth jobs and opportunities for small, disadvantaged, women, veteran and minority enterprises; increase tourism and property values; promote economic revitalization; celebrate cultural and historic resources at the birthplace of Los Angeles; and create a place to just plain have fun.

The value of the Cornfield lies in its potential to slice through time, connecting larger historical and social patterns to the personal stories relevant to the contemporary experience of Angelenos. It will serve as the touchstone through which all of us come to see how we fit into the greater Los Angeles story.

-The Cornfield State Park Advisory Committee Recommendations Report, p. 9

Top: Landscape architect Mia Lehrer's concept for L.A. State Historic Park.

[Updated 2/22 5:15pm: Article was edited to include more information and better accuracy regarding rules for park use.]

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