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What's in a Name? The Origins of Lincoln Heights' Ela Park

Ela Park is the oval-shaped lawn in the foreground of this 1911 photo, courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.
Ela Park is the oval-shaped lawn in the foreground of this 1911 photo, courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Its three-letter name is almost as tiny as 0.38-acre park itself, but "Ela" -- as in Ela Park of Lincoln Heights -- is actually an acronym with big historical meaning.

The park first took shape around 1877 on the outskirts of what was then East Los Angeles, a booming streetcar suburb connected to the rest of the city by a cable car line. Foreshadowing changes to come, the park's creator, developer H.M. Johnston, thought he could improve upon the town's name.

"The initials of East Los Angeles suggested the concise and poetic designation of 'Ela' for that beautiful suburb," he told the Los Angeles Herald.

So Johnston built an oval-shaped racetrack nestled against the Repetto Hills and named it Ela Park.

In 1886, when William Lacy subdivided the land surrounding the racetrack ("High Elevation! No Fogs! No Frosts! No Malaria! No Asthma!" the advertisements boasted), he named the tract after the tiny park. Otherwise, Johnston's abbreviation never caught on.

A 1921 real estate map of Ela Park and the surrounding community. Courtesy of the USC Libraries.
A 1921 real estate map of Ela Park and the surrounding community. Courtesy of the USC Libraries.

Details of the park's history are sketchy -- its small size means it never attracted much notice -- but in 1889 the Los Angeles Times described it as "a very pretty little park... fenced with posts and chain, ready to be seeded down." It had become a municipal park by 1904, when the city park commission noted that it was "uncared for" and beseeched the city council to appropriate $500 "for first aid to this little pleasure ground." Later, as seen in this photo from the New York Public Library's collections, the city planted fan palms along its perimeter.

The park's landscaping evolved, but its name remained the same -- even as residents of East Los Angeles moved to rebrand their neighborhood Lincoln Heights. Their proposed change became official in March 1917, and soon the names of businesses and civic installations were scrubbed of any reference to East Los Angeles. Yet somehow that tiny, oval-shaped parcel of land remained Ela Park, and today it's one of the few remnants of a time when East Los Angeles was in Lincoln Heights.

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L.A. as Subject is 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.

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