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Remembering What's Always Been Here: The Oldest Palm

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| Photo courtesy of the USC Digital Library

A sentinel from the city's past -- hidden in plain sight in Exposition Park since 1914 -- is a reminder that Los Angeles has roots. Literal roots.

Nathan Masters recently followed up his account of the city's 19th and 20th century terminals (here) with a further look at the fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) that stood for 25 years in front of the long-ago Arcade Station. (His story is at Los Angeles magazine.)

And that palm is perhaps the most footloose piece of the city's landscape. It had been uprooted in the late 1850s from one of the arroyos north downtown and replanted, along with several other specimens, perhaps to line the drive to a home on San Pedro Street not far from 2nd.

(You'll find a discussion of whose home here thanks to the tireless researchers of Noirish Los Angeles. Updated 5/14/13: The search may have ended. But that may not be the end of our palm's mysteries. Because the Noirish archivists have a question about the 1914 date of the tree's replanting here at Exposition Park.)

The palm moved again to the front of the newly opened Southern Pacific train station at Alameda Street around 1889, and moved again in 1914 (when the Arcade Station was demolished) to the entrance of Exposition Park, where it still stands, marked by an almost forgotten plaque.

| Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

| Photo courtesy of the USC Digial Library

The city's wandering palm overlooked everything that changed about Los Angeles in the past 160 years. Uprooted in the late 1850s from a nature already compromised, the palm was regimented into a line of formal landscaping. Packed up 30 years later, the palm removed to a plaza in front of the utilitarian Arcade Station where it stood as a promise for tourists and transplanted easterners that Los Angeles was exotic enough.

According to Holly Charmain Kane's master's thesis in historic preservation "Arriving in Los Angeles: Railroad Depots as Gateways to the California Dream," the palm presided over "plantings outside the Arcade (that) were some of the most elaborate in the Southern Pacific system. ... A photographer hired by the station was available to ensure that tourists could provide visual evidence to the folks back home of the strange and wonderful vegetation growing in Los Angeles. A lawn provided space for picnicking families, with agaves, sago palms, small coniferous trees, and a cactus garden with saguaros, aloes, more agaves, and cordylines. Postcards from travelers, showing them posed near a large cactus or a palm tree were sent back East, many carrying an 'Arcade Station' postal cancellation."

| Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Packed up again and sent to Exposition Park, it became a living souvenir of a Los Angeles that was uncertain if the city's rowdy, hybrid past could serve anyone's idea of a modern metropolis. After 1914, we misplaced it among the lengthening boles of the city's other iconic palms, ascending nearly out of view into an afterlife tenuously connected to any sort of nature, where it serves with them as shorthand silhouettes of Los Angeles.

Sentinel at Exposition Park

| Image from Google Street View

| Author's collection

(Paradoxical image of rootedness through transience, our palm escaped the fate of another, supposedly planted by Franciscan missionary Fray Junipero Serra, which once stood on San Diego's presidio hill. Having survived almost 200 years, the Serra palm was slowly killed by inattention and vandals and cut down in 1957.)

Our palm is so much like us. It came from somewhere else, moved around a lot, acquired significance from its different jobs, did some bit parts in the cavalcade of the city's self-promotion, found something in a nostalgia not entirely earned, and found a place finally to call home.

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