I had lunch the other day at the Biltmore with Janet Marie Smith, a young woman from New York City out of Mississippi, to talk about Pershing Square.
I had met Smith at a dinner a few months ago and was much taken with her; unlike most people fresh from New York, she liked Los Angeles.
I gave her a few test questions and she seemed to understand why Los Angeles is different, and why it is not--as so often depicted in novels and newspaper stories--a moral, physical and cultural wasteland.
So when she turned up as executive director of the Pershing Square Management Assn., I naturally wondered what she thought could be done to make the square a pleasant place again.
Smith's background is in architecture and city planning, and she believes that Pershing Square is very important to the health of downtown Los Angeles as just about its only remaining open space, unless you count parking lots.
As director of the nonprofit association, which is guided by a nonprofit board, she would like to see it developed in some way that would make it more pleasant and useful.
After lunch we walked across Olive Street and took a turn through the park. It is a landmark that goes back to my school days.
My old friends were still there: Beethoven, hands folded behind him, stalking eternally toward the north; the Spanish-American War soldier at order arms, with a pigeon on his shoulder; the World War I doughboy, holding a flag; the plaque in honor of Gen. John J. Pershing, General of the Armies; and the cannon aiming at where Fowler Bros. used to be on 6th Street.
It was populated, as usual, by the wastrels of the street, some sleeping on the grass, some on benches, some just sitting in their shabby clothes, looking without interest at the passers-by.
Smith knows that the bums can't just be picked up or run off, as some administrations have tried to do. A park is a free place, one of the last free places, and it is inevitable that the homeless and penniless would gravitate there.
But the park should be made habitable for other people, too. It should be a place of beauty, an oasis in the concrete, a place for rendezvous, or a moment of meditation, or a brown-bag lunch, or half an hour with a book. Or a place for people who merely like to commune with sky and birds and flowers.
One of the ideas, Smith said, has been to put up food stands in the park, to attract people. But she isn't for that. She thinks food should be available at shops on the peripheral streets. Instead of having food stands in the park they are going to try having a few individual hucksters--a hot dog man, for example. A few carts might be a good idea, if they are made festive enough--with balloons, maybe, and a variety of delicacies, such as pretzels, ice cream, tamales and the like.
I would like to see the park developed as a horticultural showplace, perhaps with the help of the Arboretum. As Smith points out, the underground garage leaves only a foot of earth to work with, but surely nature provides a variety of exotic plants that can thrive in a foot of earth, and also, some can be planted above ground in boxes. There are many palm trees in the square now in boxes, and they seem to be doing well.
I would like to see someone donate a beautiful fountain as a centerpiece. Los Angeles has been rescued from the desert by the ingenuity of man, and a great fountain at the center of Pershing Square would be a refreshment to all who pass that way, a symbol of our prosperity and fruitfulness, and our continuing investment in the future. If our fathers hadn't brought the water, after all, downtown would never have been built.
I would like to see Pershing Square restored as a public forum, like Hyde Park. During the Depression it was never without its orators, its preachers of socialism, or anarchy, or the Townsend Plan, or anything else they thought might work; they were all mad; but who isn't? In recent years, though, they seem to have left the open air for other media--mostly television.
Smith says it may be that the space occupied by two of the four garage ramps, which take a great deal of the park's acreage, can be restored to it. The garage is now using only two of the four. If that happens, there would be room for many more green plantings.
I noticed that the men's and women's rooms were chained off. Obviously, there is no money to tend to them daily. Really, where else can those downtown people go? To the Biltmore? I think the city must find a way to pay for the upkeep of the square and its facilities.
This summer, Smith said, the park will offer musical concerts by the city Department of Music. They have been staging summer concerts on the pool deck of the Bonaventure Hotel with much success, and they should bring good crowds to the square.
I will be there; and if I can get a hot dog, and use the men's room, so much the better. I would also like to see the name changed from Pershing Square back to Central Park. How can our Mexican population enjoy a park named after the man who led a punitive expedition into their country?
Any ideas for Janet Smith?