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'Larry's Median' grows in a different direction

May 20, 2008|SANDY BANKS

The garden in the Elysian Heights median is easy to miss. These days, it is little more than a hillside of hard-packed dirt dotted with struggling plants -- spindly hollyhocks, sprawling cactus clumps, a few mismatched trees and scattered tufts of sage and poppies.

But you can't pass along this narrow stretch of Lemoyne Street without noting the poster-size sign in the window of a home across the street, declaring the garden "Larry's Median."

For years, Larry Pickens led a neighborhood campaign to turn the rocky, dusty patch that separates traffic on his street into a mini-habitat for California's native plants.

Pickens died suddenly last fall, a year after the plants went into the ground -- leaving his dream in the hands of his neighbors.

The poster, with his smiling photo, offers this guidance: "Be patient. Keep the median clean. Let the plants grow."

I read it and thought the advice could apply not just to gardens, but to life.

I met Pickens years ago, when his partner Jeff Horton was a Los Angeles school board member. You couldn't know Jeff and not know Larry. They'd been together for almost 25 years and raised two teenage sons.

I heard about the garden from a friend at work, who had encountered it on a neighborhood walk.

Even with directions, it was hard to find. I got lost more than once navigating the narrow, winding streets that climb into the hills of Elysian Heights above Dodger Stadium from the gritty flatlands of Echo Park. How do people live here, I wondered? No frontyards, no place to park, crowded streets with no sidewalks.

I got my answer when I crested Lemoyne and the songs of birds drowned out every other noise. The cool breeze, the tall trees, a view that locals told me extends from the Rose Bowl to Catalina when the air is clear . . . How could I not know about this?

But I was disappointed when I realized a bare, weedy patch was the celebrated plot. In a neighborhood of artists -- where plastic pink flamingos decorate a frontyard tree and a garish orange duplex stands across the street -- I expected something with a bit more personality.

I would have appreciated it more if I'd seen it in March, bursting with the golden orange blooms of California poppies. Or a few years earlier, when it was a just a dusty repository for trash.

Pickens and neighbor Mary Steffens came up with the idea for a garden in 2004. They got a city grant from a fund for grass-roots beautification projects and decided to install low-maintenance, long-lasting plants "that would survive even if nobody's taking care of them."

But the "public" part dragged. Some neighbors grew frustrated. There were spats and hurt feelings. Agendas clashed when the shovels came out.

The owner of a duplex planted an unauthorized patch of cactus. A widow at the end of the block pulled up native plants already there and planted bougainvillea instead.

When they were finally ready to begin planting, Steffens put fliers on every house and apartment building on the street, but didn't know how much help to expect. "Here, you pass your neighbor when you're walking your dog, but people don't really know each other. I had no idea if anyone would turn up."

More than 40 people came out on that weekend in October 2006 and bonded during two eight-hour days of back-breaking work.

Now, most weekends it falls to Steffens and her sister to weed the garden. Still, she considers it a community's success. "I've seen people start to take an interest. People are no longer throwing their bottles and cans out there."

Pickens' dream of an all-native garden is fading; neighbors have begun to fill in bare spots with exotic blossoms. It's not just "Larry's Median" anymore. But at least they're keeping it clean.

As I walk the neighborhood Sunday, knocking on doors, stopping runners, talking with people out walking their dogs, I hear stories that make it clear that the garden is insinuating its way inside the neighborhood's identity.

In its center is a giant toyon tree -- the native California holly -- that's stood so long no one I talked to could remember when it wasn't there. Every December, the tree is so crowded with local birds, its red berries cascade to the ground like a waterfall, a neighbor told me.

"It's the most beautiful sound, like a rainstorm," he said. "I look forward to it every year."

I understand. It's the way I look forward to the Santa Anas each fall, and the concert of wind chimes they deliver. Every neighborhood has its own sounds to anticipate and savor. Their return each year makes us feel rooted in time and place. Even in the heart of bohemia where neighbors seem to constantly change faces.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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