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Another go-round for square

COLUMN ONE

As downtown takes a residential turn, the oft-remade Pershing Square could go from gray back to green.

October 31, 2008|Cara Mia DiMassa | DiMassa is a Times staff writer.
  • Pershing Square lights up a recent night in downtown Los Angeles. More photos >>>
Pershing Square lights up a recent night in downtown Los Angeles. More photos… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

Arthur Ballard was sitting quietly on a bench in downtown's Pershing Square, halfway through a paperback copy of James Clavell's "Shogun."

Nearby, homeless people were camped out under liquidambar trees, a couple canoodled in the grass and two security guards made the rounds, asking one man to take his feet off a bench and another what the clear liquid inside his soda bottle was.

Ballard ignored the activity. He's the kind of person who likes a routine, and his midday sojourn into the city's central park is a habit he's kept up for almost 60 years, despite the changes in the park -- and park-goers.

When Ballard first started visiting Pershing Square, the park was full of palm fronds and soapbox speakers, and nearby streets were crowded with streetcars, wooden double-decker buses and men in dapper suits and hats. Ballard's father owned a jewelry business in one of the buildings overlooking the square. As a young man, Ballard would walk through the teeming lunchtime crowd, hoping to meet a young woman who might be amenable to a little conversation and perhaps a ride home after work.

From an office high above Pershing Square, and from a ground-level bench, Ballard has watched his beloved park ebb and flow.

In a city in which little is permanent, Pershing Square has been a model of civic reinvention. The 4 1/2-acre park has gone by eight names and had almost as many face-lifts as a series of renovations -- one every two decades or so -- has tried to keep up with downtown's changes.

In the 1930s and '40s, it was our version of New York's Central Park, a meeting place in a bustling city that inspired writers such as John Fante and Carey McWilliams. By the 1960s, the drugs and crime underscored downtown's rapid decline. And in the early 1990s, the park was remade again to reflect the new L.A. -- with a design centered on a Mayan amphitheater meant to celebrate the region's Latino roots and discourage the homeless from hanging around.

"It keeps going through these phases where it has to be altered, to dress it up," said historian Tom Sitton, adding that none of the more recent iterations has worked. "But the homeless and less fortunate keep coming back to it."

Now, L.A. is about to take the scalpel to Pershing Square again -- this time, to better serve the residential population that has moved downtown. Plans call for more grass, less concrete and perhaps space for residents' dogs to run.

When looked at from above, Pershing Square resembles a kind of village, with a 125-foot, bright purple bell tower at its center and "streets" emanating from there.

But it's at ground level that the park's problems become clear. Low walls surrounding the park separate it from the busy downtown streets -- and the division isolates rather than insulates. Inside the walls, areas of the park are divided by steps, grades and other low barriers. And under a noonday sun, the glare off an expansive stretch of hardscape makes it taxing to linger anywhere -- even next to a shallow, circular pool.

Benches are pushed against the park's raised outer walls. Cafe tables clutter the inside of the space, but few chairs are available. A stage at the north end of the park, where concerts play during the summer and movies have been shown in recent months, is off-limits most of the time.

Alexandra Leh, who lives a few blocks away, said she has tried to use Pershing Square or walk her dog there. But the park, she said, "isn't a welcoming environment."

"I know they probably spent millions on the redesign," she said, "but they need to go back."

For Ballard and others, the idea of another renovation comes with both interest and weariness. They agree that the park could be better than it is but question whether it can ever return to its glory days.

Connie Humberger began visiting Pershing Square in the 1940s, when the park was a leafy refuge. Each day, as she crossed the park on the way to her job at Pacific Telephone at 6th and Hill, she found it teeming with "lots and lots of people -- on soapboxes or benches, talking about politics or religion," she said recently.

But since then, she has watched as the park has foundered. Pershing Square, Humberger said, "seems not to have found itself. Or maybe the city hasn't found it."

As with so many things in Los Angeles, Pershing Square began in part as a real estate deal. In 1866, that section of downtown was mostly residential. Acreage came cheap. The owners of land adjacent to the dusty parcel were looking to protect their property values.

At first, the park was largely an open space ringed by a white picket fence, which helped keep livestock out. As the city grew, trees were cut down and flowers and a bandstand were added.

But soon, city fathers decided on something grander and more sophisticated for the big city that Los Angeles was rapidly becoming.

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