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PERSPECTIVE

Pershing Square vision? Not so good

Pershing Square occupies a square block of prime downtown land. It was L.A.'s first park, once a grassy playground for fashionable couples. Now it's a concrete playpen for the homeless.

October 25, 2012|Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Pershing Square is surrounded by the city’s most exquisite architecture, including the Biltmore Hotel.
Pershing Square is surrounded by the city’s most exquisite architecture,… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

The security guard and the Occupier were deep in philosophical discussion. Someone had posted a video of police at Pershing Square throwing a violent mentally ill woman to the ground.

"Everybody has a job to do," said the guard, heavy-set, hospital-blue shirt pinned with a metal badge.

The sky smelled like rain. On the concrete plaza, men slumped, one to a table, beneath forest-green cafe umbrellas. Duffel and sleeping bags lay at their feet.

"I could be the bigger person and try to connect with that lady," the Occupier said, obligatory gray hoodie covering his hair. "…What she needs is love."

"If a homeless person doesn't make a choice they do not want to be homeless anymore, it doesn't matter how many hugs you give her," the guard responded.

A woman with her cellphone stuck in her ear led her pit bull into the park's "pet care area." The Occupier wandered off and I thought: Why is it left to these two to figure out the mess at Pershing Square?

Pershing Square occupies a square block of prime downtown land surrounded by the city's most exquisite architecture, including the Biltmore Hotel. It was L.A.'s first park, once a playground for fashionable couples promenading after the theater. Now it's a concrete playpen for the homeless.

We're so used to ceding public space to human misery, few people even know Pershing Square exists anymore. It's all about Grand Park, downtown's shiny new toy.

Neither the people who run the park, nor the homeless, are to blame for Pershing Square's squalor. The scrambled landscape is a massive failure of civic vision.

The park was redesigned in the 1950s, the 1980s and the 1990s. With each makeover, it became less appealing, more confused and finally, just weird.

I was visiting on a weekday morning. Shadowy figures — some with blankets pulled over their faces — were the only ones lingering under those cafe umbrellas.

"It's pretty lonely here," said Brian Lopez, 17, of Anaheim, whose family stopped on their way to traffic court to organize their papers.

The original sin in Pershing Square's decline was raising it above street level and walling it off from the rest of the city. It floats in another dimension; enter it and you feel marooned.

The modernist tower and other concrete structures of the 1990s were instant white elephants. When were strip-club purple and canary yellow a good combination? And what are those giant burnt-orange balls, one atop the clock tower, the rest scattered across the concrete?

A park gardener shrugged off my questions. "I didn't design it," he said. "About 30 years ago it was all grass."

Now it's a lot of concrete. Beethoven, a doughboy and a cannon from the ship "Old Ironsides" jumble a sculpture garden that crowds up against the pet area — a dirt patch split by a line of palms.

The dogs walked up and down, marking each tree until they were ready to do their business. It looked as if their owners had been cleaning up, and recreation director Louise Capone assured me that people were no longer using it as a human toilet. The gardener was raking some new pellets into the dirt.

"We finally found a good deodorizer," said Capone, who interrupted her work to give me a brief tour.

Well, I guess you can get used to anything. Because I found the urine stench overpowering.

Pershing Square's remaining grass patches were chained off; one downtown resident said it had been that way all summer. The barricade theme continued with a staircase leading underground. It was caged in fencing, partly camouflaged by vines. The yellow refreshment stand was bolted shut.

Three metal telescopes pointed at it. The viewfinders were blank. But even if they worked, what were you supposed to look at?

"They're decorative," Capone said.

Two Los Angeles police patrol cars had driven right into the park. They circled the fountain, but the officers remained in their seats. Capone said police made her feel safe, but I wondered what could be so bad that even the cops don't get out of the car?

When the sun broke free at lunchtime, Ernestine Ramos and a friend brought their sandwiches to the square. They wanted to sit by the fountain, but it was too dirty.

"With so many homeless people lying around, we usually just go somewhere else," the law firm receptionist said.

The city has been wooing people back to Pershing with cultural events, including a farmers market, summer concerts, an outdoor art show and film series (this month it's horror flicks). The winter skating rink, lit up with Christmas lights, is charming, looking down from the rooftop terrace at the Hill Street bistro called Perch. City Councilman Jose Huizar has formed a task force to attack park problems — discarded needles, rats, etc. — and work toward a redesign.

Loft dweller Casey Mark said the movies were "kind of cool." But aside from the pet care area, he avoids the square.

"The fountain was turned off for six months. If there is a design concept, I never would've known it," said Mark, a supply chain consultant.

"I don't want to spend time in a park people are using as a bathroom."

Capone said Pershing Square was a park in transition. "Just like downtown." I found the escalator down to the underground garage. The park's lush foliage and shady paths were razed to build it. Yellow police tape fluttered near the entrance.

gale.holland@latimes.com

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