Parks and the LA River

THE LA RIVER and THE URBAN ENVIRONMENT Mayoral Candidates Debate at Occidental College on 09/14

and

GREG HISE and WILLIAM DEVERELL on Eden by Design: The 1930s Olmsted-Bartholomew Plan for the Los Angeles Region at Form Zero Architectural Books + Gallery on 09/15

Mike Davis’ essay “How Eden Lost its Garden” probably introduced most casual historians of Los Angeles to the 1930 Parks, Playgrounds, and Beaches report authored by Olmsted Brothers and Bartholomew Associates. First published in the catalog for the 1994 Urban Revisions show at MoCA, then in Ed Soja and Allen Scott’s book The City, and finally as a chapter in his infamous Ecology of Fear (and yet again in Perspecta 30, Yale’s student journal), Davis’ essay retold the destruction of LA’s natural environment through the twentieth century. In this history, the 1930 Olmsted-Bartholomew report stood as the first official warning that LA’s explosive growth was occurring at the expense of public parkland, which had placed the city well short of the national park per capita ratio. Without a deliberate, systematic park program, LA’s lack of park space would inevitably become worse. Davis highlights in particular Olmsted and Bartholomew’s approach to the LA River, where they proposed to acquire large right-of-ways for a park corridor that would also double as a flood basin during the winter storms. However, in Davis’ version of history, the onset of the Depression and the sudden need to employ workers led the Federal government to instead encase the river in concrete. The result is a 52-mile long concrete channel that has more in common with LA’s freeways than with any other waterway in the world, and a nostalgia for the lost Eden of Olmsted and Bartholomew’s interconnected and interlaced parkways.

But until recently, it was an Eden few people had seen. Less than 200 copies of the Olmsted-Bartholomew report were ever printed, and it exists only in the rare-book collection of various libraries, many on the East Coast, or in private collections. Its rarity has fuelled conspiracy stories (with Chinatown-style plots) that allegedly explain why its recommendations were never implemented. However, as Greg Hise and Bill Deverell explain in their introduction to a much appreciated and awaited reprint of the report, entitled Eden by Design, it was in fact suppressed by the very agency that commissioned it – the LA Chamber of Commerce. Developed by a small executive committee of a spin-off parks committee within the Chamber, the report recommended the creation of a large, powerful parks authority to achieve the regional scale park system it proposed. When the report was presented to the full Chamber leadership, they responded with palpable fear at the idea of an agency that could challenge their regional power, and the report was shelved without public review. Thus Friday (09/15/00) night’s slide presentation at Form Zero Architectural Books of the drawings illustrating Olmsted and Bartholomew’s park system was, in Greg Hise’s words, the report’s official unveiling. Indeed, the expansive imagination of the report is evident in its elaborate drawings of the region (which are unfortunately poorly reproduced in the book, but stunning in Greg Hise’s slides). In addition to its historical value, Hise and Deverell wish to reintroduce the report into public consciousness by republishing it, although they do not propose to revive it as LA’s park blueprint.

With its republication and wider distribution, the report has indeed entered public consciousness. It was cited on three separate occasions as the definitive study on LA parks during the debate between mayoral candidates last Thursday (09/14/00) at OccidentalCollege. Although some of the mayoral candidates apparently did not read the report (Steve Soboroff misdated it to 1920), LA’s lack of parks is again a political hot topic, with the Los AngelesRiver located in the physical and conceptual center of the conversation. As candidate Xavier Beccera said, “conversations about park space in central LA start with the LA River – greening the river is essential.” Not surprisingly, Olmsted and Bartholomew’s dire predictions about LA’s park space came true: according to debate moderator Warren Olney, LA has 0.9 acres of park per person, versus a national average of 10 acres. Thus one of the primary topics in the debate was how to create more parkland. While the 1930 plan represents an enticing vision, it is most certainly unattainable. With the MTA, the LAUSD, and the LAPD currently serving as the models for large regional agencies, creating a powerful metropolitan parks authority would be nearly impossible. Thus Steve Soboroff’s promise to appoint a deputy mayor on environment was met with half-hearted applause. As Francis DellaVecchia, independent mayoral candidate and audience member, asked – since the Olmsted report was suppressed by the very agency that commissioned it, why should more plans be made if politicians ultimately don’t want the public involved? This question, of course, points towards the secessionist movements within the city, and raised issues in the debate that transcended the soundbytes and vague references to parks along the LA River. For although “greening” the river is important, it will require agreement between many diverse communities and constituencies. Without cooperation, attempts by any regional agency to implement plans similar to the Olmsted-Bartholomew plan will be met with resistance. Recognizing that LA’s residents feel disconnected from city government, Soboroff, Becerra and the other candidates – Antonio Villaraigosa and Joel Wachs – came out in favor of neighborhood councils and local power. Villaraigosa and Wachs in particular promoted a transparent and empowering government that would support the efforts of local organizations to improve neighborhoods. As mayor, their vision is to enable local initiative, which can better identify local needs and potential parkland. However, land for parks no longer exists in open tracts waiting to be acquired, as it did in 1930. Today it is located in abandoned industrial brownfields or in the vast concrete fields of the LAUSD (which is the 2nd largest owner of concrete in California, after CalTrans). While each mayoral candidate seemed enamored with the grand planning represented by the Olmsted-Bartholomew report, each also recognized that parks could be created through more modest efforts. Under advice from the TreePeople, Soboroff as Parks Commissioner has removed concrete and fences at the schools, creating new parks in the process. Wachs cited the importance of overcoming the environmental hurdles at Belmont that have so far plagued the school board. Otherwise, he said, creating parks in the industrial brownfields of LA’s heartland, where congestion is greatest and outdoor resources the most scarce, will never happen. Becerra likewise strongly supported brownfields legislation. And returning to the LA River, Villaraigosa “unequivocally” opposed current plans to develop the Cornfield Yards along the LA River north of downtown as warehouses.

Ultimately, “greening” Los Angeles will require work across the city, not just along the LA River. It will require imagination and local effort. This necessity is why Hise and Deverell dedicated the republished Olmsted-Bartholomew plan to “citizen planners, who in their regard for the environment, are willing to draft big plans and work toward their implementation.”

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