CityDig: Angelenos Have Been Complaining About Pershing Square Since the Dawn of Time

Well, at least since 1866

Our dear Pershing Square at 5th and Olive has seen more makeovers than daytime TV. At present there are four proposals vying to give the old park a new look. All the grousing about landscaping is far from new; the constant reinvention of the “green space” at the center of downtown has been going on for over a century. The maps here illustrate the changes the space has undergone. They were created by artist/cartographer Irene B. Robinson for one of the many excellent historical books by her husband (and my idol) W. W. Robinson.

When Lieutenant Edward Ord drew up the first surveyed map of the city, the current site of the park occupied block 15, and—because of the problematic arroyo that formed there—was not considered prime real estate when capitalists began carving up land in the new American city. At the time, that area was just part of the plain, sloping down from hills and covered with Alfilaria grass, bur clover, and wild mustard. The Camino Viejo—along which travelled countless Tongva Indians, the explorer Portola, Father Serra, Pio Pico, Don Luego, and more—passed near a corner of the block, but with the marshy land and pesky mosquitos, it was otherwise unattractive. Aside from grazing cows and the occasional traveller in need of a campsite, it remained empty.

In 1866 the city council named the land a public park in hopes that it might be developed into a plaza like that of the old Pueblo nearby. When other properties were developed around the land, a committee called the Association of Gentlemen forked over several hundred dollars to improve the park. Civic volunteers plowed, graded, and planted the land to make it a worthy destination for Angelenos. They placed a fence around the perimeter, and “Los Angeles Park” was born.

"Los Angeles Park" in 1886
“Los Angeles Park” in 1886

From 'The Story of Pershing Square' by W.W. Robinson, cartography by Irene B. Robinson, 1931

Still, as always, locals complained. Over the years changes were made, and the park became “Public Square,” then “City Park,” followed by “La Plaza Abaja,” “St. Vincent’s Park,” “Sixth Street Park,” and “Central Park.” With the great boom on the horizon, the ubiquitous Fred Eaton created a plan involving graveled pathways, ornamental grass plots, flower beds, a bandstand, and a drinking fountain with a family cup attached. Even in the Victorian age the foliage proved problematic; the homeless slept in the bushes, and holdups became so frequent that citizens publicly stated that the park was “not safe after dark.”

"Central Park" in 1904
“Central Park” in 1904

From 'The Story of Pershing Square' by W.W. Robinson, cartography by Irene B. Robinson, 1931

A Parks Commission was created to handle the problems in 1889. Five years later more changes were implemented to make the park easier to pass from corner to corner. The bandstand remained for four more years, and concerts were held on Saturdays and Sundays. Eucalyptus, pepper, palm, and acacia trees were planted, and around 1910, famed architect John Parkinson widened the paths and built fountains, “underground comfort stations,” and a concrete coping that girded the entire park. Not long after, the foliage was replaced with tropical varieties including coco palms and banana trees.

On Armistice Day in 1918, the park was renamed “Pershing Square” to honor General John Pershing, but, of course, the complaints and modifications never ceased. In the 1950s and ’60s, the square became a place where eccentric speakers took to soap boxes, a la Hyde Park in London.

Pershing Square in 1931
Pershing Square in 1931

From 'The Story of Pershing Square' by W.W. Robinson, cartography by Irene B. Robinson, 1931

Today’s proposals may include the words “ecotopia,” “sustainability,” “cultural loops,” “smart canopy,” “food culture,” “urban linkages,” “net positive,” and “the syncing of urban software and hardware,” but those of us downtown just hope for a place to sit in the shade with our lunches and not be offered illegal substances.

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.