|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Laura Barraclough on A People's Guide to Los Angeles by Laura Pulido, Laura Barraclough and Wendy Cheng
Fear of Space: Pershing Square, Not-so-public Parks, and the Fight over Public Places
August 6th, 2012
LIKE FODOR'S OR LONELY PLANET, A People's Guide to Los Angeles offers a wide range of sightseeing opportunities for the curious traveler. As per tour guide convention, it organizes the city into manageable regions for practical sightseeing trips, recommending local hangouts, suggesting neighborhood restaurants, and highlighting points of visual interest. It sketches useful background—again like any respectable tour guide—for the places it points to and offers context for a visitor’s general understanding of the city. But that’s where the similarity ends, because the People’s Guide to Los Angeles isn’t interested in manifesting the icons of LA’s sunshine glam imaginary. It’s not compelled to realize stereotypes for holiday kicks and giggles. As the LA Weeky so succinctly put it: “"F**k Rodeo Drive: A People's Guide to Los Angeles is an L.A. Guidebook for the 99 Percent." Indeed, the People’s Guide reroutes us toward places that matter to real people. Whether or not the places themselves are still standing is another question — and one that compels the visitor to turn away from the site of buried history and look, really look, at the extant neighborhood that yet remains, and the people that live there still. Forgoing the plastic mythologies (or addressing aspects of the city’s history not usually mentioned), the Guide offers something different to the tourist but even more, I think, to the resident: meaningful understanding. Mondays in August LARB will run a new piece about the making of this book from authors Laura Barraclough, Laura Pulido, and author and photographer Wendy Cheng, featuring images and excerpts from the Guide itself.
— C.P. Heiser
Anyone who has spent any time in Downtown Los Angeles knows Pershing Square. It’s that hot, unattractive expanse of cement occupied solely, on most days, by members of Downtown’s homeless community. As a worker in a Downtown law firm while I was in graduate school, the water cooler talk in reference to Pershing Square was limited to its capacity as an underground parking garage. Though I sometimes felt curious about — and sorry for — the homeless community of the Square, the place itself begged to be ignored, and I — just like everyone else — did just that.
The historic midcentury photos of Pershing Square as it once was, with its inviting walkways, lush foliage, and diverse crowds tell a different story. These sources make it clear the largest city park in Downtown had once been central to the city’s public life. People who remember — people like Harry Hay — tell us why. A Communist Party member instrumental in founding two of the first gay rights organizations in the country, Hay recalls Pershing Square during the Depression, not just an important public space for all sorts of people to meet — including families from nearby working class communities in Northeast L.A. — but as a place for gay men and leftist radicals to congregate.
So what happened to this city park for all people? Pershing Square’s current incarnation is an odd design solution to be sure. But as I would later learn, the drive to solve other perceived threats and problems was the central rationale for its transformation, quite literally putting a coffin lid on a vibrant history of organized protests and queer nightlife.
The history of Pershing Square is the story of a struggle for public space in Los Angeles. In cities like L.A., which are marked by tremendous segregation and inequality, the possibility for poor and marginalized communities to be seen and make their claims heard in public space is especially important. Because public spaces have such democratizing potential, they also threaten an elite vision for the city, one in which an “appropriate public” excludes people of color, the poor and homeless, immigrants, and queer people.
In Pershing Square, the public space was effectively erased — turned into a parking lot and inhospitable no-man’s land. But there are other methods of exclusion too, especially when it comes to parkland and natural spaces. In 1993, homeowner activists in Arcadia committed to discouraging “casual picnicking” instituted a reservation system and a differentiated fee scale for residents and nonresidents at its Wilderness Park. In San Marino, tight management of community boundaries is perhaps best demonstrated in the example of Lacy Park, which was closed on weekends until 1988 (Above: Two parkgoers approach the fee booth at Lacy Park, 2007. Photo by Wendy Cheng). City officials claimed the closure was a result of funding problems in the wake of Proposition 13, but given San Marino’s status as one of L.A.’s wealthiest neighborhoods and residents’ complaints about “criminal elements” and crowding by “outsiders” it is very likely there were other, more powerful reasons to simply shut it all down during peak hours and remain poolside at home. When the park reopened on the weekends, it insisted on a $3-per-person fee for non–San Marino residents (it is now $4), making it the first public park in California to charge nonresidents for usage. One of the most blatant appropriations of land is along our coastline in Malibu, where a great wall of private multi-million dollar estates has essentially blockaded the beach from the public. While the California Coastal Act requires approximately five access points per mile, there are currently only 18 access-ways along a 20-mile stretch.
(Left: A cluster of signs along the Pacific Coast Highway illustrates competing public and private interests, 2009. Photo by Wendy Cheng)
As noted in the Guide: “In 1996, in response to the general paucity of parkland, voters in the city of Los Angeles passed Proposition K, which generates $25 million annually for 30 years for parks. While a portion of this money is directly allocated, some is available through a competitive grant process. Not surprisingly, an analysis by Wolch, Wilson, and Fehrenbach based on the first two years of the competitive process indicated that applications from white neighborhoods enjoyed the highest success rates, followed by those from African-American communities; applications from Latino-dominated areas had the lowest success rate.”
Yet these same communities have often fought back, whether by insisting on their rights to occupy existing public spaces or by creating new public spaces of their own. In doing so, they struggle to claim the full rights and responsibilities of membership in a democratic society. In telling these stories it is crucial to relate the victories — and not just losses — in this contest over the fate of public space in our communities.
Above: Pershing Square before the concrete, circa 1956. Photo by Roy Hankey. Courtesy of
Below: Visitors to Pershing Square, 2008. Photo by Wendy Cheng
Excerpt From A People’s Guide to Los Angeles: “Pershing Square"