Fear of Space: Pershing Square, Not-so-public Parks, and the Fight over Public Places

By Laura BarracloughAugust 6, 2012

Fear of Space: Pershing Square, Not-so-public Parks, and the Fight over Public Places

A People's Guide to Los Angeles by Wendy Cheng, Laura Barraclough, and Laura Pulido

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.

Lacy ParkIn 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.

Malibu(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.

Pershing Square Archival

Above: Pershing Square before the concrete, circa 1956. Photo by Roy Hankey. Courtesy of 
Los Angeles Public Library

Below: Visitors to Pershing Square, 2008.  Photo by Wendy Cheng

Pershing Square Contemporary

Excerpt From A People’s Guide to Los Angeles: “Pershing Square"
532 S. Olive St., Los Angeles 90013 (between W. 5th St. and W. 6th St.) (213) 847-4970



Constructed in 1866 as La Plaza Abaja, Pershing Square is the largest park in Downtown Los Angeles. At the turn of the twentieth century, it became an important site for leftist political activism because of its central location and proximity to North L.A.’s working-class, ethnically mixed neighborhoods. The Socialist Party, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and the Communist Party gave frequent speeches here to mobilize people who were excluded from traditional political structures because of their race, gender, age, or citizenship status. However, these and other progressive and radical groups faced a climate of intensive repression from law enforcement and the Los Angeles City Council. In 1901, the council passed an ordinance requiring street speakers to obtain police permits for the right to speak in public parks. In 1903, the ordinance was extended to cover all public streets. In response, the Socialist Party and the nascent IWW initiated a Free Speech League that purposefully violated the ordinance and flooded the city’s courts and jails. In August 1908, they struck a compromise with the city council that abolished the permit requirement in exchange for a “no-speech zone” covering downtown’s white-collar districts, a deal that put Pershing Square off-limits. As a result of the deal, coupled with the growing popularity of automobiles (which decreased pedestrian traffic), the square was largely abandoned as a center of political activity.

Nonetheless, because of its relatively open political atmosphere, Pershing Square became well known as a cruising ground for gay men from diverse racial and class backgrounds. A site for sex and friendship, Pershing Square was an easy walk to gay bars downtown and in Bunker Hill; up until the mid-1960s, the downtown core held Los Angeles’ most significant concentration of gay male life. Many gay men describe this crossroads as important to the development of their political consciousness. Harry Hay remembers meeting both other gay men and leftist radicals at Pershing Square during the Depression. Hay became a Communist Party member and later helped found two of the first gay rights organizations in the country: the little-known Bachelors for Wallace (1948) and the better-known Mattachine Society (1950), both of which were based in Los Angeles. Archivist Jim Kepner, who was critical in the development of the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives (www.onearchives.org), described Pershing Square as continually policed by the LAPD, yet also continually dynamic and vibrant.

Police sweeps and cleanups became harsher in 1959 and 1964, however, and a moral panic over “degeneracy” helped pave the way for the square’s redesign. In 1964, Pershing Square’s trees, grass, and bushes were removed; it was paved with concrete, and a parking garage was constructed underneath. Urban growth, decentralization, the dominance of automobiles, and the rise of alternative forms of media such as radio and television also eroded the park’s political importance. During a redesign process in 1989–90, tight restrictions forbade the inclusion of trees, grass, or other “hiding places,” and the public restrooms were removed because they were perceived as a nuisance to maintain (new ones have since been constructed). Pershing Square is now a gathering place for homeless men and women from the nearby Skid Row community, who face near-constant police harassment, as do activist groups such as Food Not Bombs, which seek to raise the visibility of homelessness and poverty in Los Angeles.

Nearby Sites of Interest

Millennium Biltmore Hotel Los Angeles

506 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90071 (213) 624-1011
A Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument built in 1923 noted for its beautiful Italian Renaissance architecture.  Also the site of a Chicana/o activist's protest against Ronald Reagan in 1969 that resulted in the trial of the Biltmore Six.

Walt Disney Concert Hall

111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles 90012 (323) 850-2000
Designed by architect Frank Gehry and famous for its striking stainless steel exterior, the hall is home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

To Learn More

Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (Basic Books, 2006)

Mark Wild, “Preaching to Mixed Crowds: Ethnoracial Coalitions and the Political Culture of Street Speaking, 1900-1929,” in Street Meeting: Multiethnic Neighborhoods in Early Twentieth-Century Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2005)


Recommended Reads:

LARB Contributor

Laura Barraclough is Assistant Professor of Sociology in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at Kalamazoo College. She teaches courses on urban sociology, prisons and public policy, and the sociology of racism. She also directs the Public Policy and Urban Affairs concentration. Prior to joining the faculty at Kalamazoo College, she was Core Faculty in the Liberal Studies department at Antioch University Los Angeles, where she focused her energies on the development of a new interdisciplinary Urban Community and Environment concentration. Dr. Barraclough received her doctorate in American Studies and Ethnicity from USC in May 2006. She is now revising her dissertation for publication as a book manuscript entitled Rural Urbanism: Geographies of Whiteness in Los Angeles, which explores the surprising influence of ideologies about rural land upon urban planning in suburban LA. Drawing together archival, ethnographic, and landscape analyses, Rural Urbanism argues that investments in rural landscapes have created and sustained white privilege in Los Angeles into the twenty-first century. She was recently awarded the Los Angeles Westerners Fellowship of the Autry National Center in order to conduct archival research essential to the project’s completion. Professor Barraclough is also co-author (with ASE faculty Laura Pulido and doctoral student Wendy Cheng) of the forthcoming A People’s Guide to Los Angeles, an alternative tour guide that features sites of political struggle, oppression, and resistance in the city’s everyday landscapes. Articles based on Dr. Barraclough’s research have recently appeared or will soon appear in the Western Historical Quarterly, Professional Geographer, Progress in Human Geography, and Progressive Planning.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!