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Patt Morrison looks back at the history of Pershing Square

The view of Downtown Los Angeles from Pershing Square.
The view of Downtown Los Angeles from Pershing Square.
Dave Coelho/KPCC
The view of Downtown Los Angeles from Pershing Square.
Parts of Pershing Square could use some updating
Dave Coelho/KPCC
The view of Downtown Los Angeles from Pershing Square.
The Beethoven statue in Downtown's Pershing Square.
Dave Coelho/KPCC
The view of Downtown Los Angeles from Pershing Square.
Downtown LA's Pershing Square.
Dave Coelho/KPCC

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If I had a nickel for every time someone was planning yet another makeover of Pershing Square, I’d have … let’s say 55 cents. And now, a new plan is in the works, which means another nickel for me.

The five acres has been a public space for almost 150 years, and unlike just about every other foot of land in downtown Los Angeles, Pershing Square hasn’t changed ownership in all that time.

But just about everything else about it has.

It’s had at least a half-dozen names: Sixth Street Park, St. Vincent’s Park, Central Park. Mayor Richard Riordan presided over one re-re-re-make that included a seasonal ice rink, and hopefully called it Rockefeller Center West. Yeah, well …

It had fountains and fruit trees. The zanja madre, the mother ditch, the city’s water source, ran through it. It had brick walkways, once, and a pavilion for al fresco concerts.

Re-designers tried a tropical plant motif — banana trees and birds of paradise — but the cops sent out the vice squad, and complained that the foliage provided shelter for perverts.

They held blood drives and war-bond sales in Pershing Square. Pickpockets did a thriving business, and Jazz Age and Space Age office workers took the air there at lunchtime.

It had its own Hyde Park Corner, a soapbox space where quacks and zealots and malcontents ranted and droned about the merits of divine retribution and Soviet communism and wacky diets.

Pershing Square received that name nearly a hundred years ago, in a burst of enthusiasm for the World War I general called Black Jack Pershing. A few miles to the west stands MacArthur Park, named after another general, Douglas MacArthur. LA sure loved its generals – even when they weren’t Angelenos.

Pershing Square may be home to more metal than a scrap yard – a statue of Beethoven – go figure. A statue of a Spanish American soldier, and another of a World War I doughboy. A plaque to General Pershing, and a cannon from the U.S.S. Constitution, Old Ironsides.

Nothing, in fact, that says “Los Angeles.” Not even to honor the LA writers who described Pershing Square in print. Leo Politi, who wrote and illustrated an affectionate book about all the city’s parks, even Pershing Square … or Charles Bukowski, who wrote just as affectionately about the louche and the skanky there in 1939, the crazy lady and the guitar player and the winos ornamenting the park benches, including himself.

With so little open space in downtown, the homeless have claimed Pershing Square for generations. They defy every remaking. After a brief Potemkin-like cosmetic rally for the 1984 Olympics, the derelicts and drug dealers returned. The flowers disappeared, as did the money that merchants had pledged to put in bistros and entertainment and security. As one cop told the LA Times, It’ll be the same sewer it was in no time.

Not enough people linger in Pershing Square. It’s big and inhospitable and hot, with paved places elevated above street level.

You know one thing Pershing Square does well? Parking.
There will still be underground parking in this latest redesign. And it won’t just be taking cars into consideration. This new downtown, people live here now. They don’t just go home at 6 o’clock – they are home. They want to walk the dogs and take a little exercise, have a drink out of doors, hear some music.

This time, Pershing Square will be different. Really.