From Plaza Abaja to Pershing Square: L.A.’s Oldest Park Through the Decades
Downtown L.A.’s emergence as a residential neighborhood has focused attention on the area’s dearth of green park space and, with it, the perceived shortcomings of the city’s oldest park: Pershing Square. In its 163-year journey from open pasture to urban park, Pershing Square has weathered nagging complaints and survived multiple, radical renovations. With its privileged position between the city’s historic core and financial district neighborhoods, the five-acre public square remains downtown L.A.’s central park.
Pershing Square was born as a rectangle named Block 15 in 1849, when surveyor E.O. Ord sketched an orthogonal grid of city blocks that extended southwest from the historic heart of Los Angeles. Like the streets — 5th, 6th, Hill, and Olive — that bounded it, Block 15 was little more than a cartographic fiction, created to allow the city to auction off some of the original land granted to the pueblo by the Spanish Crown. With no fences to delineate the tracts and few street improvements, much of the land still looked and functioned like open pasture, and for decades travelers ignored Ord’s streets, crisscrossing the empty blocks as the terrain dictated.
Although Ord’s grid optimistically extended all the way to 12th street, the city soon found itself in an economic slump that depressed land values and left many of the more remote tracts unsold. Block 15 was particularly unattractive; a stream named the Arroyo de los Reyes cut a channel across the block’s southwest corner, while heavy wagon traffic crossed the block’s northwest corner along the historic El Camino Real.
And so in 1866 the city set aside Block 15 as a public square. The ordinance, passed by the City Council and signed by Mayor Cristobal Aguilar, declared the tract “a public square or plaza for the use and benefit of the citizens in common of [Los Angeles].” With no funds committed to planting trees or improving the square as a park, however, Block 15 remained a treeless town commons. Livestock continued to graze on the land, and teamsters violated warning signs by driving their wagons through the public square.
Residents complained about the square’s shabby condition, and in 1870 the city renamed it Los Angeles Park and authorized a committee of wealthy landowners to convert the square into parkland. The committee members, who stood to benefit from improved real estate prices in the neighborhood, raised $600 — later supplemented by a $1,000 grant from the city — to fence in the park and plant trees along its perimeter.
It was the first in a long succession of redesigns and renovations.
City engineer Fred Eaton’s design for the park added a bandstand in the 1880s, and the square soon became a meeting ground for the town’s ascendant Anglo population. The public used various names for the park over the succeeding decades, including Plaza Abaja (Lower Plaza), Sixth Street Park, and St. Vincent Park, before settling on Central Park.
In 1910, the prominent architect John Parkinson, who later designed City Hall and Union Station — oversaw an $80,000 renovation that replaced the bandstand with a three-tier fountain and added a lawn, bamboo, and Italian cypresses. Eight years later, city renamed the park in honor of General John Pershing, a hero of the Spanish-American War and commander of U.S. forces in the World War I.
Over the years, Pershing Square gained a reputation as a venue for public preaching and outspoken oratory. Los Angeles Times writer Timothy G. Turner complained in 1951 that “all varieties of radicalism and of religion are shouted to the high heavens.” The square’s “human fauna,” Turner wrote, “have so abused the right of free speech, giving offense to those who, having business, use the square as a short cut, and to those who wait for their busses and those who live in the hotels or have offices in the buildings facing the square. For the exhortations of the evangels of Karl Marx and the Gentle Nazarene are heard a long way off.”
It also gained a reputation as a gathering place for the marginalized. Crowds of unemployed workers congregated in Pershing Square during the Great Depression, and after the World War II local businesses bemoaned the growing numbers of destitute who inhabited the park.
In response to complaints from local businesses, the city renovated Pershing Square in the early 1950s, building a subterranean parking garage underneath the square, while entrance and exit ramps emerged on the periphery. A narrow path around a sprawling, fenced-off lawn stripped the square of much of its park-like character, confining the public and discouraging the assembly of crowds.
The redesigned park opened to mixed reviews, and downtown’s decline over the succeeding decades did nothing to temper the volume of complaints. Another dramatic redesign in the 1990s offered Pershing Square a fresh start, but now — even as downtown’s renaissance continues — many hope for yet another iteration of downtown L.A.’s central park.