Hello Exposition Park & MacArthur Park
CicLAvia organizers had talked about bringing South Los Angeles to the party, but the challenges of simply extending the existing CicLAvia route are many, as highlighted recently by The Planning Report. They include logistical and public safety concerns and, not least, financial realities. With limited resources something had to give. Hel-Mel seems a worthy tradeoff to reach South Los Angeles.
The new southern spur to Exposition Park will bring more citywide riders to the Natural History Museum, California Science Center (and IMAX Theatre), and the California African American Museum. With these family-friendly cultural institutions anchoring the southern hub, Exposition Park makes a perfect embarkation point for Downtown (via Figueroa).
The transitional neighborhoods south of the 10 Freeway have no shortage of cyclists. Not the spandex or hipster guys but rather the everyday cyclists who get to work or cope without a car (and often even without immigration documents). These riders are so prevalent that the Los Angeles Bicycle Coalition has instituted a whole campaign to create better conditions for them called City of Lights.
The other key change for October is the elevation of (General Douglas) MacArthur Park as not merely a pass-by but the ride’s new western terminus. This too is a great choice: it puts the western embarkation point close to many Westsiders by planting a hub near Wilshire & Alvarado, where the Purple Line’s station of that name is yet another opportunity to access rail transportation. This new hub is also much-belated recognition for Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument #100 – formerly known as Westlake Park (named for the district it anchors).
Westlake: A Window Into the City’s Past
The story of MacArthur Park and the surrounding Westlake district is common to many central-area Los Angeles neighborhoods: early prosperity and growth followed by postwar disinvestment that sapped community vigor. We’re talking about a cycle of entrenched poverty first sparked by a change in the structure of employment and resulting social & economic affects that quickly prompted middle-class white residents to flee. Well, flee they did, and took Westlake’s economic base with them. Since then, systemic discriminatory policies (like redlining) did nothing to help. Before long, Westlake’s commercial economy was on urban life support, and its signature park reflected the area’s decline.
But Westlake is also a bit different than other neighborhoods. For one thing, Westlake was an early suburb that benefited greatly from the wealth generated in the city’s core. The material legacy of elegant apartment buildings, hotels, and ornamental mansions give the area character even today. And the park was its jewel. The legacy owes its existence to the old economy of Los Angeles – back when people made tangible stuff and company headquarters clustered Downtown.
Much was different then. When the city expanded westward out from the core, there were no freeways restricting that growth. Westlake, like Angeleno Heights and the Figueroa corridor, was then a contiguous suburb of Downtown; proximity was key, and the streetcar was the crucial link. In fact, early in the last century both 6th and 7th streets were served by streetcar lines. And along them sprouted low-rise commercial strips punctuated by an occasional, stately residential tower. And behind them, middle-class residential districts grew. That was the Los Angeles model, if there was one.
Back then, MacArthur Park presented an interruption in the grid and Wilshire wasn’t yet a through-street (Orange Street, named for one of the basin’s cash crops, went east from the park). And Olympic wasn’t even named, much less constructed. So 6th and 7th streets were the key corridors, but even they didn’t extend much beyond the city’s western boundary at (appropriately enough) Western Avenue. Looking at old maps one can see the difference in the street grid on either side of Western. Back then, Westlake was among the farther reaches of the built-up city!
That only makes the subsequent decline all the more poignant. First the streetcars pulled back service. The area’s once vibrant commercial ecology withered as retailers moved on. Commercial rents declined. As middle-class whites fled, the area’s large homes were subdivided into rooming houses. Westlake’s proximity to Downtown ultimately proved a mixed-blessing when the Downtown urban renewal diaspora settled in. Housing costs traced the destructive spiral downward.
The area bloomed anew with a wave of newcomers from Central America. But with less education and hearty entrepreneurial ambition they have remade Westlake as illustrated by Alvarado & Wilshire, where the new MacArthur hub will be come October when Westlake will once again be the center of attention (if only for a Sunday afternoon) and beg us to look beyond the tough facades of 7th Street. If only for a day, this community, one too politically insignificant to warrant City Hall attention and economically too marginal even for Community Redevelopment Agency meddling, will again flash its old wealth and those old establishment aspirations but now to new visitors arriving on two wheels rather than the streetcars of old.
Our eyes will focus on the newly-polished gem of MacArthur Park with that iconic lake and those pastoral vistas that take us back to another era, when English park planning prevailed and our early civic leaders wore their preoccupation with European culture and class on their sleeve. We’re not making any more parks like MacArthur or Hollenbeck and we’re not minting many more civic leaders like them.
CicLAvia will also focus our attention on new monuments like Grand Park as we remember that strongholds like Westlake, Boyle Heights, and South Los Angeles continue to reward our attention.