Saturday, March 12, 2011

Nowhere to Hide

The first time I saw Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles, I parked beneath it without realizing what it was. At that time (1992) the place was a construction zone, since work on Ricardo Legorreta and Laurie Olin’s renovation of the ground level features of the square had just begun. This project was the last in a series of radical transformations of what had once been the intersection of the Camino Real and a small stream. Dedicated as public space in 1866, the square was called St. Vincent’s Park (after a college across the street), then Los Angeles Park, then Central Park, and then Pershing Square, in honor of the World War I general. After this final renaming, the park was planted with a great variety of exotic flora, adding shade and visual interest to the plan of John Parkinson, who later designed City Hall and Union Station. This was the fashionable Pershing Square, one that gradually fell into desuetude as businesses, cultural institutions and the wealthy residents who patronized them left for less densely developed parts of town. After World War II, there were repeated calls to do something about Pershing Square, which had become a gathering place for vermin, drunks and homosexuals, who made use of the trees as cover for cruising and sex. My father lived in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, and he used to say about the city, “It was famous for its fruits and nuts. There was a nut on every street corner and a fruit behind every bush.” I imagine he was referring specifically to Pershing Square.

In the words of the historical signs currently in place, Pershing Square was “brutally excavated” in 1952 for an underground parking garage. Though the new plan was rather barren compared to what had existed before, there were still signs of life in the decades after it was completed. Pershing Square was the site of informal public gatherings, protests and festivals, though the centers of gay cruising had migrated west. The area experienced hard times once again, and an expensive attempt to make it attractive for the 1984 Olympics had no lasting impact.

After two separate design competitions and two years of construction at a cost of $14.5 million, Legorreta and Olin’s Pershing Square project was finally ready for public use in 1994. At that time the result, with its masses of multicolored concrete, a path shaped like a fault line, and a gigantic water feature, must have appealed to someone. Today it’s much clearer that the forced whimsy of the visual gimmicks and the strict sequestering of foliage and public sculpture behind barriers give the effect of a postmodern concentration camp. There is plenty of seating arranged theatrically in semi-circles and straight lines, but there is no spectacle to see, aside from pedestrians walking across paved expanses between signs that read “Keep off the grass” and “This space is reserved for private use.” The square offers little shelter from the elements – mainly relentless sunshine during mid-day – and nowhere to hide from surveillance. It makes life a little more uncomfortable for the homeless and mentally ill people who are the main population using the park after business hours. As in a science fiction scenario, those visiting the subterranean regions need have no interaction with the other elements of society occupying the surface of this hellish planet. I don’t drive anymore, so the parking garage is of no use to me. When I get out of the subway at Pershing Square station, I generally avoid the aboveground features of the park, which have an unpleasant, fortress-like aspect from that angle. I can also think of a half dozen other places I would rather go within three blocks of the park. As most other recently redeveloped urban spaces do, Pershing Square segregates the social classes, and the means by which it achieves this goal brutalize everyone.