Return to Eden: How L.A. State Historic Park Came To Be

By Richard Bence

The transformation of a zeppelin-shaped plot of land that stretches from Chinatown to the L.A. River’s edge started with a trickle back in 2001 when California State Parks bought the property to create a temporary park. Tomorrow, that trickle turns into an almighty flood when the Los Angeles State Historic Park makes its long-awaited debut.

Many will already know this tucked-away, 32-acre parcel of green space as “the Cornfield”, so named for the stalks that grew from kernels dropped by passing rail cars. In 2005, when it officially became a State Park, artist Lauren Bon paid homage by sowing an on-site crop and calling it Not a Cornfield. A version of the park then opened in 2006, hosting various music festivals before the economic downturn put a wrench in the works and froze funds for three years.

But, according to Tom Carroll of Tom Explores LA, this park and its surroundings are the cradle that Los Angeles grew out of. Water has always played a starring role in the story of L.A. and nowhere more so than here, a strip of land next to where the Los Angeles and Arroyo Seco rivers meet at a geographical knickpoint at the end of the Santa Monica Mountains. Native American people bathed here for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived and decided to build a ditch, the zanja madre, to move water from the Los Angeles River to the center of the pueblo. There are still remnants of the “mother ditch” here today, connecting the park to a riparian past that became the blueprint for modern Los Angeles.

In the 1870’s, L.A. passed a bond measure that gave this chunk of land to the Southern Pacific Railroad. When River Station—the city’s first transcontinental railroad depot—opened in 1875, it catapulted L.A. from a frontier town to the second largest metropolis in the United States. Some historians refer to the station as the Ellis Island of Los Angeles. This is where transplants from the Midwest and the East, lured by boosterism at the turn of the century, first set foot on Southern California soil. In 1902 the River Station switched to transporting freight instead of people; by 1992 the train yard had closed and morphed into a weed-strewn eyesore, reports Carroll.

Los Angeles State Historic Park has harnessed much of that early pioneering spirit; not least in the way park entities approach a project. “We decided to leave no stone unturned in our attempt to reach out and build a park with the community rather than for the community,” says Sean Woods, the superintendent of California State Parks in Los Angeles, who has helmed the project since 2001.

“We want this park to be many firsts,” says Woods. “For the opening festival we are making sure we have representation from as many of the cultural and ethnic groups in Los Angeles as we possibly can. That’s the city’s strength,” adds Woods. To have a place that becomes a cultural gathering space where people can come together for a common purpose seems to chime with the times. “I think the park will take on a much deeper meaning rather than just a beautiful piece of land,” says Woods.

The grand opening will not shy away from the immutable facts of history either. “It’s really important for us to keep that at the forefront of what this park is about: a place in Los Angeles where we can tell the history of the city, warts and all, and really have a place of healing,” explains Woods. “Why not have a place to talk about the Zoot Suit Riots, the Chinese Massacre, the eviction of the Mexicans from the Chavez Ravine, so we can learn from history and move forward?” he asks.

To create something beautiful for some of the most underserved communities in the heart of the nation’s most park-poor city has always been at the core of the project’s civic mission. For Woods, however, the park signifies a paradigm shift in terms of reaching out to urban communities to get them involved with public space. “Parks are not just places to run and recreate, they're the lungs of our planet. It’s incumbent upon us to educate people to the full scope of the value of parks,” says Woods.

To that end, subtle educational elements are embedded into the landscape and architecture of the site by using plant materials to tell the stories about California’s botanical past and what we think of as L.A. vernacular. The citrus industry, for example, became the first to use advertising to promote the image of California as the land of opportunity and sunshine. The orange became the perfect symbol for the sun and the Golden State. And so the orange trees here today, planted by public art project Fallen Fruit, explore the social and political implications of the citrus boom. “By having interpreters we can educate you to the value of that and provide all these layers of experience,” says Woods.

The park is divided in three zones. The first is a habitat zone, which will eventually connect to the L.A. River, filled with 3,000 plants (planted by community members). The second zone is the great lawn, which has a capacity of 15,000. “There is no place in Los Angeles that has this quantity of open space,” says Woods. A third zone focuses more on the cultural interpretive elements of the site. At its center, a crescent-shaped observation deck (with instagrammable views of the city’s skyline) arcs around the footprint of the roundhouse, where, Los Angeles Magazine reports, locomotives were serviced when Southern Pacific’s River Station stood there in the late 1800s. A natural amphitheater will ring the granite turntable that redirected locomotives. For the grand opening, this area will be transformed into a big fire pit with marshmallows and s’mores for the kids.

It’s important for any launch to sustain interest after the pizzazz of the opening celebration fades away; the arrival of a shipping container restaurant called Cargo and an outdoor screening of La La Land in May will no doubt keep the crowds coming back. Meanwhile the Annenberg Water Wheel Project, which will enable the park to be fully supplied by L.A. River water, will also be breaking ground this year.

Best of all, the park is easily accessible by the Chinatown Gold Line station, a reminder that this is a dynamic moment for Los Angeles as it reinvents itself again by reclaiming its public transit past. Bold projects like Los Angeles State Historic Park demonstrate the might of grassroots activism. People from disenfranchised communities got together and formed a coalition to fight for environmental justice. “This is the beginning of a movement and there has to be many Los Angeles State Parks built all along the L.A. River,” says Woods. “This is a success; let’s build upon that success.”

Culture journalist Richard Bence chronicles and explores the hidden wonders of Los Angeles. Visit richard-bence.com for his latest adventures.