L.A.'s Oldest Parks Began as Swamps and Other "Worthless" Lands

Park-poor Los Angeles: perhaps it's no surprise that many of the city's earliest parks were born of refuse lands. Flush with public land inherited from California's land grant days, Los Angeles was practically giving away real estate in the latter half of the nineteenth century, donating lots to private individuals or auctioning off tracts to fill the city's coffers. But some lands eluded buyers.

Some were wetlands—or, in the parlance of the time, swamps. One block of land, cut by the channel of the Arroyo de los Reyes, made a fine home for frogs but not, it was thought, for humans. It became the city's first park in 1866, known today as Pershing Square. To the west, a natural alkali lake made another tract of land unsalable. It briefly became a neighborhood dumping ground before 1887, when the city refashioned it into Westlake Park (since renamed after General Douglas MacArthur).

Other land was considered too rugged for farming or settlement. In 1883, after the city failed to find a buyer for a 550-acre tract of steep hills and cavernous ravines northwest of the city, it turned the land into Elysian Park. Larger Griffith Park likewise owes its origins to its unsuitability for development. When Griffith J. Griffith donated the bulk of Rancho Los Feliz to the city in 1896, he kept the choicest, flattest parts for himself.

Repurposing unwanted land gave 19th-century Angelenos space for relaxation and recreation. And not all parkland was considered marginal; some was set aside to make new residential subdivisions more attractive, and the spirit of civic beautification doubtless inspired some donors. But today's paucity of parks—particularly pronounced in older, poorer neighborhoods—may be a legacy of the city's early failure to plan for public, green space in an effectively systematic way.


Here's Pershing Square circa 1880, when it was known as Sixth Street Park, courtesy of the USC Libraries' California Historical Society Collection:

L.A.'s Oldest Parks Began as Swamps and Other "Worthless" Lands

And here's a circa 1870 drawing, also courtesy of the USC Libraries' California Historical Society Collection, of the hilly land that would later form Elysian Park. Native coast live oaks and California black walnuts once dotted these hills, but virtually all had been felled for timber or firewood by the time this illustration was made:

L.A.'s Oldest Parks Began as Swamps and Other "Worthless" Lands

Top image: Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park) soon after it became a public park in 1886. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.


Southland is made possible by a partnership between Gizmodo, the USC Libraries, and the member collections of L.A. as Subject. Written by Nathan Masters, the series explores the urban past of Los Angeles, including the lost landscapes and forgotten infrastructures that continue to influence the city we know today. A version of this post previously appeared on KCET.org as "When L.A.'s Oldest Parks Were Young."