Southland Parks — Visiting MacArthur Park

Southland Parks

Neighborhoods often take their names from significant features within them, which in Los Angeles are often major street intersections and parks. Neighborhoods named after intersections include Vermont-Slauson, Broadway-Manchester, Central-Alameda, and Adams-Normandie. Neighborhoods named after parks include South Park, Alondra Park, Cypress Park, and, of course, MacArthur Park. MacArthur Park, however, was for half a century known as Westlake Park, and the surrounding neighborhood is referred to as both Westlake and MacArthur Park.

When I first created the poll of neighborhoods for readers to vote where they’d like to see me explore, many votes were cast for both MacArthur Park and Westlake. I explored, mapped, and wrote about Westlake in 2014, with Lynn from Hidden Los Angeles and considered the matter a done deal. The votes, however, kept coming in for MacArthur Park. “Is MacArthur Park the same thing as Westlake?” I asked myself. Surely how we define a place says reveals as much about ourselves as it does a place. Is the North Industrial District the same place as Dogtown? Is Central City East the same place as Skid Row? Is Elysian Valley the same place as Frogtown? Is Silverlake, for that matter, even the same place as Silver Lake?

Knob Hill
Apartments in the Knob Hill section of MacArthur Park

Speaking less philosophically, though, is Westlake even geographically exactly same as MacArthur Park? Does someone visiting either the Lethal Amounts gallery or Vista Hermosa Park — both within Westlake’s traditional boundaries — really think of themselves as being in the MacArthur Park neighborhood? What about the balkanization of Westlake into smaller neighborhoods? Within Westlake are forgotten neighborhoods like Crown Hill; revived designations like Knob Hill; and newer creations like City West and Rampart Village. These are all in Westlake, but are they all in MacArthur Park? Los Angeles established the Neighborhood Council System in 1999, which created even more divisions like Westlake North and Westlake South. It also established the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council, which differs from most Angelenos’ definitions of MacArthur Park by excluding anything east of the park (including Alvarado Street) and instead extending MacArthur Park’s boundaries west — across Hoover Street — all the way, in fact, to Koreatown’s Vermont Avenue doorstep.

Pano at the lake

In 2015 I started a series of posts about parks called Southland Parks. I reckon that I could reconcile the votes for MacArthur Park the neighborhood and park with two posts. For those wishing to read my California Fool’s Gold exploration of Westlake (undertaken with Lynn from Hidden Los Angeles), click here. For those wishing to read my exploration of the park (undertaken with my friend Mike), for Southland Parks, read on.


The Playground
The Playground

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1999, people warned me against visiting MacArthur Park. Of course, I ignored their warnings, as I did all, and thus found myself offered fake IDs and green cards, but nothing worse. Even though the violent crime rate has dropped since then and Westlake’s (reported) crime rate is now lower than that of Downtown, Hollywood, and even the Fairfax District, it’s still regarded by many Angelenos as a dangerous open-air drug market where swarms of meth-addled zombies are occasionally felled by the automatic weapon crossfire continuously exchanged between various sects of urban superpredators.

Soccer (Image: Michael Morgan)

I was therefore somewhat heartened when I looked the park up on Yelp to see what the most commonly used phrases were in reviews (which average a fairly respectable three out of five stars). Expecting to see “drugs,” “urine,” and “homeless,” I instead saw multiple mentions of “Donna Summer song,” “playing soccer,” and “CicLAvia event.” To be fair, many reviews to lament the park’s less than sparkling cleanliness — but I’m left wondering what, if anything, concerned citizens can do to convince the park’s many birds not to excrete their guano on the lawn or park benches.

Poop bench

MacArthur Park could benefit from a good scrub, the presence of some onsight caretakers, and a permanent solution to homelessness and drug prohibition. Still, a visit there is not likely to be anywhere nearly as fraught as those who’ve not set foot in the park for decades (or ever) would have you believe. It’s possible, even in its degraded state, to imagine it restored or transformed into something wholly respectable, like as was done with Echo Park, although if the past is any indication, that will unfortunately only come after no-fault evictions are used to displace the people who’ve been living in the neighborhood for years so that more affluent yuppies and yuccies can replace them.


What’s now MacArthur Park Lake began as a seasonal soda lake, fed by springs, rain, and run-off from the surrounding hills. Soda lakes are so-known because of their high alkalinity but far from lifeless, they often support a variety of prokaryotes, eukaryotic algae, other protists, and fungi. The ancestors of the Chumash arrived in the Los Angeles Basin of the wetlands some 13,000 years ago, but as far as I know, nothing was recorded regarding any impressions they had of the primordial swamp. At the time California was conquered by the Spanish, it was the Tongva who lived in the vicinity of the wetlands, as they had for some 3,500 years or so.


By the 1850s, the land around the lakes had passed through the hands of the Mexicans, and into those of the Americans, who invaded and conquered much of Mexico in 1848 and afterward made California the nation’s 31 state in 1850.  Los Angeles’s borders had been established by the Spanish in 1781 and they remained unchanged until 1859 when the southern edge was nudged just a bit further southward. The land that became MacArthur Park was situated near Los Angeles’s western edge (the original border follows Hoover Street), until 1896, when the city slowly began moving westward.

The soda lake was an intermittent body of water and sometimes would evaporate entirely, as it did during a drought which lasted from 1862 till 1864 when it acquired the nickname the “Dead Sea.” In 1865, the city attempted and failed to sell the property at an auction and decided, therefore, to use transform it into a garbage dump. As often as people disparage MacArthur Park now, even its naysayers would be hard pressed to deny that this was the park’s nadir.

Thanks to a real estate boom in the 1880s which saw the city’s population nearly double, Westlake began to develop into one of Los Angeles’s most exclusive neighborhoods. Naturally, the city’s Victorian-era toffs were none too happy at having a festering swamp full of their refuse in the middle of their posh community and so then-Mayor William Henry Workman began working to transform the area into the city’s newest park and in 1886, its transformation in earnest began shortly thereafter.

Vintage Postcard

Meanwhile, across town in what was then known as East Los Angeles (now Lincoln Heights), improvements were being made to another property used as a dump to create East Los Angeles Park. Between it and Westlake Park was 6th Street Park (formerly Los Angeles Park), which would be renamed Central Park in the 1890s.

Over the years, the MacArthur Park’s lakes, like most urban lakes I suspect, has acquired something of a not undeserved reputation for claiming lives. The first drowning, in modern times, took place before the park officially opened, when 51-year-old Harriet Hutchins, who it was noted suffered from “melancholia,” drowned herself in its waters. Six more would follow her lead before the decade’s close.

Levitt Pavilion
The bandshell

On Thanksgiving weekend of that year, the park officially opened. In 1894, a grand three-story boathouse replaced a humble shed. A bandshell was erected in 1896 and around the same time, a seal pool became a popular attraction. Luxury hotels sprang up around the park’s edge and events such as an 1897 water carnival were enviously covered by reporters from San Francisco.


Perhaps inspired by the popularity Westlake Park, East Los Angeles Park was renamed Eastlake Park in 1901, making clear its status as an Eastside equivalent of the Westside’s Westlake Park. In 1917, however, Angelenos voted to rename East Los Angeles “Lincoln Heights” and about two months later, Eastlake Park was renamed, Lincoln Park. November of the following year, Central Park was renamed Pershing Square, after World War I hero, General John Joseph Pershing. For a time, though, Westlake Park would retain its original designation.

The Ansonia Apartments, which opened in 1916 as the James Edmonds Hotel


Harrison Gray Otis
Harrison Gray Otis

In 1920, Paolo Petrovich Troubetzkoy — a Russian prince and vegetarian — sculpted a bronze statue, titled “General Harrison Gray Otis,” which depicted the conservative Los Angeles Times publisher in military uniform flanked by a newsboy and soldier. In the statues original position within the park, Otis pointed west, down Wilshire Boulevard, which then terminated at the park’s western edge. According to Popular Mechanics, several mindless motorists had managed to jumped the park’s embankment and end up in the lake. It was foolishly believed that the presence of Otis and his men would prevent further such incidents. The bronze figures mounted on granite boulders proved unequal to the task, however, and at some point, the soldier was removed for repair. Strangely, the soldier went AWOL and as unlikely as it seems, today no one knows his whereabouts. (see “The Newsboy, the General, and the Lost Soldier of MacArthur Park” by D.J. Waldie, KCET, 2016).


Wilshire Blvd
Wilshire Boulevard
Tunnel and murals
One of the tunnels under Wilshire

In the 1930s, the city decided to extend Wilshire to Orange Street, which at that time terminated at the park’s eastern edge. After the two streets were linked, the stretch of Orange to Downtown would be widened and re-designated Wilshire. Several options were floated with a tunnel underneath the park being surely the least unpleasant. The city, however, chose the easiest, cheapest, most short-sighted, and damaging option — cleaving the park in two with a surface road. Naturally, this was met with a chorus of protest which may very well mark the beginning of the park’s long association with civic dissent. The city ignored the protestors, though, sacrificing the park’s sanctity for the convenience of motorists and in doing so transformed it from one of the city’s primary attractions into a sort of roadside drive-thru. Making matters worse, the decapitated northern portion of the lake was drained.


The following year, a 2.5-meter tall cement sculpture titled (or at least so spelled on the plaque) “Promethus” was installed next to the newly-completed section of Wilshire. In the Greek religion, Prometheus was a titan who created humans from dirt and then, going against the wishes of the gods, stole and passed on the knowledge of fire to his lowly offspring. As punishment, Prometheus was bound to a rock where each day an eagle would devour his liver. Each day the liver would re-grow, only to be eaten again.  I’m not sure why sculptor Nína Sæmundsson, working for the Works Progress Administration, chose the titan as her subject. I like to think that she was making a statement about the folly of human reliance on the combustion engine. Whatever the case may be, Wilshire Boulevard remains a scar over MacArthur Park which is picked open by automobiles every day. Making matters worse, in 1947, service of the Los Angeles Railway‘s D Line to the park ended.


General Douglas MacArthur and the Philippines

After more than half a century of existence as Westlake Park, the park was renamed after General Douglas MacArthur Park on 7 May 1942. Supposedly, this was part of yellow journalism propagandist William Randolph Hearst’s efforts to pave the general’s path to the presidency. It’s not exactly clear to me how renaming a park would lead to a presidential term but Hearst was not above crazy schemes in his pursuit for greater circulation, wealth, and power.

Back in the 1890s, Hearst owned many newspapers and had urged the US to go to war against Spain in large part to boost circulation over his chief competitor, Joseph Pulitzer. Theodore Roosevelt also felt like a good war would be just the thing to help the US recover from the American Civil War and assert itself as an empirical power. The US had attempted to buy Cuba from Spain and been rejected. The destruction of the USS Maine was blamed on the Spanish and provided the justification for the US to go to war against Spain. As a result of the war, the US also acquired the Philippines and colonized it. The Philippines had other ideas, having just had declared itself a republic. The US, though, blinded by empirical ambitions and uninterested in other countries’ democratic aspirations, brutally crushed Asia’s first constitutional democracy and remained in charge of the country until the World War II, invasion of the Japanese Empire, after which an escaping MacArthur (then commander of United States Army Forces in the Far East) vowed, “I shall return!”

MacArthur did return but the US recognized the Philippines’ independence in 1946. Soon after, America found itself in yet another war, this time in Korea. MacArthur assumed command of the United Nations forces defending South Korea. After a row with President Truman, however, MacArthur was removed from command in 1951. In 1955, a bronze statue of General MacArthur, sculpted by Roger Noble Burnham, was installed with the general’s likeness looming over a series of islands representing the Philippines. The real MacArthur died, aged 84, on 5 April 1964 in Washington, D.C., having neither run for president nor having ever set foot in the park renamed to convince him to do so.


Somewhat ironically, the park renamed for a war hero became a magnet of protests by veterans and peace activists. Among the first protestors were the Filipino-American veterans who rallied in the park to protest unkept promises made to them regarding their military service. Those who made it to 2009 were finally awarded $15,000 for their trouble.  In 1947, 1,500 veterans staged a “big sleep” demonstration over lack of sufficient housing. One of the most poignant placards read “We want to know why our country had no trouble in furnishing us guns and ammunition but now offers us only excuses instead of homes.”

Print references to MacArthur Park were nearly always followed by an explanatory “formerly Westlake Park” until at least 1953. Incidentally, the park was until then also often referred to by its cumbersome full name, Gen. Douglas MacArthur Park. Perhaps it was inevitable that Angelenos would come to refer to the surrounding Westlake neighborhood as MacArthur Park as well. Print references to the “MacArthur Park district” began to appear around 1955.

MacArthur Park was a popular location for reunions. Until at least 1959, Angeleno survivors of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire still held an annual reunion there. State picnics, wherein people from a particular state gathered together to celebrate, were especially popular in Los Angeles. Americans transplanted from the Middle West and elsewhere were popular. None were bigger than the Iowa picnics, which took place semi-annually and were begun in 1900 by the Southland Iowa Association. Over the years, the Iowa parks were held in Lincoln Park, Sycamore Grove ParkPasadena’s Brookside Park, and Bixby Park in Long Beach, a town for many years referred to as “Iowa By the Sea.” From roughly 1946-1958 Iowa picnics were held in MacArthur Park and at their peak, Iowa picnics attracted some 100,000 Iowan-Angelenos. By 1982, however, those numbers had dwindled to roughly 35 and presumably, they died out around then.

MacArthur Park in the 1950s was also popular with cruisers seeking to connect with other gays. The Mattachine Society was founded in Silver Lake in 1950 to advocate for the cause of gay rights and was the nation’s first organization of its kind. That same year, William Henry Parker was appointed the LAPD’s police chief and he turned the vice squad on sexual deviants. In 1951, however, because of Stoumen v. Reilly, California became the first state in which gay bars could operate legally. Many gay bars opened near Pershing Square and that park, Elysian Park, and MacArthur Park became popular cruising spots. The vice squad routinely resorted to entrapment to harass homosexuals and on 23 July 1951, 59-year-old John Ray Thompson was briefly detained after propositioning an undercover officer. He broke loose from the police, however, jumped into the lake, and died.

In 1955, pulp novelist Stuart Engstrand drowned himself in the lake. His 1947 bestseller, The Sling and the Arrow, was about a cross-dressing latent homosexual dress designer who murders his wife. According to Lost Gay Novels, “its biggest market constituted women readers, some of whom, presumably, had doubts about their husbands.” 1948’s Beyond the Forest was adapted into a film noir directed by King Vidor and starring Bette Davis. Some of Engstrand’s work is now regarded as “queer pulp” and the blurb on the jacket of More Deaths Than One, which hit bookshelves the day of the author’s suicide, noted the author’s “deep psychological insight into the abnormal mind.”


Strange tree
Some kind of Araucaria (and some run-of-the-mill palms)

In 1960, the Minnesota Lakers moved to Los Angeles, and locals joked that the lake, therefore, became a reference to the one in MacArthur Park. Minnesota may be the “land of 10,000 lakes” but even humble ponds like the one in MacArthur Park are capable of sustaining a diverse population of animals. Even at its most fifthly and seemingly inhospitable, in fact, MacArthur Park is an oasis of sorts for some of Los Angeles’s non-human denizens supporting 42 varieties of trees (including, I believe, some sort of Araucariaand quite a few animals as well. I spied, on the day of my visit, huge numbers of plump eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger). Though cute, the mammals were introduced to California in the 19th century and have in many places displaced the smaller native western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus). I also spied a red-eared slider, (Trachemys scripta elegans), another cute non-native which has crowded out the region’s only native terrapin, the Western Pond Turtle (Emys marmorata). Even more multitudinous (and certainly more diverse) than the squirrels are the park’s population of birds. I spied American coots, Canada geese, California gulls, cormorants, mallards, a night heron, rock pigeons, ring-necked ducks, and many other species I couldn’t identify.


MacArthur Park’s birds make a brief appearance in Jimmy Webb’s 1968 hit, “MacArthur Park,” first recorded by Irish actor Richard Harris and covered by many artists, including Donna Summer, Waylon Jennings, Dr. John Cooper Clarke & Hugh Cornwell, and the late, great Tony Ogden. Amongst the impressionistic lyrics are the lines “The birds, like tender babies in your hands and the old men playing checkers by the trees.” Much has been made of the song’s supposedly bizarre lyrics, especially “someone left a cake out in the rain,” which seems to me about as overblown as the lyrics themselves are often accused of being. In my explorations I often see food litter — although I suppose I’ve never thought to write a lyric about empty Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bags floating around like some kind of metaphor. For what it’s worth, anyway, Webb stated in a 2014 interview with Newsday, “all of the things that are talked about in the song are things I actually saw.” Anyway, for all the derision hurled at Webb and Harris, it apparently struck a chord with many and has been covered by hundreds (and probably thousands) of artists. It’s also inspired parodies like Soupy Sales’s “Muck-Arty-Park” and “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Jurassic Park.”


Freedom Flight
Hungarian Freedom Fight Monument

In 1969, Arpád Domján’s “Hungarian Freedom Fight Monument” was installed at the parks northwest corner, which was designated Mindszenty Square. In 1974, the monument was blessed by His Eminence Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty Prince Primate of Hungary. The monument itself is a nine-meter tall obelisk topped with a bronze eagle. According to the text of the plaque, it was “Erected in memory of the heroes of the glorious Hungarian Freedom Fight of 1956/A symbol of man’s yearning for freedom everywhere/Hungarian Freedom Fighters Federation 1969. 

Historic Cultural Monument
Historic Cultural Monument plaque

On May Day, 1972, MacArthur Park was designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 100.


The lake was partially drained in 1973 and a former aerospace worker John Woods braved the muck to retrieve objects discarded both accidentally and deliberately over the decades by the park’s visitors. Woods used the old coins, eyeglasses, streetcar tokens, keys, watches, tools, brass knuckles, bottles, knives, and guns to create sculptures with names like “Keys to the City,” “MacArthur Park Lost & Found,” and “Things Used to Go Better with Coke.” In 1978, the lake was pumped dry — not so that more assemblage artists could sift through its silt but as part of a renovation of the park. (See “Art history : MacArthur Park Lake’s muddy bottom yields raw materials for free-form sculptures that are also time capsules” (Los Angeles Times, 1995)).


Carlos III
Here stood a statue of Carlos III

A three-meter tall statue of Carlos III, sculpted by Federico Coullaut-Valera Mendigutia, was installed in the west end of the park in 1976. In 1987, the bronze figure was relocated to Los Angeles Plaza Park in El Pueblo. For 31 years, now, the statue-less concrete base atop which the statue used to stand, has been stateless — although the presence and description of the plaque would have you believe that it’s merely invisible.


The Central American Crisis of the 1970s and ’80s led to a major demographic shift around MacArthur Park in the 1980s. The US’s recent history of anti-democratic meddling in Central America extended back at least to 1954 when President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to engineer a coup d’état that removed Jacobo Árbenz from the Guatemalan presidency. In 1978, the Sandinista National Liberation Front attempted to violently overthrow of the dictatorial Somoza regime in Nicaragua, and the violence escalated after the US threw its support behind the dictator and his coalition of right-wing counter-revolutionary Contras. Around the same time, the US and Israel began arming, training, and funding the brutal right-wing Revolutionary Government Junta of El Salvador dictatorship. A right-wing government in Honduras targeted leftists and President Reagan used that country as a base for military actions throughout the region.

The destabilization of the region has left the region mired in violence and as of 2015, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that El Salvador had the highest murder rate in the world, followed by Honduras. Guatemala was ranked tenth. Only Nicaragua had yet managed to climb out of the whole and establish a fairly peaceful existence. One of the direct effects of decades of violence has been refugees fleeing Central America and many have chosen to settle around MacArthur Park. Westlake and Pico-Union have since jointly come to be nicknamed Little Central America (or Pequeño Centroamérica) and today Los Angeles is home to the largest population of Salvadorans and Guatemalans outside their respective homelands. Los Angeles has the second largest population of Hondurans, after New York City. One of the plus sides of this immigration has been the influx of Central American restaurants in the area.


Lunch at Doña Bibi’s

Having had Salvadoran food many times, Mike and decided to forgo pupusas and plantains in favor of lunch at Dona Bibi’s, a Honduran restaurant located across the street from the park. The restaurant was very clean and our friendly and attentive restaurant patiently helped me construct a tasty vegetarian baleada. I asked what “nance” referred to in the “jugo de nance” and she didn’t know it’s English name. It turned out to be a fruit known in English as “golden spoon” although I’ve never heard that name. The flavor, to me, was a bit like a pineapple crossed with a pear. There are many restaurants in the immediate vicinity of the park to choose from, as well as food carts and food trucks (none of which, shockingly, have even gone by the name “MacArthur Pork”). Some of the more noteworthy include Langer’s, a Jewish deli which has operated next to the park since 1947, America’s first El Pollo Loco, an almost equally historic restaurant which has operated on Alvarado since 1980. There’s also the highly regarded Mama’s Tamales, visited by Huell Howser on a 2007 episode of Our Neighbors and mentioned in Laura Pulido, Laura Barroclough, and Wendy Cheng‘s book, A People’s Guide to Los Angeles.

Map of Hondura
A map showing the departamentos of Honduras.

The early 1980s were marked by the closure of the boathouse, the accidental drowning of the “King of MacArthur Park,” Julio Marcial Chicas, a violent rally in which Communists battled with the LAPD, a counter-inaugural demonstration against newly elected President Reagan, and naturally protests against that administration’s military aid to El Salvador’s dictatorship.


Part of an old fountain
Talking Pyramids
Entry Arches
clock tower
Clock Tower Monument in Unknown

Several pieces of public art were commissioned during the 1980s, part of an attempt to improve the experience of visitors to the park. At some point around 1985, Alexis Smith created several mini-monuments four “mini-monuments,” including a terrazzo-and-brass inlay in a sidewalk. I’m not sure whether or not they’re still there. Judith Simonian‘s “Talking Pyramids” (with tiles by German Rugerio of Puebla, Mexico) were installed in 1985 with an underground tube linking them through which visitors can communicate with one another. The nine-meter steel entrance to the park, titled “Entry Arches,” were created by R. M. Fischer in 1986. In 1987, the sculpture titled “Clock Tower Monument in Unknown” was created by George Herms and installed in the park’s southwest corner. Another, Franco Assetto‘s “The Big Candy – El Gran Caramelo,” depicts a giant piece of candy. 

The Big Candy.jpg

The 1980s also brought increased homelessness, crack cocaine, AIDs, and ramped up violence perpetrated by both gangs with roots in the Central American Crisis and police of the LAPD’s special ops CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit which led to the Rampart ScandalBy 1989, the area served by the Rampart Division had the highest murder rate in Los Angeles, having climbed 70% in one year. Gangs like the Burlington Street Locos, Columbia Lil Cycos, The Crazy Riders, 18th Street, Mara Salvatrucha, Westside Rockwood Locos (and their respective clickas) often attempted to settle their scores in MacArthur Park, and nearly as often as not, wounded and killed innocent park visitors in the process. Violence peaked in Los Angeles in 1992, the year the violent crime rate reached its peak and the year of the riots. Though hardly ancient history, that was more than a quarter-century ago and crime has generally declined since then.


In 1991, MacArthur Park Lake was completely drained for the second time since its creation. The purpose was to allow for the construction of a subway nine meters underneath the lakebed. Before the lake was refilled, its bottom was paved with asphalt. In 1993, The Westlake/MacArthur Park Station opened just east of the park, restoring passenger rail service to the park for the first time in over half a century.

¿Porque Emigramos?

Today it’s Metro’s seventh busiest station, busier even than Hollywood/Highland, Universal City, and Hollywood/Vine stations. The station hosts a collection of pieces of public art including Francisco Letelier’s “El Sol” and “La Luna,” Therman Statom’s “Into the Light,” and Sonia Romero’s “MacArthur Park/Urban Oasis.” Outside the station, Juan Hector Ponce painted a four-story mural titled “Los Angeles Teachers.” On the other side of the park, a bas-relief sculpture titled “Why We Immigrate / Porque Emigramos” (1993) was created by Dagoberto Reyes and Thelma Garcia. A plaque notifies visitors of the existence of a time capsule buried below, to be opened in 2093. As I contemplated that future, a man started to pee against the public art piece. When I circled around the sculpture, a man was peeing against its back. Note to public urinators (and defecators) — there are public restrooms nearby, behind the bandshell, as well as at the eastern end of the park. No need to relieve yourself anywhere but there.

Public Restroom
Art Deco restrooms

And a helpful note to the motorist — the park is today served not just by Metro’s Red and Purple subway lines, but additionally the 18, 20, 51/52/351, 200, 603, and Rapid 720 bus lines. The website Walk Score awards the neighborhood a bike score of 60 (out of 100), a transit score of 81, and a walk score of 94. Walk Score also ranks MacArthur Park the second most walkable city — two spots above, erm, Westlake (?) and just below Downtown. It’s therefore almost inconceivable to me why anyone would want to drive a car in or around MacArthur Park but then again, if I were the dictator of Los Angeles, my first act would be to establish a car-free zone which would cover all of Westlake, Downtown, and Koreatown.


White Doves
White Doves

In 2000, an anonymous artist created a metal sculpture titled “White Doves” near the park’s eastern edge. In 2007, Levitt Pavilion MacArthur Park opened in the restored bandshell, offering dozens of free concerts every June, July, August, and September. The boathouse changed several times over the decades, closing and reopening along the way. By 2010, the last unremarkable boathouse closed and its roof soon after collapsed. Having fallen hopelessly into disrepair it was demolished in 2014 and today the forlorn docks are fenced off and empty except for the flocks of birds which assemble there. Hopefully, someday a boathouse and boats will return.


In the meantime, at least new art continues to appear. In 2010, In 2013, Joaquín Serrano‘s bronze statue, “Msgr. Oscar A. Romero” was installed in the park’s east end. In 2015, some 2,500 large, hand-painted, inflatable balls temporarily bobbed atop the park’s murky waters — an art project titled “The Spheres at MacArthur Park,” created by a Los Angeles non-profit, Portraits of Hope. The recreation center remains open, offering lessons in Aztec dancing and other programs, the Levitt Pavillion continues to host free live concerts in the summer, and park visitors continue to engage in games, sports, protest, pidgeon-feeding, and any number of other activities.

The Community Center
The MacArthur Park Recreation Center



Of Los Angeles’s many parks, perhaps only Exposition Park and Elysian Park have appeared in more films and television series than MacArthur Park. MacArthur Park has been the setting or filming location in many films and television episodes, affording viewers fascinating glimpses into the park’s century plus pas. Films and television episodes filmed at least in part in the park include Twenty Minutes of Love (1914); Love and Skates (1915); Hard Luck (1921); Houston Post Contest Winners Arrive in Los Angeles (1939); Wings for the Eagle (1942); The Unfaithful (1947); Killer Bait (1949); The Bigamist and I Led 3 Lives episode “Dope Photographic” (both 1953); The Devil’s Hand (1961); A Patch of Blue (1965); Dragnet 1967 episode “The Bank Examiner Swindle” (1967); Mission: Impossible episode “The Contender: Part 1” (1968); Mod Squad episode “Child of Sorrow, Child of Light,” The Sadistic Hypnotist, and The Fabulous Bastard from Chicago (all 1969); Diamond Stud (1970); Circle of Fear episode “The Phantom of Herald Square” (1973); The Nickel Ride (1974); Starsky and Hutch episodes “Lady Blue” (1975); In MacArthur Park, The Blue Knight episode “Throwaway,” Bittersweet Love, and the Starsky and Hutch episode “Vendetta” (all 1976); The Amazing Spider-Man episode “Spider-Man,” Blue Sunshine, and Future Cop episode “Fighting O’Haven” (all 1977); Going Ape! (1981); T.J. Hooker episode “Lady in Blue” (1983); Hunter episodes “Guilty” (1985) and “From San Francisco With Love” (1986); The A-Team episode “The Grey Team” (1986); The Hidden (1987); Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992); Falling Down (1993); L.A. Heat episode “Captain Crimestopper” and Volcano (both 1997); Brave New World (1998); The Prime Gig (2000); Training Day and MacArthur Park (both 2001); Robbery Homicide Division (2002–2003); Monk episode “Mr. Monk Meets the Godfather” (2004); Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Havoc (both 2005); Crossing Jordan episode “Don’t Leave Me This Way” and The Black Dahlia (both 2006); Flashforward episode “Black Swan” and Numb3rs episode “Hangman” (both 2009); NCIS: Los Angeles episode “Absolution” and Southland episode “Butch & Sundance” (both 2010); Drive, New Girl episode “Bells,” and American Horror Story episode “Murder House” (all 2011); Southland episodes “Identity” and “God’s Work,” Maniac, and Scary or Die (all 2012); and Gangster Squad (2013).

Ghost Doctors.jpg
“Holy Trinity with the Virgin,” Kent Twitchell, 1977 — depicting Jan Clayton from Lassie, Clayton Moore of The Lone Ranger, and Billy Gray from Father Knows Best — none of which were filmed in MacArthur Park, incidentally.


Swap meet
Inside a swap meet (Image: Michael Morgan)
Sidewalk Vendor
Sidewalk vendors

Swap meet mural

If you do visit MacArthur Park, I highly recommend that you explore the park’s immediate surroundings as well. With apologies to the MacArthur Park Neighborhood Council, you haven’t really experienced the MacArthur Park neighborhood if you haven’t checked out bustling Alvarado, where the sidewalks are crowded with pedestrians and vendors, and doorways open into equally bustling swap meets. One of the swap meets used to be located inside the Westlake Theatre, a grand (and currently closed) Spanish Baroque style cinema built in 1926. A block south, the Theatre De Luxe cinema, altered and almost unrecognizable, now houses a 99 cents Only store. Around the corner, on 7th Street (and also almost unrecognizable) is the old Lake Theatre, now home to El Pollo Campero and a Metro PCS store. North of the park is the Knob Hill Tract, home to some attractive apartments and houses. West of the park the neighborhood is comparatively calm, in part because it’s less commercial. Park View Street is home to some grand buildings, including the Park Wilshire (1924), the Park Plaza Hotel (built in 1925), the Carondelet House (1928), the Otis Art Institute building (1957), the American Cement Building (1961), the University of California Los Angeles: Downtown Labor Center (1941).

Park Wilshire
The Park Wilshire
Park Plaza Hotel
Park Plaza Hotel
Park Plaza entrance
Entrance to the Park Plaza
The Carondelet House
American Cement Building
The American Cement Building
University of California Los Angeles: Downtown Labor Center

Pano from west


“MacWestlake : MacArthur Park’s Renovation Should Include Restoration of Its Historic Name” (Jack Smith, Los Angeles Times, 1989)
“Faces of MacArthur Park: Quiet Refuge, Place of Fear” (Stephen Braun, Los Angeles Times, 1989)
Traces of Radiotron in MacArthur Park (Form Follows Function, KCET, 2012)
“A Los Angeles Primer: MacArthur Park” (Colin Marshall, KCET, 2013)
“Westlake (MacArthur) Park: How a Neighborhood Dump Became a Civic Treasure” (Nathan Masters, KCET, 2013)
MacArthur Park (Jose A. Gardea, 2015, Arcadia Publishing Books)
“The Lake at MacArthur Park Has No Remorse” (Jesse Katz, Los Angeles Magazine, 2015)
“’All we do is clean and clean’: There are big plans for MacArthur Park, but residents are skeptical” (Esmerelda Bermudez, Los Angeles Times, 2016)
MacArthur Park Reds” (Meredith Drake Reitan, KCET, 2017)

“MacArthur Park’s glory days” (Hadley Meares, Curbed LA, 2018)

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in generating advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other varieties of spam. Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of Brightwell’s maps are available from 1650 GalleryHe is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiTwitter, and Weibo.
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9 thoughts on “Southland Parks — Visiting MacArthur Park

  1. I have no idea if this where I type a response or not. But the definition of the Westlake neighborhood has – gone – totally cattywampus – in recent years and has – zero relation – with the reality​. I might add grew up in the area – and my father was once the honorary Mayor of the community, And, to start, nothing west of the park – ever had anything to do with the Westlake neighbrhood.

    It was laid out by Wilshire at the turn of the Century and all the houses were built after 1900 – and it was – the original and only Wilshire District for quite some time – up to Rampart. And then came the Mid-Wishire area. And Westlake was laid out and largely built up in the 1880’s and 1890’s – due east of the park. And it never extended any where near DTLA. All the area now called City West was always part of Downtown. That’s why the Chamber of Commerce and Good Samaritan and major hotels and corporate headquarters were built on that side of the freeway and why it is part of the current DTLA revival.

    On Sun, Jan 28, 2018 at 3:21 PM, Eric Brightwell wrote:

    > ericbrightwell posted: ” Neighborhoods often take their names from > significant features within them, which in Los Angeles are often major > street intersections and parks. Neighborhoods named after intersections > include Vermont-Slauson, Broadway-Manchester, Central-Alameda, and Ad” >


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