Op-ed by Carleton Cronin, West Hollywood, California
(Editor: This op-ed appears again due to popular request.)
We’ve all heard the dictum: “a house is not a home.” But when is a “park not a park”? With all the back and forth regarding West Hollywood Park and Plummer Park during these past many months that question keeps coming back to me.
The site of my youth is Boston, Massachusetts. Sitting pretty much in the middle of the original settlement is a piece of more or less open ground called the Boston Common. It’s been there since 1634 when the area was sectioned off as a place where access was for everybody, especially for those who might have livestock to pasture and browse. It was common ground, never “owned” by the city, yet the city maintained it. Over the years it has been chiseled away here and there to allow for streets, and sidewalks have been installed. The ground has never been leveled and a few knolls dominate the space.
An old cemetery, Central Burying Ground, is located on edge and traffic swirls about on all sides. A shallow pool known as the Frog Pond still allows children to splash in the summer. It is a true multi-purpose park. Hell, even witches were executed there by those wonderful people, the Puritan Pilgrims, my forebears.
The trees are mature and many are grand, a mixed lot, mostly eastern species able to withstand the sometimes-harsh Boston winters and occasional hurricanes. I think it was in 1957 that – horrors! – a proposal was put forth to install an underground parking area beneath the venerable sod. Beacon Hill matrons with blue-tinged hair and silk dresses came out of their hilly houses to sit in protest in front of the surveyors and, eventually, in front of the bulldozers – for, as you might have guessed, the City Council ignored the wishes of the citizens and historians and environmentalists and lovers of the Common and simply went ahead with the garage.
Toying with the public’s property, however, can have its downsides. Well, wouldn’t you know it, but the man the city had placed in charge of the venture failed to show up at his office one day and was never heard from again – along with, it was surmised, several millions of dollars he had been able to secrete in a foreign country.
The garage was finished but not before much of the concrete was replaced because it was substandard. A few city employees and a contractor went to jail and the city struggled for years to make the garage pay. I suppose it is still there, not well used. A minor scandal as municipal politics go and few people today can recall the fuss.
Nevertheless, after all that, the Common remains. It remains as a much-loved park, a true oasis in the midst of a chaotic urban landscape. Children still flock to the Frog Pond. Old men sit on benches and stare into the trees or play dominoes, read, do nothing, meet old pals. There are lots of benches. Old ladies feed the birds and the nasty grey squirrels who beg relentlessly. Ubiquitous pigeons are the primary avian species there now. Too bad, as it was once a great bird-watching spot. Now too busy.
It is often crowded as walkers scurry across its diagonal paths to work or home. On weekends there are families picnicking there. Of course, they are not from the tony nearby sections, but from, perhaps the older, “three-decker” tenements which can be found not far away.
On hot, moist summer evenings the cool air seeps down from the trees to comfort and reduce the heat rising from the pavement. Lovers stroll here every good night and, legend has it that a number of citizens were conceived here during some of those wonderful, balmy nights in June. Surely, this is the people’s park.
Across Charles Street to the west are the Public Gardens, full of formal flowerbeds, statues and the Swan Boats in a small, man-made lake. The appearance hundred-year-old delights appearance marks the official beginning of summer in Boston.
The Gardens and the Common are part of the “green necklace,” a twenty-mile swath of verdure, of parks and parkways designed by Frederick Olmsted to keep the city from domination by concrete and bricks. All of the “necklace” is open to the public and easily accessible. City planners in Boston have so far been cognizant of the need for trees and greenery and provide places where citizens can stroll, rest and renew.
Well, that’s what makes a park in Boston. What parallels exist in our West Hollywood parks?
Much of those criteria can be applied to our Plummer Park. Not as old as The Common, but certainly as well used. In fact extremely well used. It takes generations to make a park. With all its features and well-worn charm it could be called “our Common.” The parallels are interesting, aren’t they?
Plummer Park is a park for it contains all the elements of such a public place. It has changed with the times, some of those alterations unfortunate such as replacing the Audubon sanctuary with a lot for city equipment. Yet, the inclusion of the public meeting rooms and space for some city services is well within the boundaries of a description of a park as a gathering place for the city’s residents.
Still, I have reservations about removing the original buildings – and using architectural devices as ornaments on the Great Hall. This building and Long Hall have apparently been intentionally neglected because there was little imagination and desire to preserve them.
Their architecture design and embellishments certainly more befit Southern California. It is unfortunate that little more than some caulking here and there has been the only apparent maintenance done to them since cityhood.
Tell me if I’m wrong. I believe that it has always been a certain someone’s passion to be rid of the two halls.
If the older buildings have “good bones,” would it not be better to renovate and retain what is handsome and that which makes people feel at ease? Parks are not to be sterile places with sharp edges. These two historic Halls belong in Plummer Park. Years of use have made them comfortable and attractive and desirable. It is impossible to imagine “modern” architecture replacing them.
Our Library Park, with all its openness and spare vegetation, is quite sterile to me. The constant renewal of the grass so it can recover from tents and equipment being placed on it seems silly. Better we have gravel there. Much less upkeep.
However, better we have flowerbeds and a variety of trees and winding paths and a more welcoming venue. I certainly do like the inclusion of native plants – but I’d like to see small, winding paths through them.
I’m not thinking of an unter den linen view, possibly more of a paseo de WeHo, a warm, welcoming place to stroll. West Hollywood Park (Library Park to some) has a lawn for kids to romp in and excellent playgrounds.
With the changing demographic of West Hollywood these elements are so important. However, also, consider the geezers such as yours truly, who like to sit in the park to enjoy the off-street calm and see the beauty and energy of exuberant youth. It’s really quite renewing.
A thought I had the other day, while sitting on a metal chair in West Hollywood Park, facing the Pelli Tri-color, the library and the parking structure, was whether our longest serving Councilman had sat where I was and examined the view. When he was elected first none of those places existed.
The Pacific Design Center sits on the grounds of a railway roundhouse and repair shop, which was followed by a huge commercial lumberyard. The latter element was there when I arrived in the city. The display rooms now in the PDC were scattered about the area.
Where Ceccione’s resides was once a gas station and a “lunch wagon” – a coffee shop left over from the war years. These changes are the sort which can be expected, but a park is a living thing, which can be easily damaged by tinkering.
Our constant genuflection to the automobile and the inclusion of all its attendant needs – gas stations, car washes, parking meters, lots and garages, ever-widening streets – uses so much of our capital and energy when cities should be thinking more about further conveniences and comforts for its residents, visitors and business owners – especially as the specter of climate change and density rises up.
Yet, the city continues to accommodate cars. Better they should lobby the MTA and country transportation people to get some real public transit to and through the city. Our shuttle bus system should serve us well – if the residents will use it.
Parks are well-worn spaces, made comfortable through constant use. Sure, they must be kept up and their facilities continually modified to fit the times. But, to totally renovate them so they become unrecognizable is to remove them from the people who would use them. They then cease to be a park and become a monument to ambition and change for the sake of change, an unsatisfactory event in the long run.
Of course, in my old age skepticism is now part of my nature and I can always now believe that every enterprise, even though founded with the best of intentions, inevitably involves money. Whatever happens to Plummer Park must be in the residents’ interest, for who else would benefit? (Not a rhetorical inquiry!)
For some to continue to plead their cause “in the best interests of the residents” engages in sophistry and conceals his private ideal (vision) for the place.