Year of the Park — Land&People

All that eight-year-old Casey Young can see from the window of his school in Los Angeles’s Chinatown is asphalt and pavement. “I don’t see anything green,” he says, “except maybe a couple little trees on the sidewalk.” The playground at Casey’s school, Castelar Elementary, is a patch of rubberized blacktop that sits on top of a parking lot, and his entire neighborhood offers no more than an acre of grass.

There is not a single park you can walk to in Chinatown, population 25,000. Whenever Casey and his sister, Holly, want to play tag or baseball or catch, their parents have to drive them to another neighborhood–a distant world for those who lack cars or who are hesitant to venture beyond the familiar. There are people in Chinatown who go years without ever seeing trees, let alone green spaces. All over inner L.A., in fact, low-income people are cut off from nature. In the neighborhoods that surround Chinatown–Dogtown, Solano Canyon, and Lincoln Heights–there isn’t a single public ballfield.

But central L.A. will soon change, for a coalition of environmental groups and neighborhood activists that make up the Chinatown Yards Alliance, along with the Trust for Public Land, has leveraged a sort of miracle beside the banks of the beleaguered Los Angeles River. A long-defunct railyard that separates Chinatown and Dogtown will be transformed into the city of Los Angeles’s first-ever downtown state park, part of a long-held vision for a 51-mile greenway along the Los Angeles River. The dream of a greenway stretching from the San Fernando Valley to the river’s mouth at Long Beach moved closer to reality last year when Governor Gray Davis authorized $83 million for riverside parks. Called the Cornfield because crops grew there in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and situated just 200 feet from the river, the railyard is integral to this vision.

“A new 32-acre state park in the heart of urban Los Angeles is essential to our inner-city residents,” says state Senate Majority Leader Richard Polanco, a champion of urban parks and the Los Angeles River Greenway. “For local residents who don’t have easy access to the beach or the mountains, for those who don’t get a break from the concrete and asphalt, the Cornfield will be a treasure, a refuge, a field of dreams.”

Working with the community, the state is drafting plans for transforming the railyard into a new park. Advocates hope that it will include soccer fields, playgrounds, facilities for martial arts, and a Chinese philosophy center. But no matter how the design for the Cornfield evolves, it’s clear that central L.A. will soon gain an oasis. The site’s potential is not hard to imagine once you’ve navigated three busy streets, stepped up onto the concrete remains of an old parking garage, and then descended through a hole in the fence to reach it. There at the bottom of the hill, amid a few tawny weeds, is a three-foot-high archway of brick protruding out of the dirt: a pipe. This is the Zanja Madre, the irrigation ditch that furnished water to the entire village of Los Angeles when it was settled by Spanish explorers in 1781. It was just discovered by archaeologists last year and is a potent symbol for the Chinatown Yards Alliance.

Fifteen months ago, it seemed nigh impossible that a park would exist on this site. A development company, Majestic Realty, had a lock on the Cornfield. In 1997 the firm that built the Staples Center (L.A.’s basketball arena) secured an option to buy the defunct railyard from Union Pacific. Majestic planned to convert the property into an industrial park, with the blessing of L.A.’s then-mayor, Richard Riordan, who saw the potential for 1,000 new jobs. The city allowed Majestic to move toward ground breaking without requiring a full Environmental Impact Statement and helped the company secure the promise of a $12 million construction loan from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. In mid-2000, Majestic was just months away from welcoming 10,000 freight trucks a day into inner L.A.

A River Lost and Found

The events that led to the promise of a new park on land destined for industry reflect the emergence of a new Los Angeles–a city in which glimmers of green and humanity are becoming visible through the smog. The story begins in 1989, when Union Pacific left the Cornfield after running trains there since the 1870s. Architect Arthur Golding, now 59, apprehended a “wonderful possibility” in the old railyard. “For the first time in a century, this land was available,” says Golding. “We had a chance to revitalize downtown Los Angeles, to turn its face to the river and make the river a green line through the city–a line of sycamores and cottonwoods.”

The idea had been aired before, in 1930, when landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and Harlan Bartholomew submitted to the L.A. Chamber of Commerce a report urging the city to offer “opportunities for the enjoyment of out-of-door life” to poor Los Angelenos living far from the beaches and mountains. Olmsted and Bartholomew called for myriad “pleasureway parks” along the Los Angeles River. But that report was summarily killed before it even reached the printer, and the Army Corps of Engineers soon paved the river–all 51 miles of it–for flood control. Los Angeles now has fewer park acres per capita than almost any other U.S. metropolis.

Golding aspired to counteract a half-century of transgressions against the river. He articulated his vision for regreening the L.A. River at a 1989 planning workshop hosted by the city in Chinatown. The workshop sought the public’s ideas on how to revitalize central L.A., and most attendees believed, with Golding, that a park in the Cornfield was crucial. But these were not Chinatown’s power brokers. The owners of businesses such as Quon Yick, a giant noodle manufacturer, were behind industrial redevelopment, and the city shelved all plans for transforming the Cornfield.

Then, in 1997, Majestic secured its purchase agreement and began planning the industrial development. The pressure was on, and Golding resurrected his plan–this time with a deft ally, Chi Mui, a 48-year-old aide to Richard Polanco, a longtime supporter of the project. Like Golding, Mui is a child of the sixties, a man whose political conscience was shaped by the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement. He is also Chinese. After emigrating to the United States in 1963, Mui grew up in New York City, where he lived in a sixth-floor Chinatown walk-up. His mother was a member of the garment workers’ union, and once he moved to Los Angeles’s Chinatown in 1980, Mui swiftly found his own political calling as a community activist. He coached volleyball, taught English to seniors, and founded two groups, the Friends of Castelar School and the Alpine Hill Neighborhood Association.

The Politician and the Poet

Mui is a thoroughly congenial man, a polite and dapper radical who is possessed of true social gifts: If you shake his hand, he cups your hand in both of his and smiles, coming across as warm and genuine. Mui knows everyone in Chinatown, it seems, and when he walks the streets there, he has a friendly quip or a concerned question like, “How’s your dad?” for every person he passes.

In late 1998, Mui began to meet individually with various Chinatown leaders, sharing tea or dim sum with them as he spelled out the benefits of a park. Mostly he encountered reticence. “Chinese people are very pragmatic,” he explains. “They think, ‘If we’ve got the money, we can do something. If we don’t, we can’t.’ They thought my idea was pie in the sky.”

But Mui remained determined and unflappable. “I didn’t offend anyone,” he says. “That’s important in Chinese culture. I was friendly and I met with everyone, even people I knew would oppose me.” Finally, in 1998, he gained his first crucial endorsement, from the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, a civil rights group. Then came the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, which promotes small Chinese businesses and helps immigrants find housing and jobs. CCBA’s President Tommy Lee reasoned, “A park would draw tourists to Chinatown. Right now, after you eat in Chinatown, there’s nothing to do.”

When the city met to discuss a minor zoning detail with Majestic in May 2000, 60 people, including many Chinatown residents, showed up to plead for a park. Perhaps the most vocal was Lewis MacAdams, a local poet and freelance journalist. MacAdams, 56, is the force behind Friends of the Los Angeles River, a group he started in 1985 when the river was essentially friendless. The group now claims about 2,000 members dedicated to bringing the river to the center of public life. “Our work won’t be over,” MacAdams wrote, “until the yellow-billed cuckoo sings in the sycamores.”

MacAdams, a one-time friend of “beat” poets Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso, says he regards his river advocacy –which has included tree planting, constructing riverside sculpture, and pushing L.A. to build parks–as “performance art.” For MacAdams, the Cornfield was a perfect rallying point, and he joined forces with Mui in 1998. Together they built connections with community groups that included the Mothers of East Los Angeles, the Latino Urban Forum, Save the Bay, and Tree People, as well as national environmental and religious organizations. With the support of key community players, the Chinatown Yards Alliance quickly grew. It met every month or so at the Gourmet Carousel, a Chinatown restaurant, to craft irrefutable arguments in favor of a Cornfield park. During 2000 the Alliance filed suit against the city, alleging it had violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to require Majestic to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement. It also lobbied HUD, arguing that the federal agency should not lend $12 million to Majestic.

Angels on All Sides

On September 25, 2000, HUD sent the city of Los Angeles a letter saying that it would not make the loan to Majestic until the company completed an Environmental Impact Statement. At this impasse, TPL approached Majestic with an alternative: TPL would purchase the land and convey it to the state for a park. “When the legal issues and the withdrawal of the unconditional HUD funds became an obstacle for Majestic, they responded to the idea of a community park,” says TPL Director of Urban Programs Larry Kaplan.

Backed by the Chinatown Yards Alliance, Friends of the L.A. River, and the community, TPL took the idea to Sacramento. Governor Davis has asked the legislature to approve $36 million to purchase the Cornfield and transform it into a new state park in downtown Los Angeles. “The governor’s leadership is bringing this community’s dream to life,” says Rachel Dinno, TPL’s director of government relations.

Chi Mui heralded the legislature’s approval as the dawn of a bright new chapter in Chinatown’s history. “Nothing like this has ever happened in Chinatown before,” he says. “We’ve never had such a victory. And now, every time people walk with their children down to that park, they’ll see that great things can happen when folks come together and speak up. We can renew our community one dream at a time.”

A correspondent for Outside, Bill Donahue also has written for The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, and Atlantic Monthly. He lives in Portland, Oregon.