Today, one of the most stunning views of Downtown Los Angeles is from MacArthur Park in the once grand Westlake neighborhood. From origins as a dump and “swamp” west of LA nobody wanted, to a fashionable playground for the affluent, to an immigrant refuge, to a dumping ground for bodies and firearms during gang wars that completely overtook the area, to somewhat successful efforts to revitalize it, the legacy of MacArthur Park is one of the most colorful and varied in the city.
The park was the subject of the hit song, “MacArthur Park,” first recorded by Richard Harris in 1968 and it has been featured in dozens of movies and television shows.
Oh, and the body count the lake is infamous for…. it isn’t entirely due to the gangs that had invaded the once prestigious neighborhood. By some reports, boating accidents, drunkness and suicides make up a larger percentage of the body count. Like The Suicide Bridge in Pasadena, MacArthur Park seems to be a popular place for those who choose to end it all (as a note, I could not find any exact body count for the lake, but it seems much smaller than the bridge).
History of MacArthur Park
Continued after the break…
In the mid-19th century the area was a swampland that no one wanted. Then in the 1880s Westlake Park was built and by the 1890s, it was an upscale vacation destination, surrounded by luxury hotels. In the early part of the 20th century, the Westlake neighborhood became known as the Champs-Élysées of Los Angeles.
Also in the 1890s, January 1890 to be exact, MacArthur Park Lake took its first life. Harriet Hutchins, a pastor’s wife, left her home near downtown. She did not return. A day after she vanished, her body surfaced in the waters of Westlake. By 1900, seven other people had drowned themselves in the park, including a chambermaid, an LAPD patrolman, the sister of the British vice-consul, and a bartender at a German saloon. For a time, whenever anyone went missing in Los Angeles, the first impulse was to check the lake.
Wilshire Boulevard formerly ended at the lake, but in 1934 a berm was built for it to cross and link up with the existing Orange Street (which ran from Alvarado to Figueroa Streets) into downtown Los Angeles. Orange Street was renamed Wilshire and extended east of Figueroa Street to Grand Avenue. This divided the lake into two halves; the northern one was subsequently drained.
In the early 1940s, it was renamed after General Douglas MacArthur, and later designated City of Los Angeles Historic Cultural Monument #100. During the 1950s the lake featured the rental of electric boats, with the names of comic book animal characters.
Now divided by Wilshire Boulevard, the southern portion primarily consists of a lake, while the northern half includes an amphitheatre, bandshell, soccer fields, and children’s playground, along with a recreation center operated by the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.
MacArthur Park’s bandshell has been recently renovated as the Levitt Pavilion and is once again the host of jazz, big band, salsa music, beat music, and world music concerts. Since reopening, it hosts at least 50 free concerts each summer between June and September.
Gangs in MacArthur Park
By 1985 MacArthur Park became known for violence when prostitution, drug dealing, shoot-outs, and the occasional rumored drowning became commonplace, with as many as 30 murders in 1990. The Westlake area has also become notable for the sale of false identification cards, especially those allowing non-US citizens (principally from Mexico and other Central American countries) to work in the United States. When the lake was drained in 1973 and 1978, hundreds of handguns and other firearms were found to have been disposed of in the lake.
Through the 1990s, the gangs fought bitterly over control of the drug trade. MacArthur Park was out of control and the gangs were running it, said LAPD Homicide Capt. John Egan in an article for National Public Radio in 2008. “One year, we had almost 106 homicides in eight square miles,” he says from the intersection of 7th Street and Alvarado.
In 2002 the LAPD began a partnership with agents from the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Drug Enforcement Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to crack down on the gangs dominating the area. As a result of their efforts, in 2005 the park was celebrated for having the highest reduction of crime statistics per resident in the United States.
The Lost Treasure of MacArthur Park
Though much has been done in an effort to save the park and the neighborhood, it is a far cry from what it was. And that is a tragedy. MacArthur Park once hosted floating trees at Christmastime and mock warship battles during the Fourth of July, logrolling contests, fishing derbies, and generations of rowboats, canoes, gondolas, and paddleboats and a boathouse. Coupled with the Westlake Theater adjacent to the park and other attractions, it was a community hub where people could enjoy life with a bit of space, beauty and tranquility… with safety.
The gang crackdown in 2002 and other revitalization efforts helped. In 2007, Levitt Pavilion MacArthur Park opened, offering over 50 free concerts each summer and attracting families from around the city. In the same year, the paddle boats returned. They were available for rent on the weekends in 2009. But by early 2010, the boathouse was closed, the paddle boats were removed and the boathouse was torn down in 2014.
Update: During the quarantines of 2020 MacArthur Park was completely overtaken by homeless and became a large homeless encampment. This is despite the City of Los Angeles spending over $150 million to house the homeless under Project Roomkey. Despite astronomical cost, the project housed very few homeless. MacArthur Park is now in worse condition than before the revitalization efforts begun in 2002. You can see what it currently looks like in this video. Lower down in this post is another video of the park showing what it was like before the lockdowns.
MacArthur Park In Films
MacArthur Park has been been featured in the 1949 film Killer Bait, Training Day, MacArthur Park, Volcano, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Drive, Havoc, The Nickel Ride with Jason Miller, Going Ape with Tony Danza, A Patch of Blue with Sidney Poitier, and The Bigamist with Ida Lupino. It has also been featured in music videos and the song MacArthur Park has been covered by many big name artists including Donna Summer.
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MacArthur Park Today
As you can see in the photos and video that were taken just before publication, MacArthur Park is beautiful. But the neighborhood is still quite gritty. As reported in the LA Times, Westlake averaged over 20.6 violent crimes and 45.8 property crimes per week during the last three months of 2017. That doesn’t make MacArthur Park the kind of place you want to go to at night, and that stifles efforts to restore the park to its past grandeur. I mean, what is the point of returning the boats to the lake if people are afraid to use them?
The MacArthur Park and Westlake neighborhood covering 2.7 miles surrounding the park is the second most densely populated area in Los Angeles. For every square mile, there are approximately 38,214 people. That’s a lot of people. Housing experts say experts say MacArthur Park needs investment into the existing high-density residential buildings that are being neglected and that such investment would improve the area’s character. Unfortunately, Los Angeles does not tend to revitalize and restore old communities the way many other US cities do.
Without this, there is little incentive to improve other aspects of the neighborhood. For example, the historic Westlake Theatre adjacent to the park is facing a bleak future. Opened in 1926, the grand theater was used for both motion pictures and vaudeville shows. In 1991, the theater was converted into a swap meet.
To protect the building from drastic changes, the building was declared a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument in September 1991. It was purchased by the Community Redevelopment Agency of the City of Los Angeles in 2008 with plans to rehabilitate the theater and in 2009 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. However it has failed to revitalize the theatre and it is currently for sale.
Not only is the Westlake Theatre currently operating as a flea market, many other structures in the vicinity house flea markets as well. And so do the streets. Alvarado Street, where the theatre is located, is clogged with street vendors to such a degree that passage as a pedestrian is difficult. Other than the grand view of the city beyond the lake, the neighborhood is, at best, “gritty.”
It’s a beautiful park in a once grand neighborhood. But once grand is the operative word. It has come a long way since the gang era, but still has far to go to be a desirable neighborhood to live in. From the research I have done, it seems some of the most effective rehabilitation efforts of the neighborhood have been done by residents themselves and community actions they have undertaken.
Perhaps there is a moral in this for us all. It could well be that the only reason our once grand communities became gritty, crime infested places is because too many of us said “It’s not my problem.”
More photos after the break….
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