MacArthur Park always seemed like one of those places better viewed from afar than close up.
I guess that's why I'd pretty much only seen it while driving down the stretch of Wilshire Boulevard that bisects it, or while riding my bike during CicLAvia.
Of course, I'd known about MacArthur Park for a long time—since way before I moved here. After a memorable visit there, Jimmy Webb wrote a song about a girl in a yellow dress who he loved and a cake that someone had left out in the rain, and Donna Summer sang it throughout my disco-soaked early childhood.
It hasn't rained in a while at MacArthur Park, and instead of being covered with melting green icing, this summer it's covered in brightly-colored beach balls, which are floating in the lake as part of the "Portraits of Hope" project.
I painted a half of one of those spheres a few months ago, so I had to make the pilgrimage to see the final public art display.
At least it was a good reason to bring me to MacArthur Park, finally, after nearly five years of living in LA.
The park itself is a bit of LA oddball history. Once known as Westlake Park—once at the western boundary of the city of LA—it's a natural basin that used to have an alkali lake (like Soda Lake) fed by runoff from the hills, which made it pretty swampy. But when there was no more runoff in the two-year drought of 1862, the lake dried up.
Part of the original Pueblo de Los Angeles, nobody ever wanted to buy this parcel of land. In fact, people turned it into a dump for their trash and, inevitably, dead bodies.
It took some convincing when LA mayor William Workman wanted to turn the eyesore into a city park...
...and once some fresh water could be rerouted from the city's oldest aqueduct system and into the lake to reduce its alkalinity, Angelenos were happy to use the park for boating, outdoor concerts, and other recreational activities.
Now renamed MacArthur Park after General Douglas MacArthur (of Fort MacArthur), the lake is a lot smaller than it used to be before it got cut off by Wilshire Boulevard. The park is split into two pieces, and although there are still outdoor concerts in the park, they're now on the other side of Wilshire.
The sad thing is, MacArthur Park Lake once again resembles a dumping ground. It could use a really good cleanup. After all, the park has seen better days, and for decades it has made regular appearances on the police blotter.
But the birds still like it, as they did when this was once what we would consider a "wetland resource," and the park still has great views of the surrounding city, with lots of wide open spaces.
The "Spheres" public art project definitely brings some much-needed bright color to MacArthur Park Lake, but I'm not sure it needs more stuff thrown into the lake in order to beautify it.
And, like the lake itself, the spheres look much better from afar.
There is hope for MacArthur Park, if Echo Park Lake is any indication. I mean, there was a lot of junk sunken into that lake, and when they dredged it, they found an 1880s wagon wheel buried in the lakebed, underneath mounds of glass bottles, shopping carts, office chairs, trash cans, guns, and even a pay phone and a toilet. And now Echo Park Lake is totally cleaned up, revitalized, and beautiful once again, without the help of volunteer-painted plastic balls, that will eventually become trash themselves.
Let's hope none of them deflate and sink to the bottom of MacArthur Park Lake.
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