Friday, March 16, 2007

Once A Cornfield By the LA River

Today I went to visit the Cornfield, a new park by the Los Angeles river, and also attend the Friday noon salon at Farmlab, a fascinating an art/ecology project at 1745 North Spring Street. I got off the Gold Line train at Chinatown, the stop just north of downtown, and started walking north up Spring Street looking for the entrance to the Cornfield State Historical Park but missed it, so I was walking in the hot sun on this barren dirt as there was no sidewalk.

A little to the west was a 4 foot high chain link fence and then the park with an earth road, a few benches, a green lawn, and lots of flowers. But strangely enough there were no people in the park and no gates. Just me looking longingly at the greenery cordoned off from my by the chain link metal fence. Across Spring Street were warehouses in a treeless industrial belt.

I know a bit of the history of this park, a crescent of 32-acres just south of the LA River. For ten years community groups battled to stop Majestic Realty from developing this area, a Southern Pacific Railroad yard, into a $80 million industrial development. The Chinatown Yard Alliance, a coalition of 35 groups including Friends of the LA River, sued Majestic Realty and the City of Los Angeles; the lawsuit resulted in the state of California acquiring the land in 2001 for a much needed park. The neighborhoods surrounding the Cornfields are made up of Chinese, Vietnamese, Latinos and Anglos who lack parks.

Around 2002 I went to see the Cornfields Park, then filled with dirt, weeds, and railroad junk but we did see the section of the 220-year old madre zanja, the mother ditch. The original Spanish colonialists put their village El Peublo just south of the river, and dug the madre zanja as the communal water source to bring water to their fields. The amateur archeologists who discoved of the piece of the mother ditch helped people redefine this site from industrial wasteland to historically important. Just south I could see the towering beige milling company with a big 1883 on its side, and thought the Anglo settlers must have used river water to mill flour. To the north and east was the LA River; to the east up the embankment was Chinatown. To the south, the gleaming towers of downtown. The site is the historical heart of the city.

I kept walking under the hot sun on the dirt looking at the empty park now with multi-colored wild flowers. After the park had remained a brownfield junkyard for four years, artist Lauren Bon and her collaborators in Not a Cornfields turned the whole park into a work of art by planting acres of corn and native wild flowers. While planting, they held community events from drum circles to rock concerts to Day of the Dead celebrations. They had a ceremony by the Tongva people, the Native Americans whose village of Yangna, the real beginning of Los Angeles, was located 1/2 a mile south. At that time Father Crespi in the first Spanish expedition to see the river said the land by the river was a verdant paradise full of greenery including wild grape vines, rosebushes in full bloom, alders and cottonwoods.

In spring 2006 after Farm Lab harvested the corn , they turned the land back to the State park system, but left behind the native, drought tolerant plants and wildflowers I could now see including White Yarrow, California Poppy, Golden Yarrow, Bush Sunflower, Biglow’s Coreopsis etc. I kept walking in the glaring sunlight, seeing a couple in the park, and then no more people but a circle of what looked like big bales of hay or Cornhenge. Not A Cornfield had composed 31 bales from the harvest and erected this circle of corn bales along with more flowers of purple, white and yellow. It's a beautiful living sculpture, Cornhenge. Across the street I could see Asian women in the parking lot of the warehouse where they worked eating lunch. Why couldn't they eat in the park? No gate, no benches, no tables. The sun glared even more as I cross the street.

I walked past another block and a half of warehouses on my right, park on my left, wondering why no one was in the park, then turned into a warehouse, entered the Not a Cornfield space which was part-gallery with exhibits. I was late, so I promised to return, exited where more exhibits were outdoors enclosed by concrete pillars called Under Spring Street Gallery--I supposed the concrete pillars held up Spring Street above us. Then I entered Farmlab where people were setting out a buffet lunch. The free lunch was wonderful: a fish stew, yucca, rice, a fine green salad, carrot juice, two pies (I took a piece of the apple).

As I ate, I talked to Jamie Wolters, a gardener who planted the corn in Not A Cornfield and now worked with Farmlab. He said a local Chicano youth group contacted them for help in planting a garden near their building on a brownfield site owned by Cal Trans. Farmlab has started growing mushrooms as a way to regenerate brownfields sites, but Cal Trans last week said no garden could be planted on their property. He said they were continuing to develop growing mushrooms to clean up brownfields, hopefully on another site.

Casey Coates Danson presented her documentary "Who's Got the Power" about global warming and its solutions. What struck me was the information that oil and gas get tremendous governmental subsidies but solar panels, which could be used to generate electricity, get much less subsidy. After the question and answer, I asked a Farmlab member where the north gate to the Cornfields Park was. She said, "Right outside the door. It looks like a locked gate, but you can enter there."

Back at the 4 foot chain link fence, I tried two gates. Both were really locked, and I couldn't get through, so I trudged back down the dirt under the even more glaring sun. The park was completely empty. Why does there need to be a metal fence walling a park off from people? Blocks later I did see the south gate, a large opening for the driveway, but it was too late for me to walk through the park.

Back home some Internet research explained why the park, established after a huge community struggle, was now so empty. In the 2005 Arroyo Seco Foundation News, Lewis McAdams, founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River and key activist in establishing the park, said the Cornfields is "languishing, penniless." McAdams blames politicians--LA City Council, County Supervisors, and state legislators--for failing to get state funding for the park.

Further, Kim Benjamin, president of the Chinatown Business Improvement District and vice president of the Historic Cultural Neighborhood Council, suggested a modest plan for "a baseball diamond, soccer fields, picnic benches, a Tai Chi exercise area, and walking tours." He said that nearby Cathedral High School, the Chinese Benevolent Association and local property owners would raise $600,000 to create the baseball field, soccer fields, etc, but State Parks has refused the community's plan. The state said "the department's mission does not allow recreation sports in its parks" because the city's Recreation and Parks Department takes care of sports. The state department spokesman has forgotten than his mission is to be a public servant: to serve that public that asks for a baseball field, soccer fields, and a place to do tai chi.

I remember every park I saw in China had people doing Tai Chi every day, but not in the Cornfields Park right next to Chinatown! In Bejiing the Temple of Heaven was formerly a huge ornate blue temple where only the Emperor worshiped; now the Temple of Heaven, one of the most stunningly beautiful buildings in China, was a park which had thousands of senior citizens doing social dancing, playing instruments, doing group sports like badminton, playing music together. But no sports in the Cornfields.

So next to nobody uses the park. To me that is appalling. The California State Parks Department in November, 2006, did announced that, after it had spent thousands for an eight-month design competition to choose a team to design the park, had chosen San Francisco firm Hargreaves Associates. The Hargreaves Associating winning plan sounds quite awful because it also neglected to include what the community has asked for. Hargreaves should start its design process by talking to the park's neighbors. It was they who struggled ten years for the Cornfields so they should have their dreams in the park.

No wonder it was such an empty park Friday. It should be full of people. Hopefully one day it will be full of people from the neighborhood playing baseball on the field, having soccer matches, doing tai chi, and office workers from the downtown towers as well as warehouse workers and salespeople having lunch at the outdoor benches and tables. It should always have those bales of corne from Cornhenge. It should have walking tours that show the madre zanja, telling of the history of El Peublo. It should have tours telling the history of the Tongva's nearby village of Yangna. It would always have corn growing by the Los Angeles river. It should also have the wild grape vines, rose bushes, cottonwoods and alders it once ahead 230 years ago.

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