Elysian Park & the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park
For over 130 years Elysian Park has been an oasis of wilderness in the middle of one of the largest, most diverse, and fastest growing cities on earth. The citizens of Los Angeles need this park, but the park also needs its citizens to help it thrive and survive. The Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park (CCSEP) is dedicated to that cause.
We hope you will join us!
History of CCSEP
Despite the fact that city charter provisions were enacted to protect the park in perpetuity, the allure of so much ‘raw land’ adjacent to downtown has proved irresistible. Countless efforts have been made over the years to ‘develop’ park property. Some have been successful, such as the bi-furcation of the park by the Pasadena Freeway (1930-1936) and the installation of the Police Academy and its later expansion (1967-72 and 1986-96). Dodger Stadium also was built upon a parcel of land that included both park property and Chavez Ravine, a neighborhood of Mexican-Americans whose residents were displaced to make room for the ballpark (1950s).
Photo by Mary-Austin Klein
In 1965, however, downtown developers put forward a plan to bulldoze the Avenue of the Palms to make way for a Convention Center. Enough was enough! Grace E. Simons, a former reporter and editor of the California Eagle (LA’s renowned African-American newspaper) organized a group of local citizens into the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park to combat this latest land grab. Citing the park’s original charter and subsequent ones protecting the park in perpetuity, the Committee’s sound legal arguments and fierce letter-writing campaign swayed public opinion and proved effective enough to scuttle the Convention Center.
Simons devoted the next twenty years of her life to the preservation of the park, rallying her colleagues with these word: “To protect the city’s parks, neighborhoods, and quality of life, you must be vigilant and you must organize.” Grace Simons died in 1985 at the age of 84, but the Citizens Committee has carried on her legacy for over 50 years by fighting off a variety of proposals for so-called ‘park enhancements,’ such as a short takeoff and landing airport, oil wells for Occidental Petroleum, an Asian trade center, several condominium projects, a zip line, a child-care facility, temporary classrooms, two football stadium proposals (1996), and many others.
In addition, the Committee has worked to improve irrigation, trails, and signage throughout the park, and most recently supported the addition of an 18-acre section to Elysian Park. We also have partnered with other non-profit organizations, such as City Plants, to re-forest areas of the park; Trash Free Earth, which hosts regular park cleanups; and BioCitizen, to educate students about the difference between native and non-native plants and how to nurture the park’s natural environment.
History of Elysian Park
The first recorded mention of the area that would become Elysian Park occurred on August 2, 1769, when the Portola Expedition, a party of Spanish explorers making the first land-based survey of the Pacific coast by Europeans, camped somewhere near the southeastern corner of what is now the park near the Los Angeles River. An historical marker at the Meadow Road entrance commemorates the Portola campsite.
Prior to the arrival of these Europeans, the Gabrielino-Tongva and Chumash Native Americans inhabited the wilderness that would become the park. A Gabrielino settlement in the area was called Yang-na, the “poison oak place.”
Over a decade later in 1781, the Spanish Governor of California established the Pueblo of Los Angeles with a royal grant that encompassed 28 square miles. Of this land grant, the 618 acres that now make up the park is the last remaining natural parcel. By the end of the 18th Century, however, the Spanish Empire was spread thin. Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821 and California became part of the First Mexican Empire. The Mexican-American War of 1846-48, in turn, forced Mexico to surrender its claim on ‘Alta California.’ In 1850, California became the 31st state in the Union.
Earliest known photo of Los Angeles Plaza 1858 | Via USC Libraries
One of the first official acts of the new American government was to record the boundaries of the Pueblo lands surrounding Los Angeles so that they could be auctioned off to generate revenue. At that time Elysian Park, known as ‘Rock Quarry Hills’ after the stone that was mined in the area, had so many hills and canyons that it was deemed undesirable for building and was withdrawn from public auction.
In his ‘A History of California and Los Angeles and its environs’ (1915), J.M. Guin wrote that “the lands that form Elysian Park were considered worthless and the councilmen could find no one to take them off their hands.”
As the 19th Century came to a close, however, America’s passion for taming the wilderness began to shift toward a desire to preserve part of it before it was all gone. Yellowstone became the first National Park in 1872; other parks soon followed. In 1886, the City Council dedicated Rock Quarry Hills as a city park, renaming it Elysian Park, after the famed Elysian Fields of Greek mythology, originally the paradise to which heroes on whom the gods conferred immortality were sent. Following suit, subsequent city charters granted protection to the parklands in perpetuity.
Although it was decided that Elysian Park would eschew formal landscaping in order to retain its wild, natural character, the hills already had been largely stripped bare of native coast live oaks and California black walnut trees for use as firewood and lumber. Barren hills were an eyesore to the 19th Century city fathers and a reforestation campaign was mounted to beautify the park. Between 1886 and 1892, more than 150,000 new trees were planted (eucalyptus, live oaks, pines, cypresses, pepper trees, and deodar cedars among others). Roads, footpaths, and bathrooms also were installed to make the park more accessible. In 1893, the Los Angeles Horticultural Society was founded and the City Arboretum was created with a grove of rare trees from around the world, many of which still thrive today. In 1895, one of the park’s most recognizable landmarks, the Avenue of the Palms, was created with an allee of date palms along what is now Stadium Way.