Have you ever heard of Westlake Park? This was a park that was once referred to as “the most popular open-air resort in the city” (page 17 of Kevin Roderick’s book on Wilshire Boulevard). Opened in 1890, the park was loved by the people of Los Angeles and offered the perfect venue for leisurely strolls, boating in a lake, and popular Sunday concerts. The park was surrounded by luxury hotels and the area even became known as the Champs-Élysées of Los Angeles. You may be wondering, where is this great park and how come I have not been there yet? Well, Westlake Park is actually MacArthur Park. Obviously, the park and its surrounding neighborhood have changed significantly since the glory days I mentioned above. (For more about the history of Westlake Park, please read this KCET article.) MacArthur Park is still well-known today, but mostly for all the wrong reasons. Specifically, the park became known for violence and crime after 1985 when gangs, shoot-outs, prostitution, and drug dealing became commonplace. Over the years, the City of Los Angeles has undertaken various efforts to improve the park, such as the installation of surveillance cameras, the creation of a recreation center, and the opening of Levitt Pavilion which offers free concerts. But perhaps the most visible attempt to revitalize and change the image of the park is actually a public art project called The Spheres at MacArthur Park.
The Spheres at MacArthur Park is organized by the non-profit group Portraits of Hope which called the project “the largest public art and civic project in the U.S.” Over 10,000 people across Los Angeles participated in the painting of the floating spheres, including 7,000 children who took part in Portraits of Hope creative therapy and civic leadership sessions in hospitals and schools. Community and social service groups were also involved in the project which highlights integrated themes of public art, civic education, community engagement, creative therapy, and teamwork. At the end of the exhibition later this month, the 3,000 colorful, inflated spheres will be donated to social service institutions throughout the U.S., including senior centers, women’s shelters, schools, and hospitals to beautify their exterior and interior settings. The project is a privately funded initiative, and received political and logistical support from the Office of Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.
It is difficult to judge the success of a public art effort, but I would like to think that The Spheres project has been highly successful. I was there over the weekend and noticed quite a few tourists walking around the lake. Also, I have never seen so many people taking photographs at MacArthur Park. Without the colorful balls, I doubt that there would be any tourist or photographer at the park. In addition, I checked Instagram (which I wrote about previously in this article) and found that nearly all of the recent photographs taken at MacArthur Park focus on The Spheres. Furthermore, the park has received much positive publicity as a result of this public art endeavor, as evidenced by coverage on popular media outlets like the L.A. Times, KTLA, and CBS Los Angeles.
The Spheres is a wonderful project that has temporarily revitalized and transformed MacArthur Park. As the exhibit will soon come to an end, it is important to build upon the public interest in the park that has grown in recent weeks. Specifically, more must be done to improve the park in the long term. We have recently witnessed the revival of Echo Park Lake (read this KCET article) and the launching of an international design competition to re-envision Pershing Square (visit this link). It is only logical to ask now: what about MacArthur Park? What can and should be done to restore the beauty and glory of this once beloved public space?
Note: All photos by author.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone, and do not reflect the official views or positions of the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.
Editor’s Update: The Spheres of MaArthur Park exhibit has been extended through the CicLAvia – Heart of LA event on Sunday, 10/18, when key central LA streets will be open only to bicyclists, pedestrians, and other non-motorized mobility.