Public Beauty, Part 2
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By Marc Porter Zasada
I know it's a faux pas for an Angeleno to express New York envy. It's bad taste to regret our lack of a genuine Soho or Fifth Avenue. One should never compare Chinatowns--and yes, even though we have no Brooklyn Bridge to stroll at early evening, we can always roll down our windows, pop in Fly Like an Eagle, and lift off along one those ramps from the 10 to the 405.
Still, come summer, the Urban Man can't help indulging one shameful New York fantasy--and it has nothing to do with Broadway or hot pretzels.Me, I want L.A. to have its own Bryant Park. Just one Bryant Park.
There, I've said it.
Bryant Park is nothing fancy, just a classic lawn framed by leafy promenades and a fountain, out behind the New York Public Library. But listen, this time of year, hundreds of folding chairs and tables get set up in the shade. The library rolls out shelves of summer books. And lo, in the middle of a weekday, Bryant Park is full--I mean, full of people arguing, reading papers, eating bag lunches, or studying subway maps. Working people and bums. Pinstripes and bluejeans. A guy hauls in a piano to play jazz.
Get it? A crowd of city-dwellers not watching a ballgame or Shamu. Just together... in a park.
This afternoon, I find myself crossing the grim shadeless pavement of Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles. Even though it's right in front of the stately, and very Manhattanesque Biltmore Hotel, and even though it borders on busy pedestrian streets, Pershing square is usually deserted except for a few street people lost among big postmodern chunks of yellow and purple concrete. Okay, in the summer they have a few concerts here and come December, that little portable ice rink.
But like other L.A. parks, pictures from the turn of the 20th century show a square of large trees. Of daily crowds. Of actual beauty. It's decline peaked in the Fifties when they shipped the big trees to Disneyland for the jungle boat ride and put in the parking garage.
Come the Nineties, partly inspired by the renovation of yes, Bryant Park, the city tried to revive Pershing Square. But this being L.A., we did not put in more grass, trees, or a guy with a piano -- we installed those clever hunks of yellow concrete. That purple tower.
Today, as I watch a bum spit into the grim, minimalist water feature, I suddenly let my shameful New York fantasy get the better of me.
I look up at the Biltmore, and I imagine pulling out my cell phone and dialing the general manager right then--you know, like something Jimmy Stewart would do in an old movie.
"Sir," I'd say, "You don't know me. I'm just an urban man standing outside in Pershing Square. But you run a great hotel on what should be a great park. Surely, you could ignore all local politics, and ring the mayor to get some bulldozers out here. They could take out the horrid yellow blockhouse that faces your hotel, along with the stupid purple tower by late afternoon. Then we could look up the old photos and plant trees in this shallow ground. Put in some folding chairs and a guy with a piano. Truly, by August, we could have a park of some small joy and beauty. Sort of like... in the Big Apple."
I figure there'd be a long pause at the other end of the line, and then, ---cause it was that kind of movie, the Biltmore general manager would say, "You know what mister, you're right. We've put up with this sad ugliness on our front porch long enough. I'll tell the mayor that sometimes, a little New York envy can be a good thing. Let's do it just to make the Urban Man happy, standing out there all hot and bothered in what really should be Bryant Park."
Copyright -- 2006 Marc Porter Zasada. All rights reserved.
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