creative consulting for the art of life by Jason Jenn

creative consulting for the art of life by Jason Jenn

Friday, June 3, 2011

ART MAP: MacArthur Park & Westlake District

"Someone left the cake out in the rain
don't think that I can take it
'Cause it took so long to bake it
And I'll never have that recipe again"
- MacArthur Park by Jimmy Webb
This is to officially announce that at the end of June, after 6 1/2 years of loft suite (sweet) living in the same building, 4 blocks from the  historic MacArthur/Westlake Park, the time has come to move on to a new location. After a 5 week period of tapping into my Iowa roots in July and August, I shall return to Los Angeles and set my sights on a new home in a new area of the city. I’ve spent the years documenting some of the park environment and surrounding neighborhood as one of its residents, so I thought I would share some of it with you now before I leave. It’s part of what I term ART MAPPING, a creative documentation process thru photography, writing, art, performance, etc. that I think all artists can consider doing for their own community and surroundings.


MacArthur Park has been a fairly good, sometimes infuriating, but always unusual and unorthodox home for me. It’s hard to believe that other than my childhood home in Hills, Iowa (population 500), this location has hosted me the longest amount of time I’ve stayed in one physical building location (I did live in a loft on the 5th floor for 4 1/2 years and then moved into an identical 2nd floor unit that included a large outdoor patio). The question has often been: how/why does a rural white boy from Iowa come to live in the most densely populated, most Latin-American neighborhood in Los Angeles? Well, I suppose there are many answers I can offer up to explain.

 I could say it was the relatively inexpensive amount of rent compared to large amount of space that has allowed me to live out my NYC  in the 60’s art loft with brick walls fantasy. If I could go back in time, NYC in the 60’s would be one of my top picks. Who knows, my soul may have been reincarnated from one of its participants, which is why I love it so. Certainly the streets around Mac Arthur park have provided me with a plethora of interesting found objects, broken furniture and the like to make assemblage/installation pieces in homage to the 60’s NYC art scene.

I could also say that I chose this location because I wanted to be close to a wide variety of public transportation options. This July marks 7 years of LA living without owning a car! I partly did it to be a more “green” inhabitant, and partly to save money. Sure, I’ve borrowed a lot of people’s cars in order to make functioning in the wide sprawl of Los Angeles fully work (being a performing artist and/or videographer and having to schlep props or camera equipment all around town is very challenging via bus or metro subway - I’ve done it on occasion, but it’s not quite what I would call fun). I do enjoy the adventure of hopping onto a bus or subway — and the unexpected discoveries one can make while walking in LA (which a famous song professes nobody does).

I could also say that I chose this location because it was across the street from a Home Depot (which to a guy with no car but who loves to build things was convenient to say the least). I could also say that I wanted ample amounts of free and available parking for guests (which living next to so many big parking lots has definitely provided). I could say that I enjoyed the view of downtown LA from the rooftop.

Old signs meet the new
But there is yet one more odd answer which I find more and more important to offer up: MacArthur Park has a very unusual and remarkable energy and spirit to it, that it is a wounded energy vortex of sorts, and that I’ve been subconsciously attracted to what I would call its liminal space properties. I know that statement likely brings even more questions to mind, but it is my opinion, that MacArthur Park has a rather unique spiritual energy, partly due to its location and history. I’ve done some research, based both on reading and first-hand observation that allows me to make my strange claim.


Otis pointing to his former home and former art school location
Mac Arthur/Westlake Park has been through many transformations both good and bad: she’s an old gal with a rich and sordid past. I wish I knew more about her life centuries ago, because I have a feeling the Native American tribes utilized her energy in specialized ways. What is known from recent recorded history, is that in the mid-1800’s she was a swampy refuse dump and major eye-sore to the inhabitants that lived around downtown. Money was gathered by the mayor and in 1863, gardener Albert H. Hardcastle helped transform it into a “pleasure ground” to provide an antidote to the growing urbanization of LA.  Westlake Park was then born, so named because it was a large lake to the west of downtown LA. Boat/canoe rides were a beautiful way to spend the day and it was considered one of the most charming spots in Los Angeles with a gorgeous vista of downtown.

For many years the surrounding neighborhood thrived, full of elegant Victorian mansions and Beaux-Arts apartment buildings. It was often compared to NYC’s Upper East Side, partly due to it being populated by wealthy white people and the Jewish core of LA. After the 1920’s the park began to undergo frequent transformations (along with rest of LA). The mentality of the era had changed, industrialization grew quickly,  and more recreational use buildings were added inside her as people wanted more than just a pleasure ground to stroll in. The neighborhood was in full opulent swing. The  Park Plaza Hotel was built right up against the West side of the park (although it was originally built as an Elk’s club; of which I’ve read all manner of gossip and stories about secret rooms there to hide their booze and women).  A grand film palace the Westlake Theatre rested at its East side. The neighborhood was a prime destination for the elite of the Los Angeles scene, and some even proclaimed that what the Champs-Elysees was to Paris, it was to Downtown Los Angeles.

The Park Plaza Hotel
Detail of Park Plaza Hotel
Along came the Great Depression, which gave rise to the WPA, which in turn gave rise to projects that put people to work improving/changing MacArthur Park in various ways. A performing stage shell was constructed, the landscaping was redone, and several public art works were added. None of that compared to the major alteration of 1934-35, when the park was cut right down the middle by Wilshire Boulevard. This “Boulevard of Los Angeles” now connected the core of downtown Los Angeles to the beach edge of Santa Monica. This would become a very symbolic wound, similar to the eventual renaming of the park after WWII General MacArthur, that fractured the spirit and identity of the neighborhood and contributed to its decline shortly thereafter.

Detail on La Fonda Restaurant building
To this day Wilshire is still one of the major arteries of LA public transportation with a dense population of business and residential buildings along it. While there were streetcars for a time in Los Angeles, they quickly came to an end after WWII when car companies bought them up so they could dismantle them, making it even more desirable/necessary for people to buy and own their own car. Los Angeles, like the rest of the United States quickly became enslaved to the idea of individual car use and urban sprawl was born. By the 1960’s most of the wealthy inhabitants abandoned the MacArthur Park / Westlake neighborhood and drove away to “greener pastures”. While there had been designs to expand downtown Los Angeles west towards MacArthur Park, this sudden vacuum of wealth and spread of the Los Angeles economic business centers led to a bit of a real estate meltdown in the area. Instead of its planned growth, Mac Arthur Park/Westlake District became a home for the poor, transient population and a place for exiles of Central American wars and illegal immigrants to settle. Once big mansions and houses were divided up into small rooms for cheap rent.

Quite a fall — and quite an example of how the domination of cars damaged the sense of community, neighborhood, and downtowns all across America.

The often trashed back alley behind my building
Mac Arthur Park held a notorious status for quite some time; known for crime, drugs, gangs, prostitution, and the place to buy phony documents. The local Rampart Police Station scandals of the late 1990’s did little to help its image. But the opening of the Red Line Metro Station nearby helped to pave the way for some major park renovations and an effort to gentrify the neighborhood. By the early 2000’s the image was changing slightly as more money flowed in to take advantage of the cheap real estate and police efforts made it a bit safer for folks like me to live. One of the local food hotspots at the North edge of the park, “Mama’s Hot Tamales” also serves as home for the Institute for Urban Research and Development, with the aim to help make MacArthur Park an Urban Oasis once more.


I moved here in December of 2004 as part of that sense of rebirth and revitalization. Frequent dog walks and public transportation use have led me to really get a sense of the surrounding neighborhood and to visit the park frequently. I have seen some fascinating changes and improvements made to the area during that time, but I would say that the recent economic recession has made the “lift-off/face-lift” slower than hoped.  However, I don’t think gentrification by outsiders is the answer to solving its issues. While some people may seek to return the neighborhood to its former glory, any changes ought to be made with its current inhabitants in mind. There are actually good signs that is happening. Even as I finish writing this and step outside for a moment, I discover today that Korean Air (its headquarters is just a few blocks away) has sponsored the planting of trees in the neighborhood as part of Million Trees LA and their own We Care promotion (how’s that for timing).

June 3, 2011 Tree planting day on 6th St.
MacArthur Park / Westlake has been a remarkable place for me to witness the energy of a place in flux, in transition, in a powerful, if somewhat unstable, liminal space. I was recently reminded about the subject of liminality during a recent conversation*, which illuminated a huge theme to my entire life (which I will continue to tie into various themes over time). Liminality, according to good ol’ Wikipedia, was developed by Arnold van Gennep and later Victor Turner. The term is used to “refer to in-between situations and conditions that are characterized by the dislocation of established structures, the reversal of hierarchies, and uncertainty regarding the continuity of tradition and future outcomes". MacArthur Park is certainly an area that resides in that definition.

Our modern society gives very little thought into the spirit of a place. We usually see a location as an inanimate thing, a concept merely as staging ground for the people who give it life. But everything is connected by spirit, places are alive in their own way, and the well-being of a community is affected by every aspect of its surrounding. The park is the heart and soul of this neighborhood. When it was transformed into a beautiful park, the region was activated by its charm, when it was drastically altered, the charm faded and people left because they had better options. On a very simple level,  people tend to enjoy living in a beautiful location - having a beautiful park serves to bolster the communities sense of pride. Which brings me to one unfortunate aspect of this neighborhood: the current inhabitants have little cultural sensibility when it comes to cleanliness and litter/trash is thrown everywhere (oddly enough the same complaint that the region had in the mid 1800’s). That litter is just one example of what living in our global culture of cheap, disposable, overly packaged commercial goods does to the planet when people just don’t collectively care or think about the spiritual energy that connects all living things, not just human beings.

Street vendors are popular features feeding the community

A gathering in protest over a recent police shooting
The park and neighborhood has a very palpable energy and spirit. As friends come to visit me they are often freaked out by the number of people gathered on the streets, an unusual site in car crazed Los Angeles. The streets are crawling with people on a regular basis. Along 6th street surrounding my building plays host to numerous street vendors and sidewalk swap meets. MacArthur Park is also constantly host to numerous political and immigration rallies. Several years back the park was host to the May Day riots and protests as seen on national TV in outrage over lack of proper immigration reform.  Several times during the year Wilshire Boulevard is blocked off surrounding MacArthur Park for numerous traveling carnivals, & community festivals. The Park Plaza Hotel and park itself are extremely popular place for film and TV crews to rent out. The performance shell was given a remodel a few years back and for several years now there have been a series of free summer concerts. Plans are apparently in motion to make reclaim the former Westlake Theatre movie palace from just another cheap goods swap meet and make it the  home for the Los Angeles live performance-theatre troupe Culture Clash. MacArthur Park’s energy, while still fractured and unstable, is drawing people to her and slowly regrouping. It’s still the vital hub for the community and getting more of the respect it deserves.

Future home of LA performance troupe Culture Clash
And while this neighborhood has at times aggrivated me, it has also fascinated me. So I’ve taken pictures and gathered stories of the remnants of its glamorous past, bits of its not so glamorous present, and tried to see the beauty in both. I’ve gazed at the view of downtown Los Angeles, so close, but yet so far away, as if the 110 freeway that defines the border between downtown and Westlake District keeps MacArthur Park split far apart and relegated as an outsider, rather than the glorious entry portal or getaway hot spot it once was. And, I’ve been a stranger in a strange land; an unusual statistical inhabitant: a fringe element living inside of a fringe neighborhood.  I have felt that liminal energy in my own life, felt  neither here nor there, existing outside of the normal boundaries of the Los Angeles scene.
Upon the threshold
But now comes the time to move and see what new energies come forth from that. I know I’ll keep checking in on my dear Westlake District energy vortex and keep Art Mapping her progress.

Goldiscruffs will surely miss the park as much as I

* Thank you to Brian Mahanay for sharing the concept and pointing out the direction of research on liminal spaces during a recent conversation


  1. fascinating tribute to a neighborhood JJ - but you make no mention of the famous song written about it :)

  2. Very true - the infamous song will be included in the complete ART MAP 'ZINE/BOOK VERSION that I aim to create - I tried to be somewhat concise in this blog entry

  3. Hey Jason, fascinating reading (and great photos!) And yes, I had to look up "Liminal" - great word/term/concept. Your art mapping plus history of the MacArthur Park neighborhood is inspiring.
    Thanks for sharing, and it will be a lucky L.A. neighborhood that gets you to focus on it next!
    Namaste and a Hug,