Closing America’s Playground: Los Angeles and the History of Our Parks and Recreation Crisis

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Lawrence Culver received his doctorate in History at UCLA and is the author of "The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America" (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). He teaches at Utah State University.

On a Tuesday morning in late December 2010, for the first time ever, the gates closed at Disneyland.   The reason was simple enough—holiday crowds had overwhelmed the magic kingdom.  Yet shutting down Disneyland could be a metaphor for a far broader and more troubling phenomenon occurring in Los Angeles and Southern California.  A place that gained international renown as “America’s Playground” has become a region where recreation and recreational space are increasingly scarce, and similar threats now face parks and recreational funding across the nation.

When Walt Disney unveiled his new amusement park in 1955, he welcomed tourists to the iconic western landscapes of Frontierland, the exotic tropical atmosphere of Adventureland, fairy-tale Fantasyland, the small town nostalgia of Main Street, U.S.A., and alluring Tomorrowland, where visitors saw of a future of contentment and abundance.   Long before Disney’s park, Southern California had been promoted as each of these places—as an agricultural frontier, an exotic tourist destination, the embodiment of traditional American values, a Hollywood fantasy where dreams came true, and a model of the American future, filled with immense promise.

Los Angeles grew prodigiously by selling a balmy climate, natural abundance, and recreation.  Other cities also built parks for recreation, from Central Park in New York, completed in 1873, to the network of “City Beautiful” parks in Denver, cities in the Midwest, and elsewhere built around 1900.  In that same era, Chicago and Los Angeles created the first two Playgrounds Departments in the U.S.  Progressives saw recreation as a way to socialize and “Americanize” children.  This serious—and sometimes coercive—view of play was reflected in the portentous motto of the L.A. Playgrounds Department: “The test of whether a civilization will live or die is the way it spends its leisure.”  Leisure did indeed seem indispensible in Southern California, not a temporary respite, but instead a way of life.  Relentless promotion made the city and region synonymous with fun in the sun.  Publications showcased bungalows, beaches, mountains, and deserts, and newsreels showed stars frolicking at local resorts. 

In the longer term, however, public recreation was rarely a civic priority, nor was it open to all.  Los Angeles neglected to buy parkland, and sold off much of its communally-owned pueblo lands, leaving the city with less parkland per person than any other major U.S. city.  Backyard family leisure was limited to those with the money to buy a house, or not prohibited from homeownership due to their race.  African American residents were taxed to buy beaches as public property—but were banned from almost all of them during the 1920s and 30s, and faced hostility at beaches for decades thereafter.  The same was true at public swimming pools.  Young Mexican Americans, facing similar hostility, swam in the Los Angeles River, or in makeshift pools like the reservoir called “Sleepy Lagoon,” remembered now for its association with an infamous murder trial.

Yet the myth of a pastoral city and abundant recreation proved potent indeed.  Los Angeles became a model for the development of cities and suburbs after World War II, with residential yards, backyard swimming pools, and residential golf communities.  Yet these places often had little public recreation, and as the civil rights movement forced the integration of public parks, pools, and beaches, whites and the middle class increasingly retreated to privatized recreation.

In L.A., these historical factors were compounded by fiscal discrimination.  Parkland was rare across the city, but especially so in poor neighborhoods.  In the wake of 1978’s Proposition 13, which shrank residential and commercial property tax revenues, recreational spending was gutted.   Recreational facilities in wealthier neighborhoods could make up some lost funding through donations, user fees, or concessions—options less viable elsewhere.

All of this was true before the financial crisis of 2008.  Parks always place a poor second in comparison to needs deemed more essential, or dire warnings from public safety agencies facing cuts.  Last year’s city budget included a $38 million—or 27 percent—cut for L.A. Parks and Recreation.  Similar cuts are happening elsewhere.  In New York City, parks funding is down $129 million since 2008, delaying repairs and improvements.  Nor is this just an urban problem.  In Arizona, twelve of thirty state parks were slated for closure, though local funds were used to keep some open temporarily.

Parks are not optional luxuries.  Do you care about crime and juvenile delinquency?  Parks provide a crucial space for everyone, but especially young people, to socialize and enjoy recreation.  How about public health?  In the midst of a national obesity epidemic, parks are a desperately needed space for recreational exercise.  Do you care about kids?  Perhaps parents individually do, but based on how we fund recreation for children, we as a society do not.  Seniors rely disproportionately on parks and recreational offerings as well, for activities and socializing, or just getting out and about.  How about something as unquantifiable as “quality of life”?  Parks provide that too—access to nature and the outdoors, recreation from active to somnolent, and the company of others, or just time alone.  Yet parks get little credit for crimes averted, lives enriched and lengthened, or lowered costs for policing and health care.

Los Angeles currently lacks the funds for a major parks expansion, however commendable that might be.  Yet more regular funding would not require gutting other government services—merely a longstanding and regular commitment.  Los Angeles may be unique in the ways in which its history is connected to recreation, but parks and recreation are inextricable from our national civic culture.  They offer a democratic commons for every resident, and are some of the few places where everyone can meet and mingle.  If Southern Californians want future generations to still remember their region as America’s playground—or if any of us, anywhere in the nation, want to have parks and public spaces to play in—we owe ourselves, and those who will follow us, the vision and resolve to support them in good times and bad, now and in the future.

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