Updated February 2014, new stuff added after Union Station below...
I'm not going to try to lie to you or sugar coat in, downtown L.A. is pretty much a dirty, depressing concrete jungle filled with all kinds of different characters. At night, it pretty much becomes a ghost town. Still, it's a big destination for tourists.
I've spent years here, exploring the area, and every now and then I come across some hidden little gem. Here are some of them, little pocket gardens and parks that you wouldn't know were there without looking.
Let's start off at Union Station because this is where you should begin. It's where the light rail, subway, commuter rail, and many bus lines converge. Chances are you'll arrive in downtown here.
Union Station has two beautifully landscaped garden areas on each side of it's massive lobby. The south garden is heavily tracked and most people see that. Head out the north side, however, and you come across this quiet, walled garden with a tiled waterfall built into the wall. A great place to relax, meditate, and get control of your day.
ADDED FEBRUARY 2014
We'll start with this garden that's gone unnoticed while I spied the larger gardens nearby. In addition to the main plaza and garden at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, if you wander way around the back, over to where the large tower is, you'll find another quieter and smaller garden complete with a fountain offering a solitary place of meditation.
On top of Bunker Hill, behind the Wells Fargo Center and next to the ARCO building, sits this quiet park. It's also home to one of the weekly farmer's markets here in downtown and features a large, dramatic, and sunken waterfeature with 4 waterfalls streaming into it.
Down on Hope Street, between 6th and 7th, the Chrisian Science Reading Room opens this garden to the public during their open hours.
A little farther south, just beyond 9th Street and stretching from Grand Avenue to Hope Street is Grand Hope Park, a rather large piece of land with many shady nooks, fountains, meadows, and flowers to meditate among.
Going back north, just before 1st street on Hope, this very well hidden but kind of dull space occupies the land between three condo towers.
Between Union Station and the county jail, at the southeast corner of Ceasar Chavez and Vignes Street, this large lawn is inviting but also attracts it's share of homeless and recently released cons from the jail across the street.
ADDED OCTOBER 2013
The Deparment of Water and Power Building sits like a fortress across from the Music Center and at the top of the long ribbon of green know as Grand Park. You might expect them to have some tips on water-saving plants, and they do. You can check it out at their drought-tolerant, sunken garden in front of the building.
Over on Spring Street...well, actually between Spring and Broadway...Biddy Mason Park celebrates an historic L.A. figure at the back porch of the historic Bradbury Building.
ADDED JULY 2013
Welcome to Downtown's newest park, Spring Street Park, on it's namesake street between 4th and 5th Streets. It's a little less than an acre and already the pro-dog and anti-dog forces are at each others throats, mostly because a good number of dog owners let their pets run off leach and don't pick up after them.
Still, it's a lovely little park with lots of nice, shady nooks to sit in and a cool fountain to meditate by.
Here's the very well padded playground for the little ones.
Over at Olvera Street, next to the old Catholic church, workers found bones, lots of them, hundreds of them, and then it was realized they'd found an old, forgotten cemetery. The remains were re-interred and now we have this new, memorial garden in it's place on Main Street, across from Olvera Street next to the church.
North of Chinatown, stretching to the Los Angeles River is the Los Angeles State Historic Park...more commonly known as the cornfield for an art installation of corn planted there when the park first opened. Formerly the city's freight rail yard, the subway scenes from "Moneytrain" were filmed here on a giant set. Now, it's several acres of open space to get lost in that still needs to have its landscaping fill in. Above, the park is in the near distance as seen from the adjacent Chinatown Gold Line train station.
Down on 11th Street, not too far from Staples Center is the former Occidental Building, which long ago used to be the tallest building in town and have a nice restaurant on top. I think it belongs to AT&T now and the restaurant is long gone. At ground level, though, is this nice, meditative bamboo garden.
A brand new park has just been unveiled in Little Tokyo in the last couple of weeks. The kind of stark and harsh Toriumi Plaza sits where a portion of Parker Center's parking lot used to be on the corner of 1st Street and San Pedro.
Designed to not be homeless friendly, nevertheless, there are little gems hidden around the bamboo and ginko landscaped park such as these shadow boxes embedded in the sidewalk.
Here's another Union Station secret garden, one I didn't know existed until I extended my walk a little further than I ever had before. In the extreme back end (east side) of the station, around and behind the MTA headquarters building, is this little park filled with benches to sit on, pretty gardens, fountains and waterfalls.
Here you can see the nice, stepped waterfall that leads down to Vignes Street.
Between Spring and Broadway Streets, midway between 4th and 5th Streets, is this plaza that marks a walkway connecting Spring and Broadway. With a number of fast food establishments adjacent to it, it makes a nice place to sit and have lunch.
The Little Tokyo Mall, at 3rd and Alameda, is kind of depressing inside, but walk through and you'll get to this converted alley that has dining tables and a couple of small waterfalls.
This is another of the several Zen gardens that are located in Little Tokyo. This particular one is at the Buddhist temple on the corner of 3rd Street and Central Avenue.
Along Spring Street, adjacent to Olvera Street, is another new park. Mostly build to be used as an amphitheater, it is not yet open regularly.
Right next to the above park is this vertical garden, a wall planted with various ornamental and edible plants.
Next to the old cathedral, now just simply called Vibiana, is this garden. Only open for events the old cathedral is rented out for, this used to be the archbishop's personal meditation garden.
This is a new pocket park just north of the corner of 3rd and Main Street behind a new condo project called The Medallion. A nice grassy area overlooking a food court (that is still waiting for it's first tenant). Kind of a lonely place right now.
This plaza, for which I don't know the name, sits directly behind the Federal Building located at 300 N. Los Angeles Street...about a block south of Union Station. It separates the Federal Building from the Roybal Courthouse and the Metropolitan Detention Center.
There is this nice, shady lawn area and there's a cool fountain on the other side of those columns. A big sculpture of two guys fighting with a lot of holes in them is at the other end. The official name of it is "Molecule Man" but most people call it the "Drive By." The columns are also covered with a bas relief sculpture that a federal judge tried to have removed as obscene...he didn't succeed.
It's a safe place to take a break as it is well guarded on all sides by U.S. Police and marshalls, even if you do hear the taunts of the prisoners in their exercise yard up above.
Note for wheelchair users: you can access the plaza via the veranda surrounding the Federal Building. There are two ramps, one starting at the corner of Aliso and Los Angeles Streets and the other about 50 feet east of the corner of Temple and Los Angeles Streets.
Angel's Knoll is a small park situated between the bottom of the Angel's Flight funicular and the entrance to the Pershing Square station of the Metro subway. It's pretty, provides a lot of shade on hot days, and is relaxing. The downside is that it attracts a lot of homeless. It's at 356 S. Olive on the corner of 4th Street. A ride to the top of the hill on Angel's Flight is only a quarter.
This is the Lincoln Plaza on the corner of Grand and First, across from the Disney Concert Hall. Just a small, shady plaza with a bust of our 16th president to sit by.
ADDED 4-29-2011 - These next three I'll call "Forbidden and Forbidding."
Grand Avenue Park - This will not be so hidden when it's done. Running from the Music Center to City Hall, this was a very nice pedestrian mall, a great place to take a break from the neighboring office building and home to my favorite fountain in the city. It's all been ripped out now, with a new park being built in it's place and Los Angeles' largest fountain will be restored when it's done. For now? Keep out! It's a contruction zone.
Underground Archive - On 1st Street, across from the Los Angeles Times building is this. Underneath is a large bunker that used to house the city's historical archives. When it was closed, drug dealers and the homeless moved in making it something like a George Romero movie. The riff-raff and down-and-out were swept away, the entrances sealed, and the park above fenced off. It's very pretty and includes a nice rose garden, it's a shame that the city doesn't at least keep this part above ground open as a park.
Parker Center Plaza - At least this one's open to the public. This forbidding, concrete plaza between the old Parker Center LAPD building and City Hall South is home to this art installation called "Eye of the Storm." The posts represent the malevolence of the city while the little shelter in the middle represents the LAPD's protection against it. Could use a little care and cleaning these days.
This pocket park, with a large lawn dominating it, is on Second Street between Main and Spring Streets. Great place for frisbee or just laying on the grass looking up at the dominating skyline overhead.
At the new L.A. Police Headquarters, across the street from City Hall, I found this little memorial garden up on the second floor. Almost invisible from street level, if you didn't know it was there, you'd definitely miss it. Accessible via a stairway next to the newsstand on Main Street...just south of first...or via a ramp on the west side of the Ronald Deaton Auditorium, adjacent to the LAPD building. A very quiet, sparse, and pretty place made for some personal reflection.
Fletcher Bowron Square is perched atop the underground L.A. Mall, between Main, Los Angeles, Temple, and Arcadia Streets. The persistent homeless population means it's not the most pleasant place on this list, but the gardener assigned to it is persistent and does a good job keeping it pretty. It's a frequent location of celebrations and commemorations. Loction film shoots use it a lot as an outdoor dining room for their craft services units.
It's also the home of the boondoggle known as the Triforium (on the left side of the picture above), a supposedly musical sculpture installed at a cost of one million dollars in 1975 that's never worked right. Today, it looks like an old alien craft waiting for the mothership to arrive.
At the corner of Broadway and Temple Street is the central heating and air conditioning plant for the Civic Center. Around the back is one of the most well hidden of downtown's secret gardens. I can't find any information for this one but apparently it is a xeroscaped garden...meaning landscaped for minimum water usage...that is well maintained and very pretty. A chain across the driveway discourages visitors but you can walk around that to enjoy this litte park all by yourself.
Incongruously located in the middle of a large parking lot, just to the north of the Geffen Contemporary Art Museum on Temple Street. Originally, the entire parking lot was supposed to be turned into a park. This monument to Japanese Americans that served the U.S. side in World War II is all that made it.
Nearby in Little Tokyo, this Zen garden is very hard to find but it sits behind an office building at the Japanese Plaza, near the corner of San Pedro and 2nd Streets.
Still hidden is this other Zen garden but the directions are easier. Go into the lobby of the Kyoto Grand Hotel on the corner of 2nd and Los Angeles Streets. On the south side of the lobby are two elevators, take them to the 3rd floor and you'll exit into this lovely garden that also has a beer garden in the summer.
The Church provides the next respite, on the corner of Temple and Hill Streets is the new cathedral. The interior courtyard is full of gardens, fountains, and meditation gardens. There's also a nice cafe here.
The last one is well hidden. You have to know it's there or you'll never see it. Find the Disney Hall on the corner of Grand Avenue and 1st Street. Walk around to either side. Find the staircase and climb (there's an elevator for wheelchair users on the 1st Street staircase). At the top you'll find this jewel of a pocket park complete with private tables, viewing terraces, and that delft fountain that looks like a rose.
That's just a few...I'll update this post as I add pictures to the collection. Next time you're in downtown L.A. and looking to get away from it all for a few minutes, try one of these secret gardens.
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