Written by Louis A. Magallanes Jr.
Nestled in between, and overlooking nearly all of the Greater Metropolitan Los Angeles Area, Elysian Park rests, rising high, much like its names sake. Being a devoted fan of literature, in particular “the Classics”, the name “Elysian Park” made me think of the land of myth where dead heroes dwelt. In mythology, Elysium, or the Elysian Fields, were located on the western edge of the Earth. So to does Elysian Park seem to stand on the edge of something. But what does it stand on the edge of? Between the local neighborhoods with their scatterings of Spanish and Victorian dwellings, and the sky scraping pillars of steel and glass that make up Downtown Los Angeles? Or perhaps it stands between the natural and unnatural world that makes up most of Los Angeles, and by extension California itself?
Elysian Park is considered the second largest park in Los Angeles, starting first at 550 acres and growing to its present 600 acres of land. Starting in 1866 plans were enacted to beautify a “useless” (though I would say abused, as its native “Live oaks and California black walnuts [...] had been sacrificed in previous decades for timber or firewood (Masters)). New nonnative plants were brought in and for a while, the Park seemed to live up to its name. But as irrigation failed (this was both an unnatural an natural landscape, as more park was “built up” around the existing area), and the non-native plants began suffering from drought, age, and pests both human and non-human, the 100 year old forests are dying (Smith).
While there are “plans” to revitalize the park, they remain just that, despite the growing hazards such as dried and dead flora, or “large and lush” trees “long overdue for pruning” (Smith), are fallen during wind and rainstorms. This is another way in which Elysian Park lies between; like its namesake, Elysian Park lies between the living and the dead.
Where irrigation still works, the trees and grassy areas are lush and green. Yet these little nooks paradise have been badly maintained and as such post dangers to visitors. The areas where the irrigation has failed are filled with thickets of dried branches, and fallen trees. There is a third area that I find most fascinating while exploring this land of in between. In these areas, there are dried brush, graying trunks, and dried flora, but overhead are lush green canopies. I don’t know whether these areas are areas where life struggles to survive, or where the land is beginning to die. It quite honestly could be both.
As a boy scout, I came here to plant trees, native trees that were supposed to thrive in this area. I had imagined that they would have grown to be giants by now. Now, I don’t know whether they are among the dead and dying, or thriving. Despite the seemingly decaying nature of the park, or even perhaps because of it, there is still a pale beauty to it. Or maybe it’s a tragic beauty.
There is a history to Elysian Park. Not just “the ecosystem that Gaspar de Portola witnessed when he camped beside the Los Angeles River in 1769,” (Smith), but a (some would say) darker history. I would not call it a darker history however, that would mean that history itself is wholly positive. History is illuminating, meaning it sheds light on all, positive and negative. Because of the illicit nature of this history, many try to ignore it, to control it, or to stamp it away. But it is a part of what makes this park so historical, and it fits in perfectly with the Park’s liminal spirit.
Elysian Park is famous for, some would say notorious for, being one of Los Angeles’ biggest Gay cruising sites: in fact, it “is one of the few public parks in Los Angeles that continues to have a strong cruising culture” (Harris Green). Once, I was brought here, during a rushed lunch break that started with a short hike through some of the dead brush and trees which provided excellent cover even if in the end I chickened out anyway, worried about the “police stings” that are still so common. Now I come here myself. I drive up a path leading to an overwatch I know about. It’s about two in the afternoon so while the sun is still up, it is not at its highest, providing warmth while not being over bearing. The road leading up to the overwatch is seeded with parked cars. Many with tinted windows. Many abandoned. Their Inhabitants off “taking hikes” through the brush in shirts, and hastily loosened ties. There are quite a few “nice” cars, I notice. When I reach the top there are yet more cars parked along the cul-de-sac if the overwatch. All these cars are empty too, save for a van that has a woman sitting in the driver’s seat, with an uneasy knowing twinkle in her eyes.
I stay seated in my car, my Postmates Fleet App on but not receiving any calls for deliveries, and take in my surroundings. Other than the woman in the vaguely creepy van, I let my eyes examine the cars around me, anime stickers on the windows of a silver car, a white car looking fairly new, condoms on the outside windshield of another car that has stuffed animals in the dash. Up from the “trail” comes a young Asian man, followed by another slightly, but noticeably older man. The younger man and I exchange glances, shy at first, but then he gives me a smile and follows the older man to his car, removing the condom from the windshield and pocketing it.
Another car approaches and I notice it is actually a forest ranger pick-up. I casually look over my phone, nervous, even though I am not doing anything. They drive slowly around the small lot and then head back down. I swear I saw knowing smiles on both rangers’ faces. Finally, I get out of the car. I walk along the edge of the cul-de-sac, peering first at the view. It is a strangely enchanting view. To the right I see Downtown Los Angeles, in all its glass and metal glory. Straight ahead, I see the more industrial type structures, some of brick, and some of aluminum, separating downtown from my neighborhood, Lincoln Heights, which lies on the right. In the brick and aluminum center, I see a brick structure that looks just like my church. I find this odd because the church should be over to the left. I look around to try and make sense of the image, some land marks to confirm or deny what I am seeing. No familiar land marks. Maybe it’s the guilt in my mind telling me what am I doing here, even though I haven’t done anything.
My eyes turn from the view to the various trails around me. On the ground, I see condom wrappers, green bottles that once held weed, bottles of water, and trash. Multiple paths snake out into the dried brush. All paths seem frequented, and all paths equally isolated. I continue to circle the cul-de-sac, and notice a handsome young black man coming up the path: he’s tall, and young looking. I’d say that he might be of college age, but the color of his sweater (the color of the local catholic high school, walking distance from this spot), and the fact it was turned inside out (possibly an attempt to hide said High School’s name from those around) makes me think he is younger than that. I suppose he COULD be a college student still wearing his high school sweater and wearing it inside out so as not to make people think he is still a high schooler... but I remember myself in high school and if I had a car, I would probably have came out this way.
But that was, 15-20 years ago. I find it hard to believe, or rather, maybe it hurts to believe that someone like him would have to resort to something like this. Something a mostly out, lives at home, never has time to actually go out on a date, certainly desperate, 36 year old Latino, would do. Not a young, attractive, guy like him. I had “Will and Grace” and “Jack” from “Dawson’s Creek”. He has a slew of actors, television shows, and people to look up to. Why is he here in this land of the lost and dying? Even if he is a catholic schoolboy.
But then how much has really changed? California is known as one of the most liberal states in the country. Los Angeles one of the most liberal cities outside of San Francisco and New York. Yet, still, you have grown men, and young boys who are too scared to explore themselves in the land of the living, but are still willing to risk arrest, and disease in a place like this. Because a place like this, with all the risks involved, feels safe to them. Elysian Park is their Elysian fields. A place where they can explore, no questions, commitments, or judgements laid at them.
As I return to my car, having once again chickened out, I turn on my engine and slowly pull out of the cul-de-sac and down the path passed the other parked cars; some new, some gone, some still there. I think to myself, despite the desperation, the sadness, and loneliness of a place like this, there is something beautiful about it. And I can’t place my finger on why that is. Except to bring it back to the nature of Los Angeles, and by extension, California as places of harmonies, contradictions, and amalgamation. Joan Didion once wrote: “California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things better work here, because here, beneath the immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent, (Didion 172). This park sits on the edge for many people, especially many queer people, it is a mixture of natural and unnatural, living and thriving, dead and dying, scared and lonely, brave and adventurous. But most importantly, despite Didion’s fears of loss and failure, maybe even because of that, there is hope. For me, that makes this park is a true Elysian Fields.
Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
Green, Hannah H. “How the Art of Signaling Is Changing.” How We Get To Next, How We Get
To Next, 26 Jan. 2017.
Masters, Nathan. “The Origins of Elysian Park.” Lost LA, KCET, 23 Jan. 2017.
Smith, Doug. “Recovery Plan Lies Dormant as Elysian Park's Exotic Trees Die Off.” Los Angeles Times,
Los Angeles Times, 21 Dec. 2015.
Louis Magallanes Jr. is a returning PCC student. He says, "After recently graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a BA and MA in English I decided to return to PCC to explore other sides of literature, as well as explore possibilities in Education or Psych (I’m not sure yet!). I enjoy writing. This piece was inspired by my California Literature class. It explores a place in Los Angeles that has a strong connection with the LGBTQ community, as well as with the 'aura' of California itself."
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