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A Little Bit of Country on Skid Row

Designing & Building The Weingart Center Garden

I had never heard of the Weingart Center until I got a call on a Thursday afternoon in May. They wanted me to bid on designing a garden in downtown Los Angeles – in an area commonly known as “skid row.”

And … they wanted to meet with me the following Monday, at noon, and would like my design and bid by two o’clock that afternoon.  I told them that the meeting I could do but there was no way I could design a garden and have it in their hands in a matter of two hours.  I have a reputation for working quickly, but to design a 5,000 square foot garden . . . So, I got till Wednesday – which was doable – but meant I had to put everything else on hold.

When I arrived for Monday’s meeting I didn’t want to get out of my car.  Downtown Los Angeles is not an area I spend much time in and the Weingart Center at 6th and South San Pedro is in the heart of a very “dicy” neighborhood.  At least that’s what I thought as this terrified Westsider sat locked in her cherry-red SUV watching the local inhabitants go about their ominous looking business!  All I could think of at that moment was, “Why on earth would anyone want to build a garden here . . . and why me?”

But I got out of my car and I’m glad I did!

As I had learned from their website, www.weingart.org, “The Weingart Center Association gives homeless men and women the skills, tools and resources and the hope they need to break the cycle of homelessness and lead self-sufficient lives.”  The Center and its clients reside in what was originally the El Rey Hotel, an 11 story building constructed in 1926. The derelict piece of land they wanted transformed into a garden lay next to that building.

Weingarte Center Garden Before

I had no idea what the property was originally used for but it was now covered in asphalt with a concrete and brick walkway running down the center.  The asphalt had to go but the walkway could be used as could the red brick wall of the adjacent building.

I have learned over the course of some 15 years as a landscape designer to allow the property I’m working with and the buildings that are on it to help guide me in my designs. It’s almost as if they speak to me, and what I heard as I walked about that forlorn slice of skid row was that it wanted to be anything but a pretty little park. I kept asking myself … “If I could be anything, what would I be?”  Then I remembered a time I was up at Big Bear with my kids running through the pine trees and I decided that if I could bring anything to the people who were struggling here in this hardscrabble environment, it would be a little bit of the outdoors and … what-you-know … a garden was born.

On that Wednesday, after I’d completed my song and dance and the panel of judges had reviewed my designs, a woman asked what the park’s color scheme would be.  I hadn’t finalized it's color scheme, but since I do, in fact, work quickly, I pointed to a gentleman sitting at the table who was wearing a beautiful yellow, orange and red stripped shirt, and said, “Those colors!  They’ll look great against the red brick and the pine trees that are going at the end of the park.” I’m just glad he wasn’t wearing blue oxford cloth or the park would’ve turned out to be a very different experience!

Weingarte Center Garden During Construction

I am both a landscape designer and a licensed landscape contractor, so what I design I also build. But The Weingart Center Association had joined forces with AmeriCorps and I was told that I would have a crew of some 30 AmeriCorps volunteers to work on the project. So my gang of five became crew heads and the work began.

All was going swimmingly, the asphalt had been removed, the red brick had been power washed, all the drainage had been completed and the concrete was being poured when I was notified that the requested building permit that I needed to construct the pergola would take at least 6 months to be processed.  It seems this particular piece of land had never been included in the city’s survey and a building permit could only be issued on existing property and since it wasn’t on the city’s plat, it didn’t exist.

Weingart Center Garden Completed

I could hardly wait 6 months or longer to get the permit, so out went the beautifully designed pergola and into the ground went six free-standing stanchions, which did not require a permit. I had sailcloth died yellow and orange and cut into triangles. The sailcloth was run on guy wires between the stanchions, which created overlapping areas of shade, giving the entire park a festive feeling. Of course, this never would have been achieved had my beautifully designed pergola been built but that’s why their called happy accidents.

Everything else went as planned: the drip irrigation was installed, 4 rectangular seating areas were built flanking the existing concrete path and filled with roses, lavender and Red Bud trees; and the perimeter area of decomposed granite was planted with Mediterranean drought tolerant plants such as guava, rosemary, flax, pittosporum and, of course, the pine trees.

As the construction progressed, more and more people from the Center and the community came to watch and comment and kibitz. And as I came out of my prejudicial, Westside shell and began to talk to them and learn a little bit about their lives, I realized that most of the people that lived on “skid row” were not crazy, although there were certainly some of those; that most of the people who lived there were just like me, only their lives had been torn apart for any number of reasons, and that “but for the grace of God ….”

Weingart Center Garden Completed

The park’s opening was a great success. Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa both spoke and everyone from all the agencies and organizations that made the garden possible were there.  But the take-away for me was experiencing the joy and pride and excitement of those Weingart Center residents and their neighbors in the community.

I’ve designed any number of stunning gardens for multi-million-dollar estates, but none of them gave me half the satisfaction that I got from bringing a little bit of country to skid row.

Eva Knoppel

If you would like to see a short video showing the construction of the Weingart Center Garden, please click here.

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Gardening Question

What's the best way to time the auto irrigation on different kinds of plants (vegetables vs. drought tolerant) and for different times of the year in our "almost" coastal Southern California?

Carola Bundy

Answer

Carola, unfortunately, there really is no "best way."

There's really only one way to know how much water a particular plant needs and that's the old fashioned way, check to see if needs watering.

You can use your finger, or if you prefer a more accurate means of measuring the moisture content, get yourself a water meter from any good hardware store or gardening center.


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