Catching Up With Santa Monica's Tongva Park At Night

Saturday, 18 Jan 2014, 9:07:00 AM

Steve Stajich

Steve Stajich, Columnist
Santa Monica Mirror Archives
Steve Stajich, Columnist

Any public space or public space art installation is bound to have its detractors. That’s the nature of putting anything out in front of the public with a kind of built-in assertion that “This is good for you.”

There will always be a few people who have some alternative plan for the resources involved (“With the millions they spent on this, the city could have had a wonderful vegetable garden/dog park/skate boarding facility). Then there’s that low frequency hum that occurs when any public design reaches for the future.

Our household was late to catch-up with the new Tongva Park. We read about it being built, we saw it being built… but we neglected to get over to there and check it out when it opened. Finally last Sunday evening, we were walking home from a movie downtown and realized we’d go right past it. So, our first experience with the space was the one you get in the evening.

And I’m recommending that. It might not be “Gravity” in 3-D or two hours with Metallica but it’s pretty good for a 21st century, non-digital real-world interaction.

A slogan for Tongva Park might be “Feel the Power of the Path,” as there’s a consistent pull to walk one way or another on the paths through the space. And while it’s hardly a ‘woods,’ there’s a strong sense of nature contributing to the feel. Grasses and plantings of all kinds contribute to a sense, albeit limited by the arguably compact dimensions of the area, of freedom and breathing.

At night, some strategic lighting adds a whole extra dimension that works in sync with the wide variety of urban lighting and signage visible from the location. From one of Tongva’s higher platforms, even the banners and lighting on the 4th Street parking structure take on a little enchantment. That’s saying a lot for a parking ramp.

But is that enough? Of course it is better to have Tongva’s architect-shaped open space than to not have it at all, especially when you consider all the hotel chains that would have loved to have built on that very plot of land. But should it have been even more “open” and perhaps larger?

Traditionally, parks had a fairly simple purpose: They took on the name “park” to save open areas in cities. There was playground gear for the kids, baseball diamonds for softball teams, maybe even some golf. But behind any of that was the assumption that at some point you have to just stop constructing things so that people don’t feel trapped or crushed by cities. New York’s Central Park has acres of wide-open space where one is free to walk their own path or lay out a blanket and read a book.

Tongva kind of splits the difference by insisting that the architecture of paved walkways and spaces sculpted into earth creates so much intrigue and fascination that you really won’t notice that it’s not all that big. Getting back to the golf course reference, even a weekend hacker like me might hit a solid five iron shot diagonally across much of the width of the park.

I don’t think we’re supposed to notice that it’s not a lot of park by size. Instead, a more Asian grasp of garden and landscaping is meant to keep us occupied strolling by day, then taking in the location’s aforementioned framing qualities at night. It’s a little bit like arguing that the top of the Empire State Building is a “park” because of the great view you get from there of other cement and steel towers in Manhattan.

But once decisions to – for example – squeeze in more condos next to the Rand headquarters have already been made, then carping about exactly how much open area we get is just that; carping. And there is a beauty to the conscientious effort that has been made to make the area at Tongva inviting, interesting for children and adults, and involving at many levels. Is it in some way overdone, when there might have been less cement and more open grassy areas? Your own reaction might be the only valid answer on that.

Tongva Park provides that rare experience of walking in the heart of a city and feeling as though you might be relaxing and unwinding. And the choices that have been made there on such things as sculpture and sturdy safe playground equipment will feel contemporary for a long time. Perhaps it’s ironic that a very modern public space takes on the name of the natives who may have first walked there as a way to honor them. Not so ironic might be the disagreement among tribes and researchers about whether “Tongva” is a politically and historically correct use of the term. But at the end of the day the thought might be to reference humanity and its relationship to the land they walk. If so, then let’s not forget that more open space will always be more open space.

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