The Great Debaters of Pershing Square
A soap box speaker in Pershing Square addresses a small group in this 1960 photo from the LAPL's Photo Collection.
DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES — The L.A. Times' Steve Harvey yesterday dedicated his Then and Now column to the Long Beach Spit 'n' Argue Club, a group that for 75 years would gather to chew tobacco and debate just about anything.
Harvey includes a mention of Downtown's own debate scene, which for decades was the defining feature of a visit to Pershing Square.
Times columnist Timothy G. Turner may have been the one who dubbed the group the Pershing Square Country Club. He used the name nine times between 1943 and 1952, toward the end of that time referring to himself as a "charter member."
The discourse was already at least two decades old by the time Turner gave it a mention. In June of 1925 the Times ran a short item on the "Pershing Square Philosophers."
Oblivious to the swirl of traffic around them, sit the philosophers of Pershing Square, serenely indifferent to the crowds of shoppers, theatregoers, pedestrians that flow past them. No problem of economics, politics, religion or finance is too large or involved for them to discuss, yea to completely dispense with. They are particularly dissatisfied with modern political forms and economic formulae and will challenge anyone to debate these questions with them.
While the soap-boxers were displaced by construction of the Pershing Square parking garage in 1951, they quickly returned when the park reopened.
Mayor Sam Yorty set out to change that in 1962. Those walking across the park "should not have their privacy invaded by men engaged in loud harangues, by loiterers or by talkative crackpots," the Times quoted him as saying. He set in motion a redesign intended to make the park less appealing to the debaters.
Work on the $147,000 facelift began on July 27, 1964. The design, which reduced seating from 500 to 200, was intended to create a "non-loitering, walk-through park."
To handle the displaced debaters, the city created Boston Park Commons, a 1.5-acre park space dedicated to free speech and located far from the city center at Figueroa and Sunset.
The plan failed. Pershing Square reopened in 1965 and the park familiars returned. Boston Park sat vacant. "The little park, lying against a shoulder of the Hollywood Freeway, was impossible for an undesirable to find," noted the Times' Jack Smith in a 1966 story. "In fact, it was almost impossible for a desirable to find, with a car and a map."
Pershing Square even became a training ground for up-and-coming debaters. In February of 1967, the Times told the story of Valley College sophomore Barbara Herrmann, who won a debate contest at the Van Nuys campus and was brought Downtown to try out her material on the regulars as a prize.
Even before she got started, the crowd was intimidating. "I expected to see a bunch of everyday people," she told the Times. "When I got there I met quite a few strange ones -- drunks and men with rolling eyes -- the kind you don't see everyday in college or at church."
In the end, though, it turned out that the Pershing Square crowd was more open to Herrmann's speech about "sissy little boys" evading the draft than were her schoolmates. "At the college I was booed," she said. "Some of the kids there said they wanted to hang me and another wanted to hit me with a stick. The people down at Pershing Square were less violent than those at school."