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Lost L.A.: School gardens, an idea planted a century ago

February 3, 2012 | 11:13 am

Good schools make good citizens and responsible citizens plant gardens. Combine the two and you get the school garden movement that's back in Los Angeles a century after it began.

In 1889, officials built one of the city's first public schools, four rooms in a building at the corner of East 7th and Wilson streets downtown. It soon became a two-story, windowed pile crowded with a thousand kids.

At the time, social engineers wrote that an effective education combined classroom learning and outdoor experience. Here in Los Angeles, still a region of fields and orchards, the Board of Education in 1910 hired Marie Aloysius Larkey. Trained in agriculture economy, she brought the school garden movement to Angelenos.

Larkey arranged the purchase of a 100-foot-long square lot at the back of the 7th Street school. Bordered by railroad yards and factories belching fumes from smokestacks, it was a barren, weedy dump. The lot was in a district that reformers called “squalid,” a rundown and littered neighborhood of blue-collar workers renting wood-framed, gardenless houses along treeless, unpaved streets.

Politicians and philanthropists agreed that America's global power depended on educating not just the few whose parents endowed private schools but the many whose moms and dads worked in the factories, banks and department stores. Larkey's open land was ideal for teaching poor children how they could one day transform a yard of their own and contribute to L.A.'s beautification.

Larkey enlisted women's clubs, the press and public officials to rally volunteers and paid workers to clear the site and install irrigation in a week. The city hauled away heaps of trash and piped the hard-packed soil. The Board of Education provided seeds and planting supplies. From one of the first landscape architecture schools for women, Larkey recruited Merle Smith, an expert in educational gardening, who became Larkey's partner in the Los Angeles garden program.

7th Street students planted neat rows of flowers and vegetables that won awards. Their garden was a renowned success, and the program expanded with additional land. By 1913, under Larkey's watch, more than 70,000 students across the city tilled and sowed 150 formerly vacant lots. Teachers encouraged this planting zeal by integrating garden study into classes on geometry, science and art. Parents participated, reading the books that became bestsellers in a greening America.

Although the student garden flourished with the conviction that knowing nature would lift the American city from moral and environmental decay, it served an immediate need: the feeding of troops in World War I. Children, women and men, anyone who didn't go to war, tilled and harvested acres of vegetables on farms, in city parks and backyards across the 48 states to feed American troops and allies — the heyday of the school garden movement.

By the late 1920s, garden programs were in decline, though some survived through the Second World War. 7th Street met an early end in 1914 when the school burned to the ground from a water tower fire. Five years later, the city built a brick school designed by leading architects Allison & Allison and replaced the garden with a playground.

Suburbanization and urban renewal schemes wiped out residential downtown and the school at 7th and Wilson.

In its place today are stucco boxes on asphalt lots. Drive the family to this corner not far from the concrete banks of the Los Angeles River and imagine a downtown where kids once grew beans and roses bordered by golden sunflowers.


Boys RepublicThe boys of Boys Republic

Visions of a lost water world

Fred MacMurray, the not-so-modern man

-- Sam Watters

Watters' latest book, “Gardens for a Beautiful America, 1895-1935, Photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnston,” is due out in April. Comments: home@latimes.com

Photo: A 1913 image shows children gardening at one of Los Angeles' first public schools, at East 7th and Wilson streets. Credit: From Sam Watters