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.