Simons' Legacy Lives in Trails and Meadows of Elysian Park
As EPHS marks the 110th anniversary of Echo
Park Lake, we also honor the
40th anniversary of a sister organization: the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park. CCSEP was founded by a
group of local activists, which was led by Grace E. Simons, who – perhaps more than any other individual – played
a role in protecting Elysian Park from the best-laid plans of developers and in providing a template for activism that informs
many of us to this day.
Under Simons’ watch CCSEP successfully fought off encroachments such as oil fields, an airport, a convention
center, condominiums and numerous other construction efforts that would have chipped away masses of the park. At about 550
acres, Elysian Park is unique in offering a real experience of the outdoors to hundreds of thousands of hikers, soccer players,
bird-watchers, picnic-ers, wanderers, dogs and the occasional horse. In its present, hard-won form, the park offers solitude,
community and beauty to the entire surrounding area. Simons’ most significant loss was in a battle to halt the expansion
of the police academy.
Like an earlier neighborhood progressive, Estelle Lawton Lindsay, Simons worked as a journalist before devoting herself
full-time to political activities. Raised in Chicago, she traveled to Shanghai, where she worked for a French news agency, and where she also met her husband,
Frank Glass, who was an organizer for the Communist Party. She also worked in New
York. Simons and Glass moved to Los Angeles
in 1939, and for a time Simons worked as an editor and reporter for the California Eagle, the city’s famous African-American
|Photo courtesy The Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park Archives
Grace and Frank move to Los Angeles
Simons and Glass moved to Los Angeles in 1939, and for a time Simons worked as an
editor and reporter for the California Eagle, the city’s famous African-American newspaper.
Simons is said to have won the respect, and ultimately the friendship, of Malcolm X, who was impressed by Simons’
sharp questioning of him concerning his attitude toward women’s rights, during an interview for the Eagle. According
to Abie Robinson, Simons’ colleague at the Eagle: In the midst of a press
conference Malcolm X held on the periphery of the 1963 peace march in Washington, D.C., Malcolm X reportedly pointed to Simons’
and said she was the best journalist he knew.
In Echo Park,
Simons and Glass settled on Morton Avenue.
In 1965, Simons and a group of neighborhood residents and supporters from across the city banded together to fight
a city plan to build a giant convention center in the park near the intersection of Scott Avenue and Stadium Way. That group
became the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park.
As one of the founders of the committee, Simons spent the last twenty years of her life devoted to preserving Elysian Park. Simons died in 1985 at the age of 84; her husband died in 1987. But
Simons’ achievements have a way of extending themselves: A monument to
Simons and Glass designed by ceramicist and sculptor Peter Shire, is a significant feature of the landscape. Simons also helped
foster the spirit that led Echo Park
neighbors to fight for preservation of walkers-only zoning for park trails, which are heavily used by local residents, not
to mention the major effort of fighting off a proposed football stadium in the 1990s. The lodge that is named for Simons is
the location of an annual event that helps to bind the neighborhood and raises funds to help preserve an asset to the entire
city. She inspired others to follow in her footsteps.
A Simple Strategy
The simplicity of Simons’ ethos was described in a 1985 Los Angeles Times article by Sam Hall Kaplan: In order
to “protect the city's parks, neighborhoods
and quality of life, Simons told him, ‘you must be vigilant and you must
Sallie Neubauer, a current committee
board member and former president, says Simons “was very intelligent
and well-read had a very sharp wit. She had an amazing strength of will and an amazing mind and follow-through on everything
she did, and so she was extremely effective and well-spoken. [Neighborhood
activist] Geneva Williams always said that when Grace
got up to speak, people listened.”
It was Simons, Neubauer says, who
first introduced her to grassroots activism, later taking her under her wing. On Neubauer’s first day in a new apartment,
she is this elderly slim lady with this bright red hair. And she comes down the driveway and says, ‘hello my name’s
Grace, and would you like to come to a meeting for the park?’ She took me by the hand and showed me the ropes, and I
learned from her how to navigate at meetings with Parks and Recreation and City Hall.”
In a city notorious for its lack of public green space, Elysian Park stands as a monument
to the far-sighted efforts of Simon and others who have fought to preserve it.
--This article appeared in the Winter 2006 issue
of the Echo Park Historical Society News.