Julia Diamond on L.A.’s Grand Park, Pre and Post-Pandemic

New York has Central Park, London has Hyde Park, and Barcelona has Parc Güel. Unlike these metropolises, Los Angeles does not have a central green space that serves as the city’s prime gathering spot. In downtown LA, Grand Park re-opened in 2012 after a complete remodel, wants to fill this void. The multi-tiered rectangle stretches from City Hall to the Music Center responsible for the park’s free programs. The Jewish Journal caught up with park director Julia Diamond, 40, to discuss Grand Park’s role pre and post-pandemic and her connection to LA. 

JJ: Tell me about Grand Park and what you do there.

JD: Grand Park is a 12-acre green space in downtown Los Angeles. My job there is the director of the park. I run a team that oversees facility management, the programs and events, leasing, and marketing. Our job is to figure out, “how do you create LA’s central gathering space?” We [in LA] don’t necessarily think of ourselves as a city with a center. Grand Park is not trying to be a geographical center, but it is there to serve as the obvious place where we come together. The aim of our programming is to uplift Angelinos, to bring us together, to help bridge Angelinos to each other, to develop a stronger sense of connection – it has lofty goals! 

JJ: How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your work?

JD: The park itself never closed, but our events moved online. We still look for opportunities that a lot of people can connect to. Our slogan says Grand Park is the park for everyone, so access was at the heart of our shift to digital. Instead of the annual festival that draws 50,000 people, we did a TV special for the 4th of July. Another prime example is the day of the dead celebration. Dia de los muertos is primarily a Mexican and Mexican American holiday. It’s such a personal holiday; people create altars to celebrate their loved ones. We usually present about 50 altars in the park every year. The amazing thing about that holiday is that it’s rooted in one tradition that’s very present in Los Angeles, but almost anyone, no matter where you come from, can connect to that. This year, day of the dead marked our first time returning to the park with a public art installation.

Our slogan says Grand Park is the park for everyone, so access was at the heart of our shift to digital.

JJ: How did you get into this line of work?

JD: I think in the way that most people do – wanting to be an artist. My first love was the theatre. Over time, I fell more and more in love with dance because it has a bit more of a universal language. I have also worked in opera for a long time. Grand Park was an interesting new chapter for me because I was used to theater production and work inside four walls, and the park blows that model totally out of the water. 

JJ: Are you Jewish?

JD: I’m half Jewish. Technically I’m not Jewish. My mother is Catholic; my father is Jewish. My parents are divorced, and my father remarried a woman who is Jewish and practicing. I grew up in a funny world of having a little bit of everything, very much feeling a connection to my Jewish heritage and the Jewish community on the Westside of LA. Jewish holidays were celebrated in my home. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I’ve always felt a stronger connection to Judaism than Catholicism. Especially coming out as a grown-up, the Catholic faith didn’t feel very welcoming to the LGBTQ community.

JJ: Do you feel like your Judaism is influencing your work, and can you describe how?

JD: One thing about the park that is interesting is the landscape design. The plants of the park are a metaphor for immigrant communities that have come from around the world. They came to Los Angeles, planted a seed, and flourished here and made it rich and beautiful and colorful and diverse. As the head of the park, it’s in some ways very helpful to know which community I represent. It has helped foster greater empathy and respect, and care when I engage with a community that’s not my own. I think about how I would want my community to be reflected or represented, and my cultural traditions respected. Also, a love of nature, a connection to the natural world, and a sense of care for the natural world. 

JJ: Do you feel even more connected to religion as an adult now that you have children of your own, and you’re experiencing Jewish life with them?

JD: I definitely feel more connected as a mom. We made a conscious choice to raise our children Jewish. To give your children Judaism is an active choice, and it needs constant attention and care. Part of it is my wife and I experimenting with whatever our tradition is gonna look like. How do we celebrate Hanukkah? How do we do Passover? We are in the process of figuring out what our celebrations look like. It requires a little homework and prayer-refresher YouTube videos and some research and some experimenting in the kitchen. Also, some very intentional going back to my wife’s mother and saying, “come for Passover and teach us how to make this dish that you make.” 

JJ: Do you think the park’s role or mission will change after the pandemic?

JD: I think that we will think a lot more about how we contribute to social and public health. 

We won’t shift away from being a space that uses cultural experiences to unite people, but I think we will focus our lens on that so we can have a bigger impact. Much of what brings us ‘bigger picture’ health is a sense of being connected, a sense of belonging. I’m a big believer that parks and art organizations are parts of that really critical social infrastructure that keeps us healthy. 

JJ: There’s another crisis plaguing the country: systemic racism. How did the park fare during the summer of unrest, and how is it addressing the situation?

JD: In late May, early June, after the killing of George Floyd, the park was the site of protest against racial injustice and sustained some damage, mostly graffiti. We wrote a statement in response to that, re-affirming the work and the mission of the park. It is the park for everyone, and we try to tell the stories of black and brown communities in addition to white communities. The statement is still up on the homepage, and I don’t know when it will feel right to take it down because that work is never done. 


Jessica Donath is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. 

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