Out of the window of our tiny, Spanish mission-style house from the 1930s in gentrified Culver City you can see the Baldwin Hills in the distance. The hills are the highest point in the surrounding urban landscape and the view from there is super popular, since you can reach the top by the Culver stairs that offer a nice workout. The stairs and the hill, landscaped with indigenous plants, are called the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook Park, realized by the State five years ago. It took the State of California ten years to buy the land and to turn down the plans for housing on the Culver City-side of the hills. What is the story behind those hills?
The Baldwin Hills did not get urbanized the same way as the Santa Monica Mountains in the north of LA did, where it started with Beverly Hills. The elevation of the Baldwin Hills is a result of one of the four fault lines of the LA basin. And since it is pretty steep, the LA street car system, important for the rapid growth of the city in the 1920s, avoided the hills as much as possible. From Downtown one line went south-westwards to the entertainment resort Venice, along which Culver City developed, and one went south to the harbor, following the LA river, where Leimert Park was built. Whereas Beverly Hills was very close to the Santa Monica line, the distance between the streetcar and the Baldwin Hills was just too big. A second factor that prevented rapid settlements was the availability of oil layers as a result of the fault line. In 1924 the first oil well was found. Since then oil has been constantly pumped up from 1600 wells and more drillings and new wells are foreseen at least until 2028 – this is the largest continuous urban oil field in the United States. The drilling landscape was never considered as a location advantage for housing. The City of Los Angeles took advantage of the cheap land by buying it to build on one of the hilltops a state-of-the-art water reservoir between 1948 and 1951, just in case of earthquakes or a communistic attack.
In 1932 the northeastern slope of Baldwin Hills was nevertheless used for the very first Olympic village ever. Afterwards all houses were sold, which meant that they were moved and spread over California and further, leaving nothing behind. After World War II, the demand for housing was huge and the city of LA decided to develop affordable public housing to combat the housing shortage. Clarence Stein and Reginald D. Johnson made a plan based on the garden city Radburn, New Jersey, and the “garden city movement” in England. So between 1942 and 1950 the garden village Baldwin Village (later called Village Green and since 2001 a national monument) was the first settlement in the plain, directly at the foot of the Baldwin Hills, initially surrounded by empty fields. From then on, more houses followed and slowly, mostly during the 1950s, luxurious villa’s crawled against the slopes of the Baldwin Hills, called Viewpark and the Baldwin Hill Estates (nicknamed “The Dons” after the local street names, or “The Pill Hill” after the fact that so many doctors settled there).
The first occupants were all white, despite the invalidation by the Supreme Court in 1948 of racial restrictive covenants. This changed in the beginning of the 1960s when many middle class and upper middle class African Americans moved from Downtown into this area and most of the whites moved out. The Dons and the Viewpark remained very well-to-do areas, now nicknamed the Black Beverly Hills. During the seventies and eighties the foot of the hills, Village Green and many other housing blocks in Baldwin Village and Crenshaw, became gang controlled and drugs dominated neighborhoods, with nicknames like the Jungle and Sherm Alley.
Not finding the water reservoir on my map, it turned out that on an unfortunate December day in 1963 the dam cracked, collapsed and flooded Village Green and other young settlements on the northern side of the Baldwin Hills. Although the case is still being debated, the most probable cause of the collapse is the oil-drilling. One and a half year later the racially fueled violence of the Watts riots took place, nearby the Baldwin Hills. In response to these outbursts, the State Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who had mostly African Americans within his electorate, made it his mission to turn the lost landscape of the reservoir into a recreational park, because “wholesome recreation is a major deterrent to juvenile delinquency, and adults too need open green areas where they can relax from tensions and strains of modern living.” It took him twenty years before in 1983 the former reservoir, together with the north side of the Baldwin Hills, became the Kenneth Hahn recreational State Park.
I didn’t find clues that the Kenneth Hahn State Park literally led to a better life in Baldwin Village and Crenshaw. “Black Beverly Hills” is still one of the wealthiest African American neighborhoods of the United States and at the same time in the Jungle at the foot of the hill, almost 1/3 of the families are living at poverty level. But what I do see is the intensity of use of the adjacent Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook Park by African Americans, by Hispanics and by whites of all ages, in a way that clearly was not anticipated by the makers – at least the promotional film and exhibitions don’t mention this. While climbing the 288 stairs, all varying in height, many visitors show off their physical abilities, training groups are keeping their spirits high, and, because the stairs are small, the way is long and the challenge is serious, everyone heartens each other while passing by. Culver City and Baldwin Village say “high five”!