Neighborhood Spotlight: Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw finds itself in transition again

Few vantage points offer better views of L.A. than those in Baldwin Hills, where millions of years of sedimentary deposits in the ancient sea left behind a series of high domes on the flat surface of the basin.

Those rugged heights offer spectacular vistas for hikers, provide hillside perches for homes in one of the country’s most affluent African American neighborhoods and conceal the remains of one of the richest deposits of oil in the Southland.

The steep, crumbling terrain of the Hills kept developers at bay for most of the early expansion of L.A. There was no streetcar, and the vast, open plains around it provided a seemingly endless supply of land to subdivide and develop.

It was easier to build at the foot of the hills, where Crenshaw Boulevard and its trolley line offered the promise of a vibrant, walkable commercial center to build a neighborhood around.

So Baldwin Hills sprouted oil derricks instead of homes, and coyotes and oilmen were left alone up there with the views. Below, a real estate boom swept across Los Angeles, and by the 1920s, street after street of tidy, modest homes — many of which were designed according to covenants governing not just the appearance of new homes, but who could buy and live in them — had appeared.

At the end of World War II, a shift began. Japanese Americans who returned to L.A. after their release from internment camps slowly began to move west from the neighborhoods around Exposition Park. They settled in what became one of the city’s great nisei communities, eventually building the Crenshaw Square shopping center, which was emblematic of their desire to foreground Japanese culture in the neighborhood.

There were shifts in the way Angelenos lived, as well.

On the other end of Coliseum Street from Crenshaw Square, construction had wrapped up on a groundbreaking garden apartment complex then known as Baldwin Hills Village. Built on a massive 68-acre site that was surrounded by empty fields, it contained more than 620 apartment units in a number of two-story buildings scattered across a park-like setting. The apartment block had now gone suburban.

Although racial covenants were struck down by the courts in the 1940s, it wasn’t until the 1960s that black Angelenos were able to truly exercise their right to live where they chose. They began to move into the Crenshaw District and into the homes that had been built atop Baldwin Hills beginning in the 1950s.

The neighborhood’s affluence, combined with the star power of such famous residents as Tina Turner, Tom Bradley, Ice Cube and architect Paul Williams, led to it being dubbed the Black Beverly Hills — although its views have the other Beverly Hills beat, hands down.