Urban Idylls : The Planned Communities of Baldwin Hills Village and Crestwood Are Hardly Utopia, but They’re Closer Than Most

“It was like finding Shangri-La,” recalls Ben Leroy of the time nearly 35 years ago when he and his wife, Estelle, moved into Baldwin Hills Village.

There had been a long wait to get into the delicately planned 627-unit apartment complex that had opened in the early 1940s off Rodeo Road, west of La Brea Avenue. As part of its innovative design, roads and garages had been confined to the edges of the 80-acre super block, forming a welcoming park in the center, with apartments clustered in garden courts, creating distinct neighborhoods.

“The idea was that without the cars zooming past your front yards, and with common green areas instead of streets, it would be safer, and people would get to know their neighbors a little better and a little faster,” Estelle says. “And it did. We have made life long friends here. We just didn’t move into an apartment; we moved into a home in a village--just like one of those New England villages--a community where everyone knows one another and feels comfortable.”

Finding a place to live with a sense of community has been a persistent dream of generations of settlers in Southern California, especially when confronted by the region’s often anonymous, alienating sprawl. This dream, in turn, stimulated a host of social experiments, including the establishment of so-called utopian planned communities.

Prompted by a variety of political, religious, economic and social leanings, the communities were flavored by visions of idealized New England villages, Midwestern towns and enduring Brooklyn neighborhoods. Among the cities in Southern California that got their start as such communities were Pasadena (farmers from Indiana who formed an agricul tural cooperative), San Bernardino (Mormon settlers), Anaheim (German vintners) and El Toro (English immigrants). There also have been smaller communities formed by political refugees, social reformers, extended families, professional colleagues and enlightened developers aided by imaginative planners.


In the case of Baldwin Hills Village, the team included planners Reginald Johnson and Clarence Stein, the architectural firm of Wilson, Merrill & Alexander and landscapers Fred Barlow and Fred Edmondson. They are said to have been inspired in part by progressive town planning efforts in the East and in England.

“Baldwin Hills Village was a design with very much a utopian social goal,” says Marsha Rood, a village resident and an administrator with the city of Pasadena. “And though the village has not been without problems, it is very much a community where people know and look out for one another--an oasis of sorts.”

It was that same quality that in 1953 attracted Marjorie and Marvin Braude to Crestwood Hills, then a planned community of about 100 homes, and now about 500, in Kenter Canyon, about a mile above Sunset Boulevard in Brentwood. “We wanted a place where the children could find playmates, where we could find friends and be part of something,” Marjorie says. “It also was a good buy,” says Marvin, who a few years later was heading the community association and, with Crestwood as his political base, went on to become a member of the Los Angeles City Council.

Crestwood grew out of an idea formed by four musicians; they were friends and thought it would be nice if they could get a piece of land in the Santa Monica Mountains and build their houses, and maybe a couple of others, near one another--in the process saving some money for all. A few hundred people responded to an advertisement the musicians placed in The Times in 1946.

The result was a cooperative known as the Mutual Housing Assn., which eventually hired an architectural and engineering team to come up with a land-use plan and some prototype housing designs. The team of A. Quincy Jones, Whitney Smith and Edgardo Contini did that and more, setting aside select sites for such projects as a community center, a playground and park, a nursery school and an outdoor theater.

“Cost was their main concern,” recalls Contini, a well-respected planner who for years headed the Urban Innovations Group associated with UCLA’s Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning. “But they wanted good housing, too, and they wanted a community,” he says. “There was a lot of talk about building a place that would overcome the anonymity of Los Angeles.”

Other innovative aspects of the plan for Crestwood included laying out the roads so that they followed the contours of the canyon as closely as possible, thereby minimizing bulldozing and damage to the landscape and views. The same care went into the placement of the houses, making sure they did not block or mar the views of neighbors.

Though the MHA, as it was called, ran into all sorts of organizational and financial problems, eventually having to disband, the concept of the community persevered. Its spirit is carried on by the Crestwood Hills Assn., which holds monthly “town” meetings, enforces a planning and building code, arbitrates neighborhood disputes and generally acts as a village government.

While Crestwood began as a modest community appealing to young families, with houses and lots selling for as low as $15,000, its reputation as a good place to raise children and a desirable section of the city has had an effect. Prices for homes there now begin at $250,000, and there are fewer and fewer young families.

The result is that Crestwood lacks that special verve lent by children, the concomitant involvement of their parents, and an economically and socially diverse population. While it’s an exemplary community design with a social conscience, Crestwood is aging. That problem has also plagued Baldwin Hills Village. It was accelerated in 1972 when the development shifted from rental to condominium and the homeowners’ association instituted restrictive covenants prohibiting children under 18. However, since the ban was struck down by the courts a few years ago, families with children have been moving into the village, attracted by the car-free design, the open space and relatively reasonable prices, which average about $100,000 for a three-bedroom unit.

Still, Baldwin Hills Village and Crestwood stand as planning landmarks, evidence that design can aid in making communities both more cohesive and more attractive. “It may not look like a classic New England village,” Marvin Braude says, “but it certainly functions in the best tradition of one. We’re not a housing development. We’re a community.”