The hilltop neighborhood of View Park, residents unanimously declare, is a secret hidden in plain view of metropolitan Los Angeles.
"We call it our oasis in the city," said resident Mario Ecung, 42, a United Airlines pilot who moved to the area from Thousand Oaks in June 1996.
Ecung said he and his wife, Romelle, also 42, were looking for a house with land, character and a sense of history when they found their 6,000-square-foot home, which was designed by famed Los Angeles architect Paul Williams.
The couple paid about $1 million for their house, which has a tennis court and pool and sits on an acre of land.
The affluent community of about 2,700 homes is perched atop the Baldwin Hills in an unincorporated portion of Los Angeles County.
Made up predominately of black professionals and their families, the quiet neighborhood of well-manicured gardens and distinctive homes is about 10 miles southwest of downtown and a few miles northeast of Marina del Rey.
The community is bounded by Stocker Street on the north, Victoria Avenue on the east, Valley Ridge Avenue and Overhill Drive on the west, and Floresta Avenue, Angeles Vista Boulevard and Northridge Drive on the south.
"View Park is one of the best-kept secrets in Los Angeles, there's no question about it," said Tony Nicholas, a longtime resident who is president of United Homeowners Assn., a community organization representing residents of View Park and adjacent Windsor Hills and View Heights.
When Charles "Chuck" Quarles, a 53-year-old developer and Los Angeles native, wanted to build his dream home, he chose a site in View Park.
Quarles, whose company builds mostly affordable housing and residential facilities for seniors, bought 3 1/2 acres in View Park five years ago for about $1 million.
On the property--some of the only developable land in the established community--he built his family's 12,500-square-foot house and a 3,400-square-foot home for his mother on about two acres.
Next door to his property, Quarles built two more homes. Each is about 6,300 square feet and sold for just over $1 million.
The Quarles' three-level home has six bedrooms, nine bathrooms, a gymnasium and sauna, and views of downtown and the Santa Monica Mountains. Quarles figured the house cost about $3.1 million to build.
When Quarles, his wife, Jo Ann, and their three children moved in seven months ago, Jo Ann said she kept waking up with the sensation that she'd been staying in a lovely hotel, and soon she'd have to leave for home.
"Then it hit me--we are home," she said, adding that she is still "trying to get over the fact that this is not a dream."
The couple lived in nearby Ladera Heights for 20 years. They considered moving to Pacific Palisades or Palos Verdes, but they preferred the convenience of View Park.
"It's just centrally located. To trade that for driving all the way in from the Palisades or Palos Verdes was a trade I wasn't willing to make," said Quarles, whose company is based in nearby Culver City.
Many residents cite the area's proximity to downtown, Los Angeles International Airport and freeways as among View Park's strong selling points.
But when Kristin and Montell Jordan were looking for a house, the friendliness of the neighbors helped sell them on the area.
"It was a place for my daughter to grow up and have neighbors to play with and to look out for her," said Kristin, 27, who runs an entertainment business with her singer-songwriter husband. With the help of agent Debria Parker of Deloy Edwards Realty, they paid $489,000 for their five-bedroom house in October 1995.
The hill that would someday be View Park was undeveloped until 1932, when it became the site of the Olympic Village for the 10th Olympiad that year. When the games ended, the cottages were removed, but the stamp of the era remains in two street names: Olympiad Drive and Athenian Way.
The Los Angeles Investment Co. purchased the land in 1936 from the Clara Baldwin Stocker estate and sold it off in parcels, with landowners choosing their own architects.
The result is a pastiche of colonial, traditional, Spanish, Mediterranean and contemporary styles. Numerous homes have maid's quarters or guest houses, and most have spacious yards.
"There's nothing in Beverly Hills or Hancock Park that can touch 'em," Coldwell Banker Jon Douglas agent Jo Ramsey said about the homes in View Park.
Ramsey, who has lived in the neighborhood for 25 years and sold homes there for 21, said View Park homes range from about 2,200 to 15,000 square feet. Prices range from about $275,000 for homes on small lots to the $1 million-plus paid for one of the homes built by the Bedford Group, Quarles' company, on Kenway Avenue.
Calvin and Zivia Sweeney are on their second View Park home. In 1987 they bought a four-bedroom fixer-upper for $300,000, then in 1992 bought another, bigger fixer that Calvin Sweeney said his wife loved at first sight.
Their four-bedroom, six-bath home has an attached guest house and a large yard graced by huge sycamores.
The amount of land around the homes in View Park is what finally sold Sweeney on the area. The couple originally wanted to live in Santa Monica.
"I'm a country boy who grew up with lots of room around him," said Sweeney, a Riverside native who's a former wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Sweeney, 43, met his wife, Zivia, when they were students at USC. Zivia, also 43, is vice president of finance for a health care company. The couple has three children, ages 6 to 11, so having plenty of space was a priority.
"If you're looking for a great piece of property and can afford four or five hundred thousand, you're getting more bang for your buck here, no doubt about it," said Sweeney, now a manager for the United Parcel Service.
One of the only downsides to life in View Park, some residents say, is the relative lack of upscale restaurants and shops nearby. But they are also quick to say that the remodeling of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza several years ago and the addition of the Magic Johnson Theatres recently were big improvements.
"We don't have the high-end shops that you would have on the Westside," said Ron Wilson, a 20-year resident.
Though the communities of View Park, Windsor Hills and Ladera Heights are full of well-to-do shoppers and diners, residents say commercial development has been slow to come to nearby Crenshaw Boulevard.
"If you take these same demographics and move them 10 miles west, I think you'd have more of a variety of retail establishments and business in general than you do here," Wilson said.
Ron and Fran Wilson are also in their second home in View Park. They moved to the area in 1978, then in 1988 found their current home, a three-bedroom, two-story Williamsburg Colonial for which they paid about $425,000.
In addition to the appeal of beautiful homes and views, the Wilsons said they appreciate View Park because its residents are predominately African American. Longtime residents estimate the area is 80% black, and the remainder is mostly white, with some Asian residents and a few Latinos.
"I think that I could relate to my neighbors better," Wilson said when asked what drew him to the area two decades ago.
An L.A. native, Wilson said he had lived in other neighborhoods in which he was a minority. In those areas, he said, "if you have a party, some of your friends are going to be stopped or hassled [by police], it's a fact. . . . In a black neighborhood, [if] a lot of black people show up, it's not an issue."
His wife, Fran Wilson, said that her son and daughter went to Westside private schools attended primarily by white students, but she wanted them to live among and be friends with children of their own race as well.
With the improvements they've put into their home in the last 10 years, Fran Wilson said the family is happier than ever where they are.
"If we won the lottery I don't think we would move out," she said.
Residents of View Park say they feel quite safe in their neighborhood, which is patrolled by the Los Angeles County sheriff's Marina del Rey station.
Except for occasional home burglaries or thefts from cars, the area is relatively crime-free, said sheriff's Deputy Rudy Walker, a community relations officer who's worked in the area for 10 years.
Residents joke that a powerful deterrent to criminals is that, while it's easy to drive into the hilly neighborhood, the uninitiated have difficulty finding their way out on the winding streets.
People in View Park say a friendly sense of community and stability pervade life there.
Caryn Hobbs, a longtime resident, said that years ago families living on her street, Crestway Place, and adjacent Crestway Drive held regular community meetings.
They also took turns babysitting each other's small children and watching each other's homes if residents were away on vacation.
"We look out for each other's interests, and I like that," said Hobbs, 54, an educational consultant.
She and her husband, James, 59, a dermatologist, were searching for an older house that reminded Caryn of her East Coast upbringing when they found their home, a two-story in a traditional style.
The couple raised seven children in their six-bedroom house, for which they paid $160,000 in 1977.
Caryn Hobbs said she feels "very, very secure" in View Park. "We loved the area then and we love the area even more now," she said.