In poor black neighborhoods in Los Angeles, the economic ladder is often perched against the Baldwin Hills.
There, on that lonely hump in the urban plain, lies hope. There, doctors and lawyers and politicians make up one of the wealthiest black communities in the nation. And there, in the heart of the hills, conservationists are hoping to create the crown jewel: a 1,200-acre state park.
That partly explains the outrage aroused when an oil company proposed building a 53-megawatt power plant in the middle of that envisioned green space, on what is now a working oil field. Neighbors managed to come together with environmentalists and civil rights activists in such a strong coalition that they may have rung the project’s death knell.
After nearly 1,000 people jammed a public hearing early this week, the oil company’s partner, La Jolla Energy Development, backed out of the plan Thursday, throwing the project’s future in doubt.
Residents rejoiced Friday. To many, the power plant proposal was another slight in a long history of discrimination, from the days of racist real estate covenants to white flight to zoning decisions that seem to put the unwanted--the power plants and chrome plating facilities--in minority neighborhoods.
“This would never have been proposed in Brentwood,” said Royal Hunter, 25, who lives just over the ridge from the site.
To some, the plant evokes the ubiquitous middle-class fear of plummeting real estate values. But many opponents, having risen from rough, polluted neighborhoods in South-Central and Compton, say they came to the Baldwin Hills to get away from this kind of industrial nuisance.
The area is a bastion for professionals and the cultural elite of African American Los Angeles. And African American visitors from other parts of the country often drive the winding hillside streets to see luxury homes, with sweeping views of city lights and blue Pacific, much like the ones made famous in the Hollywood Hills.
“There’s a great sense of pride for an African American from around the country to see all these other African Americans doing so well, living in such nice homes,” said Tony Nicholas, president of the area’s United Homeowners Assn.
On Friday, Nicholas joined politicians and other park proponents at a news conference in the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. Over a din of children packed on a playground in the 350-acre park, they celebrated their victory.
“This effort goes to show that if you show up in numbers and participate and have the facts behind you, you can win,” said state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City).
Under exemptions granted for the energy crisis, the two companies were trying to get the plant approved in a mere 21 days, avoiding the normal environmental review process.
The facility, as proposed, would sit 650 feet from the Kenneth Hahn park and at the heart of a proposed park expansion that could ultimately cover hills and ravines from Culver City to La Brea Avenue.
Officials at the oil company, Stocker Resources, say they are still deciding whether to pursue the venture without La Jolla.
“We’ll have a statement to make in the next couple of days regarding Stocker’s position on this,” Stocker spokesman Steve Rusch said. If the company can work out some technical issues with the air quality district, he said, “there is nothing to stop Stocker from getting turbines and running this plant on its own. But in the end, maybe we’ll pull out of this too.”
Rusch said the company’s initial goal was to cut its energy bills by providing its own power to operate its current 400 oil pumps, while also contributing an extra 39 megawatts to the state grid during the energy crisis. The trailer-sized plant would be clean, he said, and create minimal impact on land already degraded by oil pumps for 70 years.
‘It’s Enough We Live So Close to an Oil Field’
Anthony Willoughby, a high-profile attorney whose $950,000 home in Ladera Heights would have faced the plant, disagrees about motives.
“This wasn’t about the energy crisis; it was about a company taking advantage of a loophole to make a profit,” Willoughby said. “You work your whole life to get where you are, and here comes this thing you’re trying to get away from.”
Over the hill in View Park, Elinor Osman echoed the sentiment. She settled in her ranch-style home on Don Miguel Drive--a new Volvo out front--after a long, hard trajectory that took her from the fields of Louisiana through the old black community along Central Avenue in Los Angeles. Many of her neighbors traveled the same path to this middle-class haven. They are people used to fighting, she said--fighting to get to this place and fighting to keep it.
“It’s enough we live so close to an oil field,” said Osman, 66. “We just don’t need anything else.”
Nicholas, of the homeowners association, worked long hours to bring residents together to get the plan scrapped. “When you look at an area with homes well over a million dollars, with entertainers and educators, if you take that same scenario and put white faces on everybody, I don’t think we would have been having this discussion about this plant,” he said.
Although other areas of traditionally black Los Angeles have become increasingly home to Latino populations, these hills remain an African American hub.
Of the approximately 45,000 people who live there--in the unincorporated communities of View Park, Windsor Hills and Ladera Heights, and in the city of Los Angeles, Baldwin Hills proper--76% are black, according to an analysis of 2000 census figures. About 9% are Latino, and 6% are white.
Through numerous homeowners associations and a strong sense of community, the neighborhoods wield a great deal of political clout. Many black leaders, such as Murray, Assemblyman Herb Wesson (D-Culver City), county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and L.A Unified School District Board President Genethia Hayes, live in the area. And all spoke out against the project.
The hills also sit against other African American strongholds in Inglewood, Leimert Park and the Crenshaw District, where residents have also joined the debate.
At a glance, the two-acre parcel where the plant was proposed might seem a decent location, a landscape of dirt and rust marred by a forest of transmission lines and nodding horse head pumps. Rusch, the Stocker spokesman, noted that the Energy Commission staff found that the plant--with two 70-foot stacks--created neither an environmental justice problem nor effects that could not be mitigated.
“The only impact is where it is,” he said, echoing his detractors. “Well, it’s in an oil field.”
The project’s prospects seemed to be fizzling since Monday night, when an official at the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which must also approve the project, said it was unlikely his agency could permit the facility in time to comply with the governor’s exemptions.
By Wednesday night, the energy commissioner who presided over the public hearings issued a statement recommending that the rest of the commission deny the project, based largely on the air official’s testimony.
But the threat to the park was one of the major objections by conservationists and others fighting to create more open space for the densely packed neighborhoods of South Los Angeles. If you factor in the neighborhoods of Crenshaw, Inglewood and South-Central that surround the hills, the area is one of the most park-poor in the nation, with less than one acre of open space per 1,000 residents. The ambitious park plan, calls for patching together bits and pieces of land to create a swath of green space bigger than Central Park in New York.
Windsor Hills resident Naomi Cox, 40, hopes to see the park come to fruition in the less-than-pristine canyon behind her house. As it is, the real estate broker and her anesthesiologist husband look out of their picture windows, over the swimming pool, to a scene of creaking pumps that could have been lifted from West Texas.
NIMBYism or a Legacy of Discrimination?
Cox grew up in a tough part of South-Central and moved to her Windsor Hills neighborhood “by the grace of God.”
She said her neighbors are simply following the lead of wealthy white neighborhoods that have managed to run such projects out of town. “As many desolate areas as there are, they stuck it here?”
Some would call it NIMBYism, but residents say the legacy of discrimination is hard to disassociate from the power plant controversy. Cox’s neighbor, Muriel Billups, 80, remembers when the first black family wanted to move onto the white street around 1960.
“The whole neighborhood got together and tried to see if they could buy them out,” said Billups, who is one of the few remaining white residents on Brea Crest Drive. Soon after the family moved in, whites began leaving. Within 15 years, most were gone.
This time, the whole neighborhood got together to drive something else out, and for now, they have declared victory.
Billups has not jumped on the environmental justice bandwagon yet, but is sure of one thing: “They could not put this in Beverly Hills, even if there was open space. The people would not stand for it.”