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The Neighborhood Project: Baldwin Hills
There is so much more to Baldwin Hills than meets the eye.
Home to the largest middle and upper middle-class African American community in Los Angeles, this hillside neighborhood ties together one of the most important strongholds of black culture in town, forming the residential nexus of the Crenshaw area. Baldwin Hills has gone through many permutations over the decades, and has been the site of some of the most significant events in the city's recent history, having since the 1930s hosted an Olympics, a who's who of black Hollywood and one of the city's most amazing natural disasters.
Through it all Baldwin Hills has continued to endure, and today is a tight-knit enclave determined to preserve its past while looking boldly towards its future.
Your tour of wonderful Baldwin Hills begins after the jump...
Boundaries: La Cienega Blvd to the west, Crenshaw Blvd to the east, Slauson Ave to the south, and Rodeo Rd to the north, with Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd forming the northeast dividing line between Baldwin Hills and Crenshaw Manor. Baldwin Hills is bordered on the west by Culver City, and shares the eastern border of Crenshaw Blvd with Leimert Park.
Political breakdown: Council District 8, Councilman Bernard C. Parks
2nd County Supervisorial District, Councilwoman Yvonne Braithwaite Burke
State Senate District 26, Rep Kevin Murray
State Assembly District 47, Rep Karen Bass
U.S. Congressional District 33, Rep Diane E. Watson
Public transit: The Metro 210 and 710 Rapid bus lines head along the eastern border of Baldwin Hills via the busy Crenshaw Blvd artery, connecting the neighborhood with Hollywood to the north and the South Bay Galleria to the south. The 42 cuts through the heart of the residential area along both Stocker St and Overhill en route to LAX. On weekends, Metro bus 439 actually travels right into the front entrance of Kenneth Hahn SRA, providing a car-free alternative to exploring the park. When completed in 2010, the Expo Line light rail will pass just a short distance from the community's northern border, with stops at Crenshaw, La Brea and La Cienega.
Usually considered: "The 'hood" to most people who live north of the I-10.
People who front say they live in: Why front? Having a Baldwin Hills address is a point of pride for its residents. Wouldn't you be smiling too if you looked north out your window and knew the people in the other hillside neighborhood off in the distance (Hollywood Hills) paid three times more than you for the same size house?
The view of Baldwin Hills from Crenshaw Blvd in West Adams
Insight: Unlike other hillside communities like the Hollywood Hills, which are part of a single mountain range that bi-sects the entire city, Baldwin Hills sits alone, towering on a series of hills overlooking the entire Los Angeles basin.
As beautiful as the hills look in the distance, the sad fact is that having a predominantly African American population means many Angelenos never bother to explore the area, dismissing it as just more of "the 'hood". Never has a such a generalization been more unfair than here, in a community so economically and socially diverse as to defy classification. I spend a lot of time in the Baldwin Hills area, eating, drinking, going to movies, fishing and more. Hopefully this little tour will show you that just because a community isn't mentioned in a guidebook doesn't mean it's any less cool, interesting or alluring.
So, who was this Baldwin guy, anyway?: Well, Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin was a legendary horse breeder and racer whose steeds captured just about every major racing title in existence during his late 1800s heyday. According to About.com, Baldwin was one of the first breeders in America to stress speed over stamina in his horses, a trait that is now standard in California thoroughbreds.
History: Long a destination of doctors (hence the early moniker "Pill Hill"), large numbers of African Americans began arriving in Baldwin Hills in the early 1960s. However, unlike the working class who settled in communities like Watts and Compton, Baldwin Hills drew a disproportionate number of black musicians and actors, many of whom were frozen out of affluent westside neighborhoods. Thus, "the Black Beverly Hills" was born, with celebs including Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, Loretta Devine, Nancy Wilson, James Cleveland and former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley settling into the lovely hillside homes. Other communities like Leimert Park and Country Club Park were also havens for black entertainers during this time, but none took on quite the same mystique as Baldwin Hills.
Baldwin Hills history is dominated by two major historical events which helped shape the future of the city of Los Angeles. The first event came in 1932, when Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics for the first time. The Olympics were a dying tradition during that era, in the midst of the Great Depression, and Los Angeles landed the games by default (no one else wanted to host them). Several countries could not even afford to send their teams to the games, despite the minimal costs involved.
Rather than host a second-rate event, Los Angeles dove headfirst into the games and helped revitalize them, a feat the city would repeat when it hosted the 1984 games. Baldwin Hills became the home of the first ever Olympic Village built to house male athletes. The Village was spread over hundreds of acres in the hills, though virtually none of it remains today.
Another major Baldwin Hills event was far more dubious. The community once housed a huge reservoir, which was held in check by a large dam and provided water to different parts of the city. In 1963, a large crack formed in the dam, and eventually a break occurred that unleashed a torrent that washed away or destroyed many of the houses below, resulting in five deaths. After this catastrophe, the city stopped using local reservoirs (such as Silver Lake) as sources of water.
Here is the amazing video of the dam breaking, reportedly the first time in American history a major disaster was captured live via aerial camera, according to the folks at The History Channel.
This car managed to withstand the torrent, but still looks the worse for wear.
The Village Green development was also largely flooded.
Historic photos courtesy of Steven Keylon, used with permission.
Baldwin Hills today (the lay of the land): Baldwin Hills looks like lots of different things depending on how you make your approach. Many visitors to (and residents of) Los Angeles are shocked to come upon the almost surreal field of oil pumps churning away on the western border of the neighborhood along La Cienega. Just steps away from the active petroleum fields, Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area is one of the most lovingly landscaped parks in Los Angeles. Approaching from Crenshaw, visitors pass through the Crenshaw commercial corridor before turning up and into the hillside sub-communities of Windsor Hills, Baldwin Hills Estates and View Park. Not technically in the hills, but still very much a part of the neighborhood, is "The Jungle," the somewhat insidious moniker given to Village Green because of gang violence in the area. Despite its dangerous reputation, Village Green is actually the most architecturally significant part of the neighborhood, and in the new millenium was added to the National Register of HIstoric Places.
The end of segregation meant many of the black celebrities that once called the neighborhood home moved into the more traditional enclaves of the rich and famous, such as Brentwood and Beverly Hills. However, rather than fall into disrepair, most of Baldwin Hills retained an affluent air thanks to the influx of the new black middle class. According to 2000 census numbers, the neighborhood remains 78.5 percent black, though a small community of Latinos, Asians and whites have settled in the area in recent years.
The Black Beverly Hills might be a thing of the past, but that hasn't stopped some crappy television shows from going out of their way to perpetuate the "spoiled rich people dipped in chocolate" cliche. Pity, since the reality of Baldwin Hills today is so much more interesting, with the area's many business professionals, doctors, lawyers and artists maintaining their hillside abodes in much the same pristine condition as when they were first constructed, and fostering a sense of community that would be admirable to most neighborhoods in Los Angeles.
House styles range from modest bungalows to pretty sizeable mansions, particularly in the affluent Baldwin Hills Estates and View Park sections. However, even the biggest of the homes aren't as over-the-top and gaudy as what one would find in other affluent neighborhoods.
Though it also sports winding streets that run up into the hills, Baldwin Hills actually has very little in common aesthetically with the Hollywood Hills. For the most part, houses in the neighborhood run right up to the sidewalks (sidewalks are absent in most of the Hollywood Hills), as opposed to being tucked away behind fences and tall hedges. If anything, the community resembles parts of Hancock Park, if the houses happened to be built on a hill.
And compared to the rest of the city, the neighborhood is still a shocking bargain. Between May and July of 2007, the average sales price of a Baldwin Hills home was $519,000, and the average sale price of a View Park home was $819,000. Those numbers compare nicely to the average home sale price of $975,000 for Los Angeles as a whole. Considering the amazing views and excellent housing stock, it's safe to say that Baldwin Hills might be the only affordable hillside neighborhood remaining west of downtown. But that might not be the case for much longer. Those sales numbers are WAY up from the $262,000 (Baldwin Hills) and $419,000 (View Park) sales averages in the area as recently as 2002, according to real estate site Trulia.com.
Hello, Mr. Huxtable. Can Rudy come out and play?
This isn't a particularly good-looking house, but look closely at the roof. Instead of shingles or tile, it's actually coated in rocks. It looks really cool up close.
Landmarks: Village Green was a housing experiment constructed in the 1940s. Originally called Baldwin Village, the 64-acre site at the foot of the hills links an 85 building complex of one, two and three-bedroom condominiums with a gorgeous central garden that creates an almost park-like atmosphere in the community. Conceived by architects Reginald Johnson and Clarence Stein, the complex is one of the finest (and most successful) examples of the community planning movement popularized by the likes of urban planners like Le Corbusier. Unfortunately, the area around this part of the neighborhood became known as a gang hotbed in the past few decades, with members of the Black P-Stones and 18th Street gangs engaged in an on-again, off-again battle over turf. In fact, the nickname "The Jungle" came way before these gang conflicts, instead meant to be a tribute to the lush foliage and trees in the development and its surroundings. Gang activity made the nickname suddenly take on a sour connotation. Despite these occasional setbacks, in 2001 Village Green was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, families of all incomes and races call the mini-community home.
Village Green photos courtesy of Steven Keylon, used with permission.
The emerald oasis: Despite having two of the largest urban wildernesses in the world (Griffith Park and Topanga Canyon) within its borders, Los Angeles is still critically underserved when it comes to public parks. Baldwin Hills is a revelation among Los Angeles neighborhoods in that more than a third of its land is taken up by public park, making it one of the city's greenest nieghborhoods.
I cannot tell a lie: Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area is my favorite park in the entire city of Los Angeles. No offense to lovers of Griffith Park, but the 300+ acres of this recreation area, built on the site of a defunct oil field, forms one of the most diverse and pleasant greenbelts Los Angeles has to offer, perfectly combining the landscaped comfort of an east coast park with the trails and occasional wilderness feel of a southern California park.
The park was the brainchild of former County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, who proposed in the late 1960s to open a park in the area once the oil fields ran dry. The park opened in the early 1980s, and as additional oil fields ran dry, its size grew. From 1983 to today, the park grew from a modest 50 acres to 320 acres. Supervisor Hahn's foresight also means the park will continue to grow, as legislation is in place to allow up to an additional 1,000 acres in the coming years. The latest addition, the Scenic Overlook in Culver City, was acquired in 2000.
Parking is free on weekdays, but on weekdays, there is a $4 parking fee inside the grounds.
The park includes miles of moderate hiking trails, a lovely Japanese garden, ball fields, basketball courts and more. But one of my favorite spots is the lovely multi-tiered lake.
The parks department stocks the lake with catfish in the summer and trout in the fall, making it one of the best places in the city to do some freshwater angling.
The two-tiered lower lake is connected to a small pond several hundred feet up the hill by Marky's Stream, a lovely rushing brook crossed by several foot bridges.
At the stream's apex is a waterfall.
And here's a view looking down from the falls.
The park grounds include plenty of benches and spots for outdoor barbecues. But, what's that sound?
I love the smell...er...sound of petroleum in the morning: if you look really closely, you can see one of the "donkey pumps" peeking out from behind the trees. The occasional squeak of the oil pumps is never a distraction. In fact, it adds to the mystique of the park.
The petrolium fields remain very active, and on most days you can peek through the fence and see dozens of pumps churning away.
There are also several playgrounds throughout the park...
...as well as an activities center.
From the lakes, a tree-lined path heads up to the top of the hill...
...and the open expanse of "the bowl," which looks out over the entire Los Angeles basin. This is one of the most wide open areas in town, and the giant lawn is perfect for picnics, games of frisbee and bird watching.
There are several huge radio towers up here.
But the views are the main attraction.
It was a hazy day, so downtown is barely visible in this shot...
...which is why God created Flickr. Here's the same view on a clear day. This is one of the most well-known (and heavily used) perspectives of downtown Los Angeles in photos. It can be seen on the cover of countless travel guides, which is deliciously ironic considering many of those guides don't even bother to include a chapter on Baldwin Hills, the neighborhood from which the photo is taken.
Photo by H Iyer via Flickr
In the winter, when the mountains in the background are snow-capped, the view is even more striking.
Photo by HappyMac via Flickr
From up here, you can also see how much of the nearby land remains oil fields. Just think. One day, this will all be part of the park.
The entire bowl is ringed by a nice, paved walking path, which is usually busy with joggers and walkers.
Your eyes are not deceiving you. Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus does indeed come right into the park, depositing visitors just inside the front entrance.
Out of the hills: There's plenty going on once you come down out of the hills. Crenshaw Blvd is the main business thoroughfare, and there's a variety of specialty stores and barber shops lining both sides of the street. One of the most eye-catching features of the street is this neighborhood mural.
The mural provides a 30-second refresher on African American history and culture. Start at the south end of the wall and work your way north.
For some reason, every time I pass this part of the mural, I can't get the sound of Rufus Thomas singing The Breakdown out of my head.
See what I mean?
Another point of interest on Crenshaw is Nobody Jones, the small clothing boutique owned by designer Odessa Bowden. Bowden hosts a wonderful runway fashion show in the store at the beginning of each season to show off her newest styles.
But the leviathan that dominates Crenshaw is of course the Baldwin Hills-Crenshaw Plaza mall, which sits at the northeast foot of Baldwin Hills. We'll deal with the half of the mall that sits on the Baldwin Hills side, and leave the other half for discussion in a later Crenshaw Manor post.
For the most part, if you've seen one shopping mall, you've seen them all, but Crenshaw Plaza does have some very important attractions. Two of them aren't even inside the mall itself (which by the way, sports FREE PARKING at all of its indoor and outdoor lots)...
The Creole Chef sits on an island in the mall's back parking lot. This nondescript little restaurant is home to some of the best Creole cooking in southern California. Owned and operated by Louisiana brothers Norm and Paul Theard, the restaurant is a hit for its Po' Boys, gumbos, jambalayas and other New Orleans delicacies. My favorite is the buttery crawfish etoufee and the slightly salty sweet potato fries.
The mall is anchored by the only Wal-Mart in Los Angeles, proper. It also happens to be the first three-level Wal-Mart in the United States. After Macy's left the mall in the late '90s, Wal-Mart took over the space after a controversy and a reluctant approval. Love 'em or hate 'em, their presence is considered a better option than just having an abandoned anchor store.
Also in a building in the mall's parking lot is the first of the movie theater multiplexes opened by basketball great Magic Johnson. The Magic Theatre opened in 1995 and has been a huge boon to the neighborhood, screening first-run movies in an environment every bit as nice as the better movie houses on the Westside and in Hollywood.
This is the theater where Quentin Tarantino brags about going to see his movies, as though that gives him some kind of street cred. Actually, I've got to give QT credit, because he probably guessed (correctly) most westsiders wouldn't check the theater out for themselves, so they'd never know that it was among the cleanest, safest, nicest, most family-friendly multiplexes in the city.
Always expect big crowds here, especially for the big summer popcorn flicks. I think most of the people in this line were buying tickets to Rush Hour 3.
The mall itself is pretty ordinary, with one exception...
Up on the second floor sits the Downtown Buffet, one of the most popular dining establishments in the neighborhood. On Sundays, the line to get in snakes throughout the mall. That's because this place offers one of the biggest, most comprehensive all-you-can-eat buffets in town. Think of it as what you'd see at a mid-range hotel on the Vegas Strip. Only this isn't Vegas, which makes the place a huge draw. For only 10 bucks, your inner glutton can take on everything from chinese food to sushi to barbecue to burritos to crabs.
Yes, those are raw oysters you see on the bottom left.
And the price even includes bottomless Mongolian barbecue. Oddly enough, there are more topping options at this buffet than there are at the more expensive Mongolian BBQ places found in most malls.
Here's the sushi section.
And here you can satisfy your fried chicken, pizza, fast-food needs.
Don't forget the dessert. None of this food would be mistaken for gourmet cuisine, but for the price and variety, you really can't go wrong, which is why families love it. The kids can stock up on pizza and fries while the parents have sushi. Everybody leaves full and happy.
In fact, I think it's time for me to bring my Baldwin Hills tour to a close. All this showing you around has made me hungry!