Support for LAist comes from
We Explain L.A.
Stay Connected

Share This

LA History

Baldwin Hills, 'The Black Beverly Hills': The Life And Times Of The Community

An aerial view shows a long road that splits down the middle of hillsides that have houses on the right and a walking trail surrounded by brush on the left. More houses are seen at the top of the bluff on the left side.
The Stocker Corridor trail runs through the View Park and Baldwin Hills neighborhoods.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)
Stories like these are only possible with your help!
Your donation today keeps LAist independent, ready to meet the needs of our city, and paywall free. Thank you for your partnership, we can't do this without you.

One day in the early 2000s, Professor Darnell Hunt was walking his dog in his picturesque Baldwin Vista neighborhood in South Los Angeles.

“This car came up and was moving really slowly, like kind of checking out the front of the house. And this guy stuck his head out the window. He said, ‘Hey, I used to live there.’ And I looked at him and recognized him. It was Lenny Kravitz. I said, ‘Yeah, I know you did,’” Hunt recalls. “He goes, ‘Do you mind if I take a look around?’ And we invited him in and he hung out in our house for about an hour, just telling us all these stories about growing up in the house and the whole bit.”

Kravitz had grown up in the house with his mother, the actress Roxie Roker, and his father, television producer Sy Kravitz, during the 1970s. Roker, a star of The Jeffersons, was one of the many Black celebrities who lived in Baldwin Hills. Over the years, neighbors have included basketball players Michael Cooper, A.C. Green, Byron Scott and Norm Nixon, entertainment luminaries Loretta Devine, Debbie Allen, Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner, John Singleton, Redd Foxx, rapper Kurtis Blow, and Congresswoman Karen Bass and the first Black California Congresswoman, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.

This has led neighborhoods in the Baldwin Hills — a collection of affluent wealthy and middle-class areas including Baldwin Hills Estates, Ladera Heights, Baldwin Vista, and especially View Park — to be known as “The Black Beverly Hills.”

Support for LAist comes from

“The whole L.A. perspective and history has shaped and framed the way the nation has told stories about itself with respect to Black people,” says Hunt, Dean of Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at UCLA, and editor of Black Los Angeles: American Dreams and Racial Realities. “BET did the show in the early 2000s called ‘Baldwin Hills.’ It's a reality show set in Baldwin Hills. I open Black Los Angeles using that as an example to talk about the way the neighborhood has become kind of legendary in a way and represents this attainment of a Black version of the American Dream.”

Baldwin Hills Communities Begin To Develop In The 1920s 

The rolling hills in South Los Angeles that now hosts these neighborhoods were once part of the Rancho La Cienega o Paso de la Tijera, eventually owned by the randy, wily 19th century L.A. pioneer Elias “Lucky” Baldwin.

In the early 20th century, these lawless, uninhabited hills were best known for the rough and tumble oil derricks that punctured the land, and conflicts between various syndicates to control the oil fields. With its reputation as a dump site for a notorious murder, peat fires, and a narcotics ring meet-up place, the area appears to have had a wild side.

However, this did not deter developers. During the boom time of the 1920s, they began to eye the hills, which offered panoramic views and perfect placement between Los Angeles proper, Santa Monica, and the South Bay. In 1927, the Los Angeles Times reported on the development of the new neighborhood of View Park:

Support for LAist comes from
"Belief of the Los Angeles Investment company that the growth of the city will result in the development of the east slopes of the Baldwin Hills of a residential district comparable to Hollywood and Beverly hills has been confirmed by events of the last month and a half, company officials declare." 

Some of the first homes in Baldwin Hills, which came to be known as View Park, consisted of nine- to 11-room homes in Spanish and English styles, purchased, according to developers, by “manufacturers, professors and financiers.”

In 1932, a different kind of planned community appeared in the Baldwin Hills, off of West Vernon Place above Crenshaw Boulevard. It was the first Olympic Village in modern times, featuring more than 500 temporary homes for more than 1,000 male athletes from 50 countries. Spread over 331 acres, each two-room bungalow was cooled by sea breezes. Athletes could patronize the dining halls, post office, bank and hospital unit set up in the mock village, while sleeping in beds custom made for athletic bodies and eating at tables made of California redwood. Crowds would gather outside the gates, eager to catch a glimpse of the athletes living there.

After the Olympics, all traces of the village were quickly removed, and more permanent structures came to dominate the Baldwin Hills. Developers, including the Los Angeles Investment Company and the Baldwin Hills Company, began to develop homes on the hill. So many doctors moved into the neighborhoods that it became known as “Pill Hill.”

The completion of the towering 19-acre Baldwin Hills Reservoir in 1951 only accelerated development, with many young families, professors and business owners moving into the sprawling one-story ranch and modern homes proliferating in the hills.

Support for LAist comes from

Laurie Coleman Kelson has fond memories of growing up in View Park and Baldwin Hills Vista in the 1950s and ‘60s.

“Even the weather was so beautiful. I'm sure it still is, but we always had your prevailing afternoon wind where you really didn't need air conditioning,” she recalls. “Neighbors took care of neighbors, cared about one another.”

An aerial view of the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza photographed circa 1952 in black and white.
Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, aerial view circa 1952
(Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library/Los Angeles Photographers Photo Collection)

One Of The First Racially Integrated Neighborhoods In The Area

The almost exclusively white neighborhoods in the Baldwin Hills slowly began to change in the 1950s, after the Supreme Court struck down the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in 1948. This enabled prosperous Black families — forced to live in areas primarily surrounding Central Avenue — to move into neighborhoods with amenities and opportunities they had until recently been denied.

Support for LAist comes from

“We first were in View Park and that was one of the first neighborhoods to become integrated. And that was in the early '50s,” Kelson recalls. “The first Black family moved into my street and it was the jazz pianist Art Tatum and his wife… And we as children thought this was fabulous. We’d sit on the curb and listen to him practice.”

Soon, predatory real estate agents were convincing white homeowners it was time to leave the neighborhood before their property value plummeted due to their new Black neighbors.

“Unfortunately, a lot of realtors made it their business to go around,” Kelson says. “And I remember my parents were sort of horrified by them saying, ‘Your house is not going to be worth much. We'll list it and we'll get you out of here soon.’”

However, Kelson’s parents redoubled their commitment to the Baldwin Hills. In 1961 when she was 13, her family moved into a bigger home in Baldwin Hills Vista, with breathtaking views of the Baldwin Hills Dam. Though Kelson felt no tension at the multi-racial, demographically shifting Dorsey High School, there were some white Baldwin Hills neighbors who made their displeasure known.

In a 1962 letter to the editor in the Los Angeles Times, a white resident in Baldwin Hills sniffed dismissively that Black people “wanted to be white.” The following week, L.A. resident Anne Thompson issued a passionate rebuttal, explaining that Black Angelenos of means were escaping neighborhoods where they faced lack of police protection, woefully unequal public services, and inadequate schools.

“This my dear lady, is why we move into ‘white neighborhoods,’” she wrote. Black "mothers have the same aspirations for their offspring as Caucasian mothers — the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — in the best possible environment, with the very best preparation for adult life possible.”

That same year, the NAACP announced it was picketing the Baldwin Hills School after 15 Black children in the neighborhood were denied admission because the principal claimed they didn’t have “the necessary transfer forms."

A Disaster Transforms The Area

In the midst of this transition, tragedy struck.

On Saturday afternoon, Dec. 14, 1963, the Baldwin Hills Dam burst, sending a wave of water cascading through the hills.

“Terraced lots were swept clean of houses and gardens, swimming pools were wiped away in seconds and a path — perhaps 40 feet across and winding as water gushed forward — was scoured out of the hillside,” the Los Angeles Times reported. “Hundreds were found hours after the wave struck, clinging to safety on rooftops and high elevations. Helicopter pilots, risking their lives by landing on weakened roofs and within inches of turbulent water, made many dramatic rescues as darkness shrouded the scene of devastation.”

Debris flowed into the celebrated Village Green community in the flatlands below. Sixty-four homes in the Baldwin Hills were destroyed, five people killed, and others injured. “The president had been assassinated in November. And then on Dec. 14, the dam broke. So, it was sort of like my little world of Baldwin, my world was just falling apart,” Kelson, whose family home survived, recalls. “People were devastated. Many homes gone, many flooded.”

Three men on a surface street are knee-deep in water that has spilled from the Baldwin Hills Dam.
On Dec. 14, 1963, the Baldwin Hills Dam collapsed, spilling 300 million gallons of water into the hillsides and sweeping away houses and cars. Five people were killed.
(Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library/Los Angeles Herald Examiner Photo Collection)

But the people of the Baldwin Hills built their neighborhoods back relatively quickly, recovering from the catastrophe.

More Black Families Begin To Move To Baldwin Hills

Throughout the 1960s, the Baldwin Hills area increasingly became a hub of Black upper-and-middle-class life in Los Angeles. “There were all these accounts of conflict and tension, and backlash among residents in the neighborhood. And eventually white flight, which is usually what follows when one or two white families move out,” Hunt says. “Realtors take advantage of that. They sell it to a family of color and then the process accelerates it. More Black families move in, more white families move out. You hit this tipping point and the neighborhood basically becomes predominantly African American.”

Hunt believes this tipping point was accelerated after the Watts uprising in 1965.

“Watts, which was miles away, was evidently too close for comfort for a lot of the white people who were living in these areas, and they started moving further west,” he says.

According to the Los Angeles Times, by 1971, 4,000 of View Park’s 5,795 residents had moved out of the neighborhood.

David McNeill, longtime View Park resident, and his family moved to the neighborhood in the 1970s. “A lot of athletes were moving in and living there,” he recalls. “My father finished his master's degree in business administration, and they were on their way up the hill.”

For McNeill it was an idyllic place to grow up.

“We'd do a lot of bike riding. You had your neighbors across the street. My friend Allen, his sister, and me — we'd run through people's backyards and climb up and down Stocker Street…There was no trail there [then],” he recalls. “We'd be going through people's backyards, climbing over fences, grabbing oranges and running around the hillside…. No one would be freaking out. They'd probably see kids climbing their backyards every weekend. There were no cameras. There were no iRings or whatever the hell (is) going on now. It was a whole different vibe.”

We'd be going through people's backyards, climbing over fences, grabbing oranges and running around the hillside…. No one would be freaking out. They'd probably see kids climbing their backyards every weekend. There were no cameras. There were no iRings or whatever the hell (is) going on now. It was a whole different vibe.
— David McNeill, longtime View Park resident

The abandoned Baldwin Hills Dam site (now part of the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area) was also a popular place for neighborhood kids. “We'd go, and that was awesome. You'd go there at night. It was just dead and creepy and huge and open space and you're like, ‘Wow,’” he recalls.

Residents up the hill, many who sent their children to private schools, were part of numerous Black civic organizations. There were social clubs like The Links, which hosted the premiere Black debutante balls in the city, the leadership organization Jack and Jill, and fraternities like Alpha Phi Alpha. McNeill recalls numerous transplants from Louisiana, known as the “LA, LA” folks.

Baldwin Hills was visited by tragedy yet again in July 1985, when a fire destroyed 47 homes in the neighborhood.

In 1994, Darnell Hunt and his wife, both young professors starting their academic careers at USC, were in search of a family home. “My wife and I, we wanted to be near or in a Black community. We didn't want to be distant from a Black community,” he recalls.

They purchased a home in Baldwin Vista, and Hunt quickly became fascinated by the history of the area. He learned from a neighbor, a retired white professor at USC, that a consortium of 53 professors had built their homes, on land from the Baldwin Hills Company, together in the 1950s — nicknaming the community “Troydale.” He also discovered that the original deed for his 1953 home included the restriction that “no part of any said realty shall ever be sold, conveyed, leased, or rented to any person not of the white or Caucasian race.”

Many children, including David McNeill, who grew up in the neighborhood in the 1970s and ‘80s, came back to Baldwin Hills after college and young adulthood to raise their own families. According to the Los Angeles Times, in 2000, of the around 45,000 people who lived in Baldwin Hills, View Park, Windsor Hills and Ladera Heights, 76% were Black, 9% were Latino and 6% were white.

But those living in the hills still battled racism and racist policies from recent decades. In 2001, neighborhood residents banded together to cancel plans for a power plant in the hills, which was seen by many as a form of environmental racism. For decades, economic racism has forced many residents of the Baldwin Hills to go west to shop and eat out.

Today’s Changes In The Area

Residents hope the $2.1 billion Crenshaw-LAX Light Rail Project, which will bring high-quality transit to the area, will also bring new amenities and development to South L.A. There are also efforts to preserve the Black history of the Crenshaw District with Destination Crenshaw, projected to be a 1.1-mile outdoor museum running along the new Crenshaw line.

This new focus on the area, along with rising housing prices, has led to a hot real estate market in the Baldwin Hills.

“It is on fire. It's crazy on fire. I mean, you can't get in there for less than $1.2 million,” says realtor Katrina Manning, who has sold in the area for 18 years. “And I mean, when I talk about $1.2, I mean the houses that were built back in the '60s and the '70s with no work. I mean a lot of those houses still look like retro with the mirrors, carpet, and all of that stuff.”

It is on fire. It's crazy on fire. I mean, you can't get in there for less than $1.2 million.
— Katrina Manning, real estate agent

Manning has seen an increase in white buyers, many who have young families, leading to shifting demographics. Many Black residents are getting older and finding they can sell homes purchased for $20,000 decades ago for over $1 million.

“Back during the day, a lot of affluent African Americans bought their homes there,” Manning says. “And now they're all old. And so, a lot of them are dying. And some of the kids... a lot of kids went back east to go to Howard University. And a lot of them didn't want to come back to California.”

Manning points to the Baldwin Hills many positive attributes; its abundance of outdoor recreation, beautiful views, and nearness to SoFi Stadium and the Forum for its increasing popularity. Hunt, who now lives in Baldwin Hill’s Estates, echoes many of the same points, adding:

"What I like about the community is that, aside from the African American presence, the history, the culture of that, it's just very accessible to other parts of L.A.; it's in the middle of everything. You know it only takes 10 minutes to get downtown, 10 to 15 minutes to get to Beverly Hills, 10 to 15 minutes to get to the beach. I mean, you could pretty much get anywhere — major destination places within LA — within 10 to 15 minutes. Not to mention the fact that the houses are, architecturally, very interesting."

But the Baldwin Hills, like much of South Los Angeles, face a new challenge, as more and more non-Black residents move into the area.

“We want to maintain a place in L.A. that is associated with African Americans and the history that they have contributed to the area. But at the same time, I mean, it's nice to build resources in the community and to upgrade services and things like that, that often come with development in the area,” says Hunt, a consultant for Destination Crenshaw. “It's sort of like a balancing act…I think we're trying to strike that balance with Destination Crenshaw and certainly as homeowners in the region. I think, the Homeowners Association is very much committed to developing a community that people feel safe in, and that people want to stay in. And so, I think that's where things are right now.”

David McNeill has noticed the shift in his neighborhood over the past few years. “I don't see the teenage kids. I see a lot of babies. Most of the babies are the new generation of Baldwin Hills residents. Just don't look like me. So, I sit in my window watching, drinking coffee.

“People want to call it gentrification,” he says. “That's just a lightning word that people like to use, whether it's media or Facebook. It's like pick a word that's going to get people excited. I call it the G word, but it's not. There's no gentrification happening. It's always been a beautiful neighborhood with upper class people making lots of good money and sending their kids to private school. How do you gentrify a neighborhood like that?”

Gina Fields, the Chair of the Empowerment Congress West Area Neighborhood Council, worries that the area’s Black Angelenos who can live within a majority Black community has shrunk.

“When I was a kid, the African American community started from Wilshire all the way down to 190th, and all the way over to Vermont, and all the way out past ... Culver City and (it) was predominantly African American. Now, you see how it's shrunk,” she says. “It's an area where we feel safe, where I know I can go for a run and nobody's going to chase me down with a shotgun. Or if I get locked out of my house, and I'm trying to get in, the police aren't going to roll up and try and shoot me. My neighbors are going to come out and help me. The people are going to be here to help rather than to think that you're trying to cause a problem.”

As a sociologist, Hunt sees the legacy of Baldwin Hills as one that is continuing to evolve.

“It speaks to the importance of building Black community and maintaining Black community in an area that, by all of the objective indicators, is highly desirable… But when whites moved out, investment in the surrounding area declined, the infrastructure wasn't kept up in the same way, major stores and shopping centers weren't maintained. And so, you had these affluent African Americans moving into this area that was vacated by affluent whites. And when the area was conceived, it was this wonderland of resources. And by the time they inherit the area, they have to go further west to get comparable services because they're no longer available locally because the investment has kind of left,” he says.

“You have to strike a balance between creating opportunities for development in the area and at the same time protecting smaller businesses that can't compete on equal footing for rent and so forth. So, I think that's kind of the lesson. I mean, for me, it could be a very interesting case study in whether or not gentrification, which is inevitable in this region, can proceed in a way that doesn't destroy the fabric of the community.”

For longtime resident David McNeill, the Baldwin Hills are simply home — a place where he says he still rides his bike and walks in his neighborhood on warm summer evenings “hearing the sounds and smelling the food that’s cooking in the kitchens.” While sitting on a park bench in the hills, McNeill explains contentedly, "I can see myself. This is my L.A. … My little neighborhood.”

What questions do you have about Southern California?