The Man Behind LA's Park To Playa Trail: 'Make Parks Where People Are'
If you're craving fresh air and exercise, the 13 miles of LA's Park to Playa Trail could hit the spot. The final linkage for the trail was completed late last year, and you can run or bike from the Crenshaw District all the way to the beach at Playa Del Rey. (Check out our photo tour of the entire thing).
The trail is overseen by the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, and brings together a patchwork of different parks and stretches of land owned by city, county and state agencies.
It's a community vision brought to fruition by the work of David McNeill, the executive director of the conservancy, who for 20 years pushed for a way to give the people of South L.A access to the great outdoors in their own neighborhood.
When McNeill was a kid growing up around Baldwin Hills, he'd seek out open spaces to ride his Stingray bike, the one with the banana seat and the backrest for popping wheelies.
With parkland in short supply in that part of Los Angeles in the late 60s, he and his friends ended up riding in the gritty dirt oil fields near see-sawing pump jacks and hanging out near the ruins of the Baldwin Hills Dam, which collapsed on live TV in 1963.
"We'd get dirty, and we'd run around here, and we'd hang out there at night, you know, when you're not supposed to be there," said McNeill, now 57.
It was fun, if risky, and it left an impression about the need for South Los Angeles to have better quality open space -- and lots more of it.
So as a new father in 2001, when he took a job as executive director of the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, he had a mission: to create wonderful new places for his son to safely play in the great outdoors, near home.
THE EQUITY PROBLEM
At the time, California's land conservancies were state agencies dedicated to buying up land in remote mountain areas like Lake Tahoe and the Santa Monica Mountains to preserve them for recreation and keep them from being covered over with housing.
"How do we carve out enough for these communities of color so they have access to the money, same as they do in the Sierra Nevada, same as they do in Tahoe?"
But while South Los Angeles residents were among the Californians whose taxes funded the land purchases, many lacked the transportation or free time to go enjoy the conserved land.
"How do we carve out enough for these communities of color so they have access to the money, same as they do in the Sierra Nevada, same as they do in Tahoe?" McNeill said.
That was the thinking behind the emerging urban parks movement -- the realization that crowded cities needed more recreation spaces, and that equity meant spending state money to create them, even if the per-acre cost was higher.
The timing for Baldwin Hills was perfect, McNeill said.
"All of a sudden, people are saying we can buy land in urban areas and make parks close to people where they are," McNeill said.
So, for the past 20 years, McNeill has been exercising the power of the Baldwin Hills Conservancy -- a state agency -- to buy land, or to get others to buy it, and set it aside for the public.
BEST VIEWS IN THE CITY
Its first big acquisition was the tallest hill in the L.A. Basin. The Conservancy persuaded the state to spend $30 million in recreation bond money to buy the land, which developers coveted as a site to build luxury homes with stunning views.
"State Parks dropped the money in there, stopped the bulldozers and development," McNeill said.
Today, that hilltop is the popular Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook and the famous Culver City stairs. From the top, you can see the ocean, the Hollywood sign and even the skyscrapers downtown.
Buying the land was an important step, but getting many different interest groups to collaborate and share their visions for what to do with it was its own challenge.
There were South Los Angeles residents wary of Culver City residents, and vice versa. Walkers fearful of trail bike riders. Dog-leash people versus free-range dog owners. McNeill worked with the different groups to bring them together.
"We have all those jurisdictions trying to get on the same page of what we need to do in terms of signage and dog leashes and all the policies," McNeill said. "So our agency is that one place they meet every six weeks to have that cross discussion about how to make things seamless."
ASBESTOS AND ARSENIC
The parks along the trail include the mammoth Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, whose flying disc golf course occupies the former Baldwin Hills reservoir, Ruben Ingold Park, Culver City Park, the Baldwin Hills Overlook and Stoneview Nature Center.
This site was a school site, but it had asbestos and arsenic and it was on top of a well"
The Nature Center is tucked away in Blair Hills, just north of the Inglewood Oil Field. The center is a lush garden, and a constantly flowing water fountain from which strawberries grow on a vertical wall -- but that's only a recent development, made possible by the Conservancy's investment.
"Historically, all of the Baldwin Hills had oil on it. This site was a school site, but it had asbestos and arsenic and it was on top of a well," McNeill said.
The site was so polluted that the school buildings had to be demolished and a new office and educational building erected on the former soccer field. The rest of the property is an art garden curated to showcase native plants and traditional California crops. You can even pick some fruit to take home.
McNeill also leverages the agency's relationships to bring jobs and job training to the area. Workers undergoing job training with the California Conservation Corps can be seen on the hill maintaining trails.
McNeill learned to value public service at Loyola High School, L.A.'s famous Jesuit prep school in the Mid-City Area. Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, was among his teachers.
"Those people inspired me to do a lot of things that I do and inspired a lot of Los Angelenos to make this a better place," he said.
After 20 years as executive director of the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, the amount of open space in the area it serves has doubled, with 750 acres now in public hands. But his vision is to double it again.
Plans to build a wide land bridge that would push six lanes of La Cienega Blvd. underground in a tunnel are still waiting on the drawing board. And he has his eyes on land used for oil operations that may someday be declared obsolete and retired as Los Angeles shifts away from fossil fuels.
"It won't be enough when we're done because the population of L.A. will be huge," he said. "But thank God, we made our stand."