Slauson Avenue, for a good portion of its run, is a gritty, dusty industrial corridor, framed by the little-used BNSF Railway track that runs along its north side. Factories, warehouses, and fast-food establishments are prevalent through this stretch of South Los Angeles.
But even a place that many deride as "The Hood" or "The Ghetto" can still yield the most pleasant surprises.
On the northeast corner of Slauson and Compton avenues lies a dense, green oasis known as Augustus F. Hawkins Natural Park, an 8.5-acre open space designed to bring the chaparral to the concrete in every way possible.
The park was built in 2000 by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy on the site of a former DWP pipe storage facility, and was transferred to the city of Los Angeles five years later. The park was named after the late U.S. congressman, who, in 1963, became the first African American member of congress elected west of the Mississippi. He represented the southern Los Angeles County area for nearly 30 years.
The park itself is a hidden jewel, and upon entry, past the thick barrier of native scrub that surrounds the site, it looks almost like any other park, with picnic tables and a well-manicured expanse of green grass. But beyond the grass, and beyond the dense accumulation of shrubbery is the jewel within the jewel: A mini-native habitat, featuring a pond with fish and riparian plantlife, and small hills (created by mud delivered from a Malibu mudslide) with dirt hiking trails, bringing the outdoor experience to the inner city.
For many visitors to this park, the micro-wilderness can bring about an instant calming, transcendental feeling, and part of this park's purpose was to also positively transform the immediate neighborhood. Make no mistake -- you're still very much within earshot of the urban realm: the sounds of trains, planes, automobiles, and heavy machinery still pervade in the vicinity. However, inside the park, the cacophony of transportation and industry actually have to compete with the symphony of bird calls and leaves bristling against the breeze.
The sights and sounds of native and migratory birds are common enough here that local Audubon society members and amateur bird watchers are known to visit the park. The accumulation of native plants and trees have attracted warblers, hummingbirds, blackbirds, crows, flycatchers, starlings, doves, and even a heron or two. It's not unusual to spot 20 to 40 different varieties of birds in the park within the span of just a few hours. At one point, a winged creature caught my eye as it darted northwestward above the park. It was a mallard.
The park's users on this particular day were predominantly Latino, aged mid-20s and older -- perhaps indicating the absence of a technologically-addicted younger generation that's not as appreciative of the outdoors as previous ones.
This park joins similar natural parks in Los Angeles such as the nearby South Los Angeles Wetlands Park and Downtown L.A.'s Vista Hermosa Natural Park in terms of re-introducing native environs for recreational, educational and ecological benefit. What an age that we live in where, after over two centuries of erasing our indigenous ecosystems, that we are -- albeit on a minuscule scale -- restoring them.
True, this is a man-made re-creation of a native wilderness, but the beauty of a native wilderness is that it's largely low-maintenance and pretty much runs on its own once the ecosystem is set into motion. Perhaps it's not much a re-creation, but way for nature, in a confined space, and initiated by human intervention, to resume itself after a long hiatus.
Upon leaving the park, I headed north on Compton Avenue. Just mere yards past the exit, and right outside the park's gates was a sobering reminder of the dangers of the human world: A makeshift memorial shrine, comprised of photo frames, flowers and candles, that marked the location where a child was killed.
That only underscored the value of the natural park environment to this community -- as a respite from the modern world, and as a way to soften the rough edges of city life.