At the turn of the last century, Highland Park was distinguished by its unique natural beauty and winding Arroyo Seco. After WWII, as urbanization increased and the Arroyo was channelized, the community's ties to nature were almost completely covered by concrete. Fortunately, remnants of the original green landscape were preserved as public parks along the Arroyo Seco and the open hills of Debs Park. Over the years families could be seen taking advantage of the parks, hosting birthday parties and celebrating little league championships, but far less were taking hikes to Peanut Lake to enjoy the view of the city. In the late 1990s, former City Councilman Mike Hernandez helped bring together a group of community stakeholders to explore new strategies to increase public awareness of the park and increase usage by community residents.
In 1998, the local Audubon Society opened a storefront office in Highland Park and began working with local schools to bus kids to the Ballona Wetlands on the west side of the city. There children experienced plants and animals in their natural environment, but they had to be bused away from their own community. By 2000, the city's plan to re-introduce the public to Debs Park and the Audubon's desire to work with children and families in their own community converged, and plans were set in motion to build the organization's first urban nature center adjacent to the Arroyo Seco at Debs Park. This initiative was part of the Audubon's national strategy to engage urban communities of color that had been previously marginalized in the environmental movement.
In many ways the new nature center was a homecoming for the Audubon Society. In 1907 a group of nature and bird enthusiasts would meet and take walks along the rolling hills and canyons of Garvanza. The group began to grow and in 1910 members formed the organization that would become the Los Angeles Audubon Society. The mission of the organization then, as today, is education, recreation and advocacy for conservation of the natural environment.
The Audubon Center at Debs Park opened its doors to Northeast Los Angeles in 2003. It was designed as an environmental education and conservation center for the community, and its mission is made manifest in the many educational and outreach activities that encourage local residents to take advantage of the hiking trails, vegetation, bird and animal life all located just a few streets away. The design of the buildings further highlight the Center's commitment to the local environment, with landscaping composed of primarily native flora and the main buildings construction using recycled building materials. The Center operates completely off the grid, generating its own power through on-site solar systems.
The Center partners with local schools and childcare centers to expose young children and teens to the natural underpinnings of their community. Through field trips, summer camps and free weekend family activities, the center welcomes community residents to explore and learn about how our actions impact nature and how nature impacts our daily lives. The Centers "Green Team" goes one step further, providing an opportunity for local teens to participate in the direct conservation and preservation of local habitat. Team members meet with a teacher naturalist, and learn how to monitor the condition of the environment and restore habitat for plants and animals.
The Audubon Center strives to re-establish the relationship between the residents of Northeast L.A. and the Arroyo Seco, a relationship that harkens back to what originally brought people to this area. From the Tongva to the Plein Air artist, the rich natural setting of the Arroyo has nurtured community and a sense of place for thousands of years.
Above, Director of the Audubon Center at Debs Park Jeff Chapman describes the purpose and function of the center in the Northeast community; Ximena Gil, visitor as a student a current employee of the Audubon Center, describes her experiences; members of the Arroyo Green Team describe their group and the importance of educating youth and community on local ecology.