The Baldwin Hills, Black L.A. and Green Justice


The Baldwin Hills is an epicenter of excellence in African American culture across the United States, along with Sugar Hill in Harlem and, now, the White House. Even so, black folks in Baldwin Hills and adjoining South Central Los Angeles have constantly struggled for green justice. The community, which has long suffered from environmental degradation and discrimination, has been fighting to create the two square-mile Baldwin Hills Park. "Once completed, the park will be larger than Golden Gate Park in San Francisco or Central Park in New York City. With over 1,400 acres of contiguous open space, it would be the largest urban park created in over a hundred years," according to David McNeil, Executive Officer of the Baldwin Hills Conservancy. "Currently there are over 700 acres, more than half of the goal, in public ownership. We have a quarter of a million visitors a year."

The Baldwin Hills Park is a multiplicity of parklands and future possibilities. Its base is the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area which was established after the Baldwin Hills Dam disaster in 1963. The former dam site was set aside as a primarily urban-type landscaped park, complete with an artificial water feature and fishing lake.
The urban landscaped park idea has given way to a vision for a more natural and expanded park. In the "One Big Park" concept adopted by the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, chaparral and scenic views dominate the planning paradigm. Scenic overlooks provide vistas of unparalleled scope and beauty upon urban Los Angeles.

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Conceptual Plan for 'One Big Park'
Conceptual Plan for 'One Big Park'

 "All of this is, of course, superimposed upon the 'reality' of the Baldwin Hills oil extraction operation," according to Joe Edmiston, who is the Executive Director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Executive Officer of the Baldwin Hills Regional Conservation Authority. "Given the price of oil projected into the future, the primary issue, and determining feature of the Baldwin Hills Park, is oil versus park. The oil drillers have rights going back to the 1920s and they are not about to be displaced. Going forward with a real park under these circumstances has got to be the most difficult urban park challenge in America."

Youth soccer in the Baldwin Hills alongside active oil fields
Youth soccer in the Baldwin Hills alongside active oil fields

Mr. Edmiston first discussed the park with the legendary County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn in early 1978. The Carter Administration's parks initiative, lead by Chris Delaport, director of the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation in the Interior Department, focused on two areas in Southern California: the Santa Monica Mountains and the Baldwin Hills.

"In a memorable exchange, over the helicopter noise as Delaport was viewing both areas, Supervisor Hahn tried to broker a deal with me and present it to Delaport. 'You get your park, and I get my park. Deal?' This was vintage Hahn as a locally based political broker, working within the Carter Administration's quite sophisticated attempt to create protected areas at a level that was less-than-federally owned and with state/local participation," remembers Mr. Edmiston.
More recently the community stopped the construction of a proposed emergency power plant in the park with no environmental review in 2001 during the claimed energy crisis. The community stopped the city of Los Angeles from constructing a garbage dump - what city officials euphemistically called a "solid waste transfer station" - in 2003. The community saved the budget for the state park and the Baldwin Hills Conservancy when a governor's commission threatened to cut both in 2004.

From 2007 until 2011, the community worked in and out of court to regulate the adjoining oil fields to better protect human health and the environment, resulting in a settlement in July 2011. Key settlement provisions include reduced drilling of new wells; increased air quality monitoring; more stringent noise limits; recurring health and environmental justice assessments; and a study of fracking in the area.

How is the park an environmental justice issue? "There is no equal access to resources most people take for granted. We need livable communities with clean space and open spaces to play. This is crucial to our community and our children's well being," according to Mark Williams, Youth Director for Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles. "The Baldwin Hills Park is a great open space with tremendous potential to meet the needs of Los Angeles and black Los Angeles specifically."

Concerned Citizens, represented by The City Project, sought access to justice through the courts against the County of Los Angeles and the oil company Plains Exploration Company (PXP) in 2008 "in order to take responsibility for protecting, improving and developing our community because our children can't fend for themselves. We have to do our part," according to Mr. Williams. Culver City, Community Health Councils, NRDC and the Citizen's Coalition for a Safe Community filed related suits, all covered by the 2011 settlement.

What is fracking? Fracking is the injection of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into deep wells to force oil and gas to the surface. According to a recent article in the New York Review of Books, fracking should be stopped because of threats to drinking water, rivers and streams, global warming and human health, and the risk of earthquakes. According to a columnist for the New York Times, on the other hand, who is silent on the other risks, market based solutions and state regulations can minimize the risks of methane leaks. A study of fracking in the Baldwin Hills is scheduled for release in the summer of 2012 under the settlement.

Next up: The Baldwin Hills and Clean Water Justice.

Robert García on the struggle for the Baldwin Hills Park:

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