Title

"The Comeback Kid": Willowbrook's History and Transformation

willowbrook_top.jpg

This week, L.A. Letters spotlights Willowbrook's unique combination of agrarian history, diverse architectural styles, longtime residents and forthcoming developments. Willowbrook is technically considered unincorporated Los Angeles County. It is located east of the Athens on a Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles, north of Compton, west of Lynwood and immediately south of Watts and the 105 Freeway. As the lifelong Willowbrook resident Semaj Earl says, "Willowbrook is the bridge between South Central, Compton, and Watts."

Though it is often lumped with Watts and Compton, Willowbrook prides itself in its distinct personality. Photo courtesy of LA County Arts Commission.
Though it is often lumped with Watts and Compton, Willowbrook prides itself in its distinct personality. Photo courtesy of LA County Arts Commission.

This geographic proximity causes many to lump Willowbrook in with these areas, though Willowbrook is a stand-alone pocket with a character all its own.

At the corner of Compton Avenue and 120th Street is a large relief sculpture on the side of the building that includes Charles Drew and Martin Luther King Jr. This is where the Charles Drew Medical School is, adjacent to the Martin Luther King Drew Medical Center. Drew was a pioneering African-American doctor who improved techniques in blood storage. His efforts in the 1940s helped save thousands of lives during the Second World War.

Though the hospital was closed in 2007, it has recently reopened with all new facilities. The relief sculpture and the renovated hospital stand as beacons that remind residents of Willowbrook's roots that have undergirded its rich cultural history, but also its capacity to rebuild and thrive despite adversity.

Early History
As many Angelenos know, Watts was once called Mudtown because much of the area consisted of swamplands and would become especially muddy when the Los Angeles River flooded during the rainy season. Immediately adjacent neighborhood to Watts, Willowbrook was also named from the conditions of its landscape -a natural brook runs through the area and much of the district was originally marshlands and willow thickets.

During the early 19th century's Spanish Rancho era, cattle grazed in Willowbrook and the original willow brook was a known boundary. The first official use of the name Willowbrook was in the early 20th Century and the first subdivisions were built in the area in the 1890s. Following this time, the nearby Pacific Electric streetcar station helped make the name more well known.

Much of the landscape remained open space and undeveloped until after World War II. More homes were built following the war and Willowbrook became especially African-American after the 1940s. Willowbrook has always been known for homes with big lots and an agrarian landscape that many say reminded them of the South. Willowbrook has also gradually become more Latino over the last generation. Nonetheless, as much as the area has become more developed and changed demographically, there are still a few horses on the large lots around Willowbrook.

The Willowbrook Library
The landscape is not the only historic element of the area as Willowbrook is also the site of the first county library. According to Los Angeles County Urban Planner Jonathan P. Bell, the sprawling L.A. County Public Library system began its network of community branch libraries in Willowbrook. The library was born out of local empowerment as Willowbrook residents mobilized to establish the first ever library branch.

At the Willowbrook Library on Wilmington Avenue the community library manager Camille Ray tells of how the County Library system emerged because though there were libraries in individual cities, all of the rural areas and unincorporated districts of Los Angeles County did not have any libraries in those early years. The library was originally founded in a woman's home and opened officially in April 1913. The library was open for 2 days in April 1913 and circulated 18 books. It moved to a room in the post office in 1919 and remained there until 1950 when a library was built on El Segundo Boulevard. This branch was damaged by fire in the 1965 Watts Uprisings and was rebuilt in June 1966. The library was finally relocated to its present location in 1987.

Willowbrook's library was destroyed in the 1965 Watts uprising, but has since been replaced and currently experiencing major renovations. Photo courtesy of CalState Dominguez Hills Archives.
Willowbrook's library was destroyed in the 1965 Watts uprising, but has since been replaced and currently experiencing major renovations. Photo courtesy of CalState Dominguez Hills Archives.

The latest good news is that a new state-of-the-art building for the library is set to be constructed across the street from the present site. Pastor Delores Glass from the Fellowship Baptist Church in Willowbrook has lived in the area over 50 years and she tells me, "I am excited about the new library and the senior housing which will also be housed on that site." She is especially excited because the community residents and other stakeholders came together to provide input on the design, amenities and services which will become a part of the Willowbrook Library and Senior Center.

Agrarian Flavor
Jonathan P. Bell, is an "embedded urban planner" that works very closely with community stakeholders across South Los Angeles. Bell introduced me to Edward Rojas, a like-minded urban planner that he works with in the Los Angeles County Urban Planning Department. The two men have worked together in the field for ten years and Rojas knows Willowbrook with the same expertise that Bell has for Florence-Firestone. On a recent Sunday afternoon I took a ride with both of them through Willowbrook. Over the course of three hours, we thoroughly covered the neighborhood.

"South Los Angeles is not as urban as people think, it's really quite suburban and this can especially be seen in Willowbrook," says Rojas. In the 10 years he has worked in Willowbrook, he has acquainted himself with many of the homes that have 300-foot lots and some residents have horses, cows, roosters and expansive gardens. There's even an equestrian center. Rojas showed me streets where some lots had two or three houses, groves of fruit trees and facilities for livestock. We even heard a rooster crow and saw a few residents on horses including a young teen couple on 124th Street.

However, Willowbrook has not gone unmarked by urban development. Rojas also told me how the construction of the 105 Freeway through the area's northern heart over the last two generations created a lot of boundaries and cul-de-sacs in Willowbrook. He also explained how the Blue Line train running in the middle of Willowbrook Avenue acts as a dividing line.

Rojas says that though there are new developments in the works, Willowbrook will always have its rustic charm and subtle agrarian flavor. "I don't see it dying anytime soon," he says. Some of these changes include the new Faith and Hope Park that is under construction. Rojas notes the large Magic "Earvin" Johnson Park is getting ready for a large makeover as well.

Architectural Style and Paul Williams

Paul Revere Williams resized.jpg

The range of architectural styles in the area is another big surprise that many might not expect. There are many different types of homes from small craftsman, Spanish Colonial, Storybook, Mid-Century Modern and even a few McMansions.

The charming homes of Carver Manor near El Segundo Boulevard and McKinley Avenue were all designed by the legendary Los Angeles architect, Paul Revere Williams. Williams, of course, is known as the first African-American architect licensed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and also for designing dozens of movie star homes for people like Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra. Williams designed hundreds of buildings in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, the Bay Area, New York, Paris, and South America in an era when he often could not even live in the neighborhoods where he was designing. Williams is one of the greatest architects in the history of Southern California, but few know about the homes he designed in Carver Manor.

Carver Manor housing community was named after then-recently deceased scientist, educator and inventor George Washington Carver.
Carver Manor housing community was named after then-recently deceased scientist, educator and inventor George Washington Carver.

Designed by Williams, Carver Manor is an area of 250 homes built in the mid-1940s for Black military veterans returning from the war. According to the Paul R. Williams Project website, the homes were built by a visionary African-American real estate agent named Velma Grant. The site states, "With a $2,290,000 loan from Bank of America, Grant bought 50-acres of undeveloped land in South Los Angeles. She named the subdivision Carver Manor in honor of the recently deceased scientist, educator and inventor George Washington Carver." Grant enlisted Williams because she thought his involvement would add further excitement and she was right. 70 years later the homes remain well-kept, tidy houses along well-maintained tree-lined streets. Moreover many of the original owners lived in them for the rest of their lives, well over six decades.

Willowbrookian homes are often personalized, giving each house and neighborhood a unique personality. Photo courtesy of Alyse Edmur.
Willowbrookian homes are often personalized, giving each house and neighborhood a unique personality. Photo courtesy of Alyse Edmur.

Williams also wanted the homes to include unique architectural features beyond the typical cookie cutter models generally seen in tract houses. Therefore, in order, "to create homes that were not cookie cutter in appearance, the architect designed each house with an off-set and broken roof line. Williams and Grant stressed the importance of quality construction. The home exteriors were stucco construction and the interiors featured plaster walls, hardwood floors and double tile sinks."

The Friends and Neighbors Community Club
Longtime Willowbrook resident Randy Hughes lives in Carver Manor and he is a big fan of Paul Williams. Hughes shared in Rosten Woo's book "Willowbrook Is..," that he had looked in many areas around Southern California for a home, but it was the well-crafted homes in Carver Manor that really inspired him. Hughes is the President of the Friends and Neighbors Community Club, a group of committed Willowbrook citizens that work with local schools, neighborhood politicians and law enforcement to improve the neighborhood. The motto of their group describes their mission perfectly: "Neighbors coming together for a greater purpose."

Recently I attended their 12th annual luncheon where they honored eight local college-bound high school students with scholarships and awarded both Edward Rojas and Alice Craft with The Yellow Rose Award. This award is given to individuals who have made a positive impact in the quality of life and growth of the community.

Story continues below

Alice Craft has been a watchdog of environmental pollution in the area and is also trained in Emergency Preparation. She keeps a close eye on a number of adjacent factories and industrial sites on the edge of Willowbrook, making sure they do not pollute and endanger locals. Both Rojas and Craft received their awards to large applause.

Throughout the event Randy Hughes celebrated the scholarship recipients, Yellow Rose Award Winners and keynote speaker Commander Joseph Gooden. However, Commander Gooden shared with me that in truth, Randy Hughes is one of WIllowbrook's main "driving forces."

The Comeback Kid
Pastor Glass, another one of the area's driving forces and founder of Concerned Citizens of Willowbrook, has a wide perspective of Willowbrook as she has seen it through its many changes, both good and bad. "I imagine that the community of Willowbrook could be nicknamed the Comeback Kid, she says. Pastor Glass explains why the area is coming back by first recounting the challenges of the last 50 years: "Willowbrook has survived the 1965 civil unrest, survival as a hospital poor, park poor community, redevelopment and the loss of many homes and small business, educational challenges imposed upon students as a result of a school district inadequately funded, the crack cocaine epidemic and the gang violence which served as a byproduct of such, stressed relationships with local law enforcement which found pledge by practices of a few which did not reflect the mission and values of the department, the 1992 civil unrest, and the closing of inpatient services and trauma center located at the Martin Luther King Drew Medical Center."

Newly renovated Martin Luther King Drew Medical Center provides South LA residents with access to medical care. Photo courtesy of the Martin Luther King Drew Medical Center.
Newly renovated Martin Luther King Drew Medical Center provides South LA residents with access to medical care. Photo courtesy of the Martin Luther King Drew Medical Center.

Though Pastor Glass is one of the spiritual leaders of the community, she has also been deeply involved with local urban planning issues and community politics for several decades now. Most recently, she was a part of the citizens group offering feedback for the forthcoming library. Pastor Glass is enthusiastic about future projects in Willowbrook.

"We are here today as a result of the efforts of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas (a man with a heart and a vision) and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Willowbrook is now experiencing a great resurrection with almost a billion dollars being invested in the community." In addition to the library and a new Martin Luther King Medical Campus, she also lists a community garden, a new park (Faith and Hope), and a new housing development among anticipated projects, as well as the renovated Magic Johnson Regional Park.

Another major future project is the Rosa Parks Transit Center located where Watts meets Willowbrook along the Green Line below the 105 Freeway and at the intersection of Imperial and Wilmington. The station will be getting a $39 million renovation. These renovations are expected to improve the green environment, improve the public transit system and help revitalize the surrounding community.

Conclusion
Whether it be the agrarian history, the charming architecture of Paul Williams or the passionate citizen groups who give so much to the community, there is charged energy in the neighborhood that makes Willowbrook so inspiring.

Ms. Congeniality rides in the Willowbrook-Watts parade. Photo from archives of Paula Aliewine.

Pastor Glass says, "With such a rich history, the citizens of Willowbrook have proven that they can take a licking and keep on ticking." The resilience of the people of the community of Willowbrook has provided the patience necessary to wait for the better day that would come." The better day is now here. I salute to Willowbrook and its citizens for being a game-changing corner in the geography of L.A. Letters.

We are dedicated to providing you with articles like this one. Show your support with a tax-deductible contribution to KCET. After all, public media is meant for the public. It belongs to all of us.

Keep Reading