By Darlene Donloe, Contributing Writer
BALDWIN HILLS — When it comes to recreational activities, there is a lot to see and do in Baldwin Hills.
From the Baldwin Hills Scenic Outlook, to the Stoneview Nature Center, to the Ballona Creek Bike Path, Baldwin Hills residents have seen an increase in available outdoor activities in their backyard.
Next up for this hillside neighborhood, that is close to downtown Los Angeles and the Pacific Ocean, the Baldwin Hills are easily accessible to is the Park to Plaza Regional Trail, a 13-mile regional trail that will connect a network of trails, parks and open spaces from the Baldwin Hills Parklands to the Pacific Ocean.
The existing segments of the Park to Playa Trail include Stocker Corridor, Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area, Stoneview Nature Center, Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook, Culver City Park, and Ballona Creek Bike Path.
None of it was by happenstance. It all falls under the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, a state agency with a mission to acquire open space and manage public lands within the Baldwin Hills area (home to Kenneth Hahn State Regional Park and to Village Green, a national historic landmark) and to provide recreation, restoration and protection of wildlife habitat within the territory for the public’s enjoyment and educational experience.
The conservancy is the driving force behind executing the vision to implement the Baldwin Hills Park Master Plan and expand Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area into a world-class park that will serve as a recreation nucleus for area residents and people who visit.
Currently, the conservancy, which helped transform the unproductive hills into an energetic park extending from the Baldwin Hills, a predominately black area of the city, to Culver City, has several projects in the works including habitat restoration, water conservation and watershed protection, park improvement, research studies, health and wellness, youth development and the aforementioned Park to Playa and connectivity improvement.
David McNeill, the conervancy’s executive officer for the last 19 years, and Keshia Sexton, the conservancy’s board chair since last January, both said the organization continues to be invested in making a difference in the community.
Contributing writer Darlene Donloe recently caught up with both of them to talk about what the conservancy has done in the past and what the organization is currently working on.
DD: What has the conservancy done in the last five years that you can point to that improved the Baldwin Hills community?
DM: The Stoneview Nature Center opened three years ago. You can do yoga, hike, bike, exercise and take in nature. There are five acres of land. Kids can run around and explore. This year the Bridge over La Cienega is opening.
We also have the Park to Playa, which connects Kenneth Hahn Park to Stoneview Nature Center — a pedestrian bridge, It is 1,600 linear feet and will cross over four lanes. This is the final piece to the Park to Playa Trail. It starts at Presidio, goes to Stocker, across Kenneth Hahn Park and then crosses La Cienega Boulevard and then into Blair Hills (Stoneview Nature Center).
It then goes into Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook and through Culver City and then out to Ballona Creek Bikeway.
This has been years in the making. It will open in November. It’s legendary. It’s been talked about since 2000. The money, funding and acquisitions happened for the last five years.
The Culver City stairs will be improved.
The stairs were there in 2008. We didn’t know how successful it would be. Some erosion resulted when the rain came. The stairs started becoming steeper and harder to access. The soil had eroded underneath them.
The stairs vary in height to make our stride different. Rehabilitation is putting back erosion control measures. Filling in all the holes. We’re going to put rails on it, to keep people on the trail. It’s essentially an upgrade.
KS: There is also the Martin Luther King Jr. statue we just built last year. It’s significant because of the climate of 2020. It’s important to have reminders of our impact and the contributions of the African American community. The statue is in Kenneth Hahn Park. It was installed a year and a half ago. It’s at the top of the bowl. It’s a scaled monument of the one in Washington, D.C.
DD: What is the Baldwin Hills Master Plan?
DM: The Baldwin Hills Park Master Plan sets forth a comprehensive community-based vision for a two-square-mile park covering approximately 1,400 acres. What makes it particularly exciting is that, unlike a company where a board is in place to govern in one direction, we have elected members that may have different ideas and perspectives. You simply cannot just make decisions that are not inclusive of people. The local community is a resilient one. They’ve stayed strong through some of the worst natural disasters in decades.
DD: What is the biggest challenge facing the conservancy and how have you or will you overcome it/them?
DM: It’s always going to be funding. Having the money and pipeline to do acquisitions and building is always a challenge. We’ve been lucky that multiple bond measures have passed.
If we had to buy 100 or 200 acres now it would break the bank. It’s a challenge to know you don’t have all the funding to finish the park. There are always going to be different needs. Stairs erode — fix it. Land becomes available — buy it. We haven’t bought land since 2006, because prices change. A lot has to do with zoning.
DD: David, you’ve been working at this a long time. You’ve described it as your dream job. Talk about your success stories and the dreams that got away. What are you most proud of accomplishing during your tenure?
DM: I would have done it for free when they hired me. I was the first executive officer and the first African-American head of the conservancy. The biggest thing for me was to have an impact in the city I love and live in. I’ve always been around this area since the first grade. Leimert Park, View Park and Ladera Heights have always been the center of my existence. To do work that changes the landscape is rewarding.
Finishing the Master Plan was one. We don’t want that area to be exploited. The policy of urban parks has made us ride a tide of investment. About $60 million has been directed toward this community to build out this park. Some of the greatest days have seen the inclusion of the Stoneview Nature Center, the Scenic Overlook, the Culver City Stairs — those are the discussions I was sitting in on.
DD: Let’s talk about community involvement.
DM: We are accessible. Anyone can tune in to our meetings. We advertise our meetings online. We encourage dialogue. We’re doing programs for the youth at Audubon [Middle School]. There are also volunteer opportunities like MLK Day on Crenshaw. We have restoration events where the community can paint curbs and plant plants.
KS: Anyone in the community has the opportunity to help design projects. There are surveys and community meetings where residents can attend and help contribute to the design of a particular project. We make sure the community sees what it’s going to look like. We ask questions like do you need a gym, basketball court, etc.? That’s how most facilities are designed.
DD: Is there a need for the conservancy today? Are you still necessary and relevant?
DM: Now more than ever. Under this current new normal, nationwide there is a rediscovery of outdoor open spaces. It’s important to be able to get to the park on foot or bicycle. There is an impact on families of color who may live in a crowded house or apartment.
There is a real need for kids to get out and play and breathe. Countywide parks have become the mecca of this pandemic. It’s always timely to have [the conservancy] to maintain the qualities of the facilities and address the needs. We are always evolving. There are community activists having discussions every 6-8 weeks about how we can better serve this park.
DD: What is the best way to utilize whatever open space is available in the Baldwin Hills area and why?
KS: I use it for exercise and walking and enjoying nature. For me, that’s the best way. It’s a great way for residents to escape from the big city and feel rejuvenated. Every time I go to the park it’s being used.
DM: The best way to utilize it is to serve the people and to expose them to outdoor activities, nature and generally have an escape from the indoors. It can be planned in a lot of different ways, but the point is to serve their needs.
DD: In what way are you serving the needs?
DM: Our agency has made a priority to provide great access to the park. The goal is to be able to get to the park on foot. We are providing more trails for pedestrians. We want it to be possible for people not to have to use their cars in order to get to the park. The Parkland Shuttle is available on weekends to get in from the (bus) on La Cienega.
The Stoneview Nature Center has a garden where people can get fruit and vegetables. It’s a demonstration of what you can do in your backyard. There is a fruit orchard. You can pick some fruit and leave some for someone else. Those are some ways to meet and serve their needs. Certainly, we can do more.
DD: Describe the importance of open spaces in the Baldwin Hills area.
KS: As a whole, South Los Angeles is underserved regarding spaces. It’s great to have a conservancy where the green space provided is a way of service. Access to green spaces improves someone’s health. It’s a benefit to the immediate region we serve. We make sure people have access to this space and that they benefit from it.
DD: Imagine you have carte blanche to do whatever you want regarding Baldwin Hills. Describe what it looks like?
KS: For someone who grew up to something similar to South LA, with no green spaces, it would be to expand and reach more communities so they can have access to green spaces. It would be for Compton, Lynwood and everyone to have access in their backyard.
DM: The Baldwin Hills Master Plan, it’s kind of carte blanche. I admit with it being 2020 some things have changed. A golf course isn’t a priority right now. You will see a golf course eventually, but one-third should be passive. Some want a soccer field, a garden, or someplace to listen to music. If I had carte blanche, I would say no more new drilling, exhaust what you got, and let’s clean this up. My carte blanche would include the land bridge that’s going to cover La Cienega.
DD: What advice would you give to the next generation of conservationists?
KS: Think about the work that could happen in this field. People of color who are culturally aware to the needs are definitely needed. Landscape architects should take advantage of it.
DD: What are some of the conservancy’s upcoming plans that we haven’t discussed?
DM: The bridge is the biggest thing. Some other things in the hopper are access plans coming out for restoration plan for Janice’s Green Valley (the former dam site). Getting in and out of the bowl. We’d like to see access from neighborhoods into the parks. There are some beautification projects.
We’re also interested in capturing water in Yvonne Brathwaite Burke Park and rechanneling it and recreating it. The city of L.A. is working on Slauson to create a Rails to River program. Councilman Curren Price had budgeted for it. My goal was to have the Slauson rail connect so they can come into the park on a bicycle. The transit to parks – goes back to an issue of access. Linking the [Crenshaw light rail] line to the South Bay, linking rails to the river project, and making aware the ability to get to parks is important.
It’s not an accessible island, but it is the biggest draw in the area. We want people to be able to come to the park without getting into their cars. That would be great.