It takes a little faith to drive up to the Crystal Park Casino Hotel, on Artesia Boulevard in Compton, with the idea that you’re going to commune with nature. At 8 o’clock on a Thursday morning, the driveway in front of the casino’s big glass doors is empty of all life but an underworked valet pacing idly in front of the dingy white building. The casino itself, which is up for sale by Pinnacle Entertainment — the same outfit that recently unloaded Inglewood’s Hollywood Park Casino — has the heartbreaking look of an operation designed for a grand-scale gaudiness it couldn’t quite pull off.
I have come here to see a creek, but as I drive down into the sunken parking lot, the very notion seems ridiculous. Am I at the right place? Then I spot three people waving to me from across the lot. One of them is Meredith McCarthy, who directs coastal cleanups for Heal the Bay, the nonprofit that determines the letter grades of local beaches; she’s with her colleague, James Alamillo, and another man, Alex Kenefick, who manages the Compton Creek Watershed Plan for the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council. To read Erin Aubry Kaplan's story of Compton's struggle for change, click here. Which means that somewhere around here, among the deteriorated concrete of south Compton, there is something someone calls a creek.
McCarthy, a tall honey-blond with a sprinkling of freckles and lips like a movie star’s, moves with the enviable self-assuredness of someone with a long history of getting things done. When a security guard stops us on the way to the creek, McCarthy negotiates with an efficiency that gives him no room to doubt her rights or authority. He lets us go, and the four of us head down to a locked gate in a tall fence topped with barbed wire at the south end of a decaying empty lot. With a key, McCarthy undoes the padlock, and we walk through.
The contrast is startling. It’s as if we had stumbled upon a diorama of the Emerald City in the middle of the Nevada Test Site. Behind the fence, there is a creek. A wetland, even. A bona fide riparian marsh. There are cattails and thick, green aquatic grasses, killdeer and red-winged blackbirds. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers encased the upper stretch of the creek in concrete, but these last four miles have remained a soft-bottom corridor of green that runs all the way to the Los Angeles River on its path to the sea. While the four of us stand on the creek’s banks, a bird of impressive wingspan flies toward us, carves a turn and blithely lowers its long legs to rest on a light pole. It’s a great blue heron.
“As you can see, there’s a wide variety of wildlife and plant life around here,” says Alamillo from under a tall cloud of curly black hair. “But no one has ever done a biological assessment or even a water-quality assessment to know exactly what there is.” The periodic water samples Heal the Bay has taken from the creek reveal high levels of coliform bacteria and lead. “But those are just snapshots,” he says. “There hasn’t been any sediment sampling, and sediment is where you find the real issues. But there’s obviously a great potential here.”
Alamillo, Heal the Bay’s urban programs manager, has the inflection of a California surfer but speaks with the precision of a biologist, and it would take a cynic more hardened than I to resist his enthusiasm for this small patch of urban wild land.
“You have no idea,” he says. “People are willing to write this stuff off as ‘This is just flood control and nothing more.’ But this stretch has miraculously survived that mindset.”
Parts of the creek have already been developed for recreation; trails line about six of its eight-and-a-half miles used by cyclists on one side and horseback riders on the other (roughly four miles of trails are maintained by Los Angeles County). One of the little-known secrets of Compton is that it has its own equestrian club, with riders who come to meetings about the creek’s well-being in their purple shirts and jodhpurs.
We head back to McCarthy’s Honda Civic Hybrid and drive over a land bridge to a vacant lot on the other side of the creek from the casino, once the site of an auto mall that disintegrated in the ’90s after losing the battle with Cerritos Auto Square. Stray dogs make large circles around us as we cruise its soft-gravel surface; a rabbit darts across a makeshift road strewn with errant slabs of concrete and various lanky yellow flowers. Above us looms a large white loopy sculpture, like some strange inversion of the Encounter building at LAX, with the words “Bradley Oasis Center” in a cheery font — an unfinished monument to the city’s former mayor, Omar Bradley.