Everyone knows L.A. sits atop a vast reserve of petroleum sludge and stink (hence the La Brea Tar Pits, the methane vents, the ever-bobbing drills along La Cienega in Baldwin Hills, etc.), but would you ever suspect that's the reason for this sad, drooping, pastel-colored tower on the Beverly Hills/Century City border?
This is, in fact, a functioning oil tower that sits on the property of Beverly Hills High School. It is owned and operated by Venoco Inc., an oil company that acquires, exploits and develops oil and natural gas properties all over California. Venoco operates offshore platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel as well as landlubbing “properties” from L.A. to Sacramento — including the rig at Beverly Hills High.
When Beverly Hills High was built in 1927, the existing wells had to be accommodated, and the school was developed around them (despite rumors that the school was the one to install the wells). Eighty-four years later, Ol' Fugly still pumps around 400 barrels of black gold each day, and in return, the school gets leasing royalties from Venoco, which go directly into a general fund. (Rumor has it a little more than 85 percent of Beverly Hills High teacher salaries come out of this fund.)
In 2000, the graphic skin on the tower (painted by more than 3,000 children from local area hospitals) was unveiled as the “Tower of Hope,” with one of the four seasons represented on each side of the tower. Aw. There was even an unveiling ceremony for the ToH's new flower-patterned duds accompanied by American flags and balloons.
But not all's been swell with the well: In 2003, Erin Brockovich (not Julia Roberts) filed a lawsuit against the local school district on behalf of several former students, who said prolonged exposure to drilling on the site of their high school raised their cancer rate. Soon after, the school newspaper took to calling the well the “Tower of Hope You Don't Get Cancer.”
Wasn't there a Beverly Hills, 90210 episode about this when Brenda gets a cancer diagnosis?
Beyond the aesthetic crime of the “tower” — letting the wind-torn skin peel and fade and flap in the wind — is the shadowy and slimy marketing ploy behind it that would ask children with cancer and other disabilities to dress up a potentially toxic oil well on the site of a public school. But now, who on earth would tear down the happy, flowery, painters' work of some 100 recently deceased child artists?
And so the tower stands intact today (although, unfortunately for us, not as colorful and happy as it once did), pumping away and offering passersby a few memorial plaques and an in-depth list of donors. The plaques also note a website — Project9865.org, which leads to a totally unrelated (and un-updated) Japanese blog that sells tennis shoes. On the upside, the Beverly Hills City Council recently voted for a moratorium on oil drilling in the city, which would go into effect at the end of 2016. But of course there are plenty of loopholes to get around the ban if the high school chooses.
The environmental impact of the Tower of Hope on students and other close-by residents might always be a mystery. But the fugly fact is that the tower's pathetic cover-up job is nothing more than a creepy eyesore.