Imagine this: You live downtown. You take the train — the brand-new Exposition Line — all the way to the beach. You spend the morning negotiating waves in the ocean and souvenir prices on the boardwalk, then pedal your way along a traffic-free bike path to a 1,200-acre park just north of the airport congestion at LAX. There, you join a pickup soccer game, crack open a picnic lunch or climb high above the sports fields to amble among corridors of native California plants. As the sun begins to wane, you go home again, by trail or train. You have not been stuck in traffic for a minute. In fact, you didn’t bother with your car at all.
This is the Los Angeles David McNeill dreams about. He is not the first, and he is not the only one. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the landscape architect who designed Central Park, put forth a plan in 1930 for a greenway running the length of Los Angeles. Other state agencies and nonprofits, including the Ballona Network, lobby for a continuous swath of parkland along Ballona Creek, from the ocean to Baldwin Hills Park. But as the executive officer of the Baldwin Hills Conservancy, a state agency devoted to the creation of a 1,200-acre park in South Los Angeles, McNeill is in a unique position to make it happen. After all, says the former music executive turned professional park advocate, “I grew up on Olmsted Avenue.”
Way back in kindergarten, he may not have known the significance of that two-block street between King and Exposition where his family’s house sat, but these days, he says, “It just feels like destiny. We’re trying to pick up now right where F.L. left off.”
Before the epic greenway, however, comes the park to which McNeill has devoted the better part of the past decade. When completed (“In my lifetime?” McNeill speculates. “Before we achieve world peace?”), Baldwin Hills Park will cover two square miles south of Ballona Creek and north of Slauson Boulevard, bisected by La Cienega Boulevard and Stocker Street and rising high enough above the Los Angeles basin that visitors will often be able to seeCatalina Island. It will be, says McNeill, not only a “bridge between cultures” but a bridge between ecosystems: One edge reaches toward the ocean, the other to the oil fields along Stockerand ultimately downtown.
It is also a test case for a constellation of public and private agencies to work seamlessly in concert: “Baldwin Hills Park is the proving ground for people around the state to come together and do the right thing,” he says. “It’s L.A.’s one opportunity to make a park as big as Golden Gate. We have to remain diligent in fighting off development and investing in land for open space. We have to get this one right.”
With that in mind, McNeill has helped oversee two and a half years of painstaking outreach to a community long fragmented along economic, racial and cultural faults. The park’s planners held workshops; the community turned out in healthy numbers and with strong opinions.
“The kids wanted a skate park,” he says. “The moms wanted a place their kids could go in the summer and feel safe. Some people wanted a full basketball court; others wanted soccer fields.” McNeill himself wanted a golf course: “Kids in South L.A. look up to Tiger Woods,” he argues. “You can’t disrespect that.”
Nor could McNeill ignore the mostly middle-class environmentalists who wanted to see native habitat restored to the park. “They were like, ‘I know what a park looks like, and it doesn’t have grass!’”
In the end, the conservancy split the park plan into thirds. Students from Loyola Marymount already meet immigrants from Nicaragua on the soccer field (“Parks,” says McNeill, “are great equalizers”), a basketball court is in the offing, and McNeill has successfully collaborated with the Audubon and California Native Plant societies on a lush native-plant garden, complete with interpretive signs. And that’s only with 750 of the proposed 1,200 acres in possession.
“When you get going like that,” McNeill admits, “1,200 acres starts to seem very small.”
All the more reason, then, to keep an eye on that extended city-long greenway, an idea McNeill insists is less far-fetched than it sounds. “People always say you’re crazy,” he says. “But if you love it and keep talking about it, it won’t go away. It really comes down to what you believe is possible.”