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A Fight for Their Goal, Their Gains

Baldwin Hills: Residents of the upscale black neighborhood rejoice over a victory in battle to block power plant. Many feel choice of site reflected racial bias.

June 23, 2001|JOE MOZINGO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In poor black neighborhoods in Los Angeles, the economic ladder is often perched against the Baldwin Hills.

There, on that lonely hump in the urban plain, lies hope. There, doctors and lawyers and politicians make up one of the wealthiest black communities in the nation. And there, in the heart of the hills, conservationists are hoping to create the crown jewel: a 1,200-acre state park.

That partly explains the outrage aroused when an oil company proposed building a 53-megawatt power plant in the middle of that envisioned green space, on what is now a working oil field. Neighbors managed to come together with environmentalists and civil rights activists in such a strong coalition that they may have rung the project's death knell.

After nearly 1,000 people jammed a public hearing early this week, the oil company's partner, La Jolla Energy Development, backed out of the plan Thursday, throwing the project's future in doubt.

Residents rejoiced Friday. To many, the power plant proposal was another slight in a long history of discrimination, from the days of racist real estate covenants to white flight to zoning decisions that seem to put the unwanted--the power plants and chrome plating facilities--in minority neighborhoods.

"This would never have been proposed in Brentwood," said Royal Hunter, 25, who lives just over the ridge from the site.

To some, the plant evokes the ubiquitous middle-class fear of plummeting real estate values. But many opponents, having risen from rough, polluted neighborhoods in South-Central and Compton, say they came to the Baldwin Hills to get away from this kind of industrial nuisance.

The area is a bastion for professionals and the cultural elite of African American Los Angeles. And African American visitors from other parts of the country often drive the winding hillside streets to see luxury homes, with sweeping views of city lights and blue Pacific, much like the ones made famous in the Hollywood Hills.

"There's a great sense of pride for an African American from around the country to see all these other African Americans doing so well, living in such nice homes," said Tony Nicholas, president of the area's United Homeowners Assn.

On Friday, Nicholas joined politicians and other park proponents at a news conference in the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. Over a din of children packed on a playground in the 350-acre park, they celebrated their victory.

"This effort goes to show that if you show up in numbers and participate and have the facts behind you, you can win," said state Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City).

Under exemptions granted for the energy crisis, the two companies were trying to get the plant approved in a mere 21 days, avoiding the normal environmental review process.

The facility, as proposed, would sit 650 feet from the Kenneth Hahn park and at the heart of a proposed park expansion that could ultimately cover hills and ravines from Culver City to La Brea Avenue.

Officials at the oil company, Stocker Resources, say they are still deciding whether to pursue the venture without La Jolla.

"We'll have a statement to make in the next couple of days regarding Stocker's position on this," Stocker spokesman Steve Rusch said. If the company can work out some technical issues with the air quality district, he said, "there is nothing to stop Stocker from getting turbines and running this plant on its own. But in the end, maybe we'll pull out of this too."

Rusch said the company's initial goal was to cut its energy bills by providing its own power to operate its current 400 oil pumps, while also contributing an extra 39 megawatts to the state grid during the energy crisis. The trailer-sized plant would be clean, he said, and create minimal impact on land already degraded by oil pumps for 70 years.

'It's Enough We Live So Close to an Oil Field'

Anthony Willoughby, a high-profile attorney whose $950,000 home in Ladera Heights would have faced the plant, disagrees about motives.

"This wasn't about the energy crisis; it was about a company taking advantage of a loophole to make a profit," Willoughby said. "You work your whole life to get where you are, and here comes this thing you're trying to get away from."

Over the hill in View Park, Elinor Osman echoed the sentiment. She settled in her ranch-style home on Don Miguel Drive--a new Volvo out front--after a long, hard trajectory that took her from the fields of Louisiana through the old black community along Central Avenue in Los Angeles. Many of her neighbors traveled the same path to this middle-class haven. They are people used to fighting, she said--fighting to get to this place and fighting to keep it.

"It's enough we live so close to an oil field," said Osman, 66. "We just don't need anything else."

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