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A Garden Spot Rises From Longtime Oilfield

Where wells once sprouted like weeds, Hilltop Park now blooms. It is known for its whimsical sculpture and spectacular views.

September 05, 2002|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of Los Angeles' oldest oilfields has turned into something slick.

That's the consensus of visitors to Hilltop Park in Signal Hill, where old derricks and petroleum tanks have been replaced by a garden and innovative sculpture that frame one of Southern California's most sweeping vistas.

The 3-year-old park is perched on the western edge of 365-foot-high Signal Hill--named for the smoke signals that Puvuvitam Indians used in the 1500s to communicate with tribal members living on Catalina Island.

These days, the unusual park is more of a signal that land-use experts have finally come to make peace with old oilfields--not the controversy, for example, that Los Angeles school officials became immersed in over the site of the Belmont Learning Center in downtown Los Angeles.

"Because of oil production, the top of the hill was not subdivided and open space was preserved, ultimately allowing for the creation of Hilltop Park," proclaims a marker at the park.

On clear days, park visitors can gaze southeast, over Huntington Beach, out to Catalina Island, across Long Beach and San Pedro, over the South Bay and into downtown Los Angeles and eastward toward Big Bear and the San Gabriel Mountains.

On the left, they look down on ships being unloaded in Long Beach and Los Angeles harbors. Below them on the right are jetliners taking off from Long Beach Airport.

The park was created by Signal Hill officials as a way of camouflaging a new 1.2-million gallon drinking water reservoir on the hilltop. Covering 3.2 acres, the park cost $414,000 and was paid for by local development fees.

Using a design by Long Beach landscape architect Jon Cicchetti and artists T.W. Weir and Craig Stone, workers spread a thin layer of soil over the top of the huge tank, and then built walkways and decorative ledges and installed landscaping. They capped it with a whimsical sculpture depicting a signal-fire pyre that actually spurts a smoke-like water mist every half-hour.

If water is at the center of Hilltop Park, oil remains at its edges.

A 74-year-old petroleum well next to the park's main entrance silently pumps 29 barrels of oil a day from a pipe sunk 2,800 feet into the ground. It's one of 450 oil wells operated by Signal Hill Petroleum Co., said Ron Bates, a production engineer for the firm.

A dozen other wells are visible from the park observation walkways. Down the hill is the "discovery well," the shaft that started it all. Drilled by Shell Oil Co. in 1921, it produced a first-day gusher that attracted 15,000 cheering spectators. Today Bates' company runs it.

There were 160 oil derricks on Signal Hill by 1922. For a time, there were so many of the spindly wooden towers crowding the ridge that locals renamed it "Porcupine Hill." From a peak of about 3,000 wells, about 600 remain in use in the 2.2-square-mile city.

Hilltop Park's interpretive sculpture serves as physical "picture frames" that identify distant views for visitors. Short historical notes explain Signal Hill's timeline.

Visitors on Wednesday strained to see downtown Long Beach through midday haze, however. A layer of smog obliterated the Palos Verdes Peninsula. A glimpse of Los Angeles' downtown high-rises was out of the question.

"Actually, we don't have a whole lot of clear days," said Dorothy Friday, a Gardena resident who works for Signal Hill's Black Gold Pump and Supply Co. She and a friend, Donna Kellner, were picnicking on a summer fruit salad that Kellner had brought from Garden Grove.

"I brought my mother up here one Sunday after church. We could only stay 20 minutes, the wind was so cold. Actually, we don't want the secret out about this place. It'll be too crowded at lunch," she said. Nearby, Carlos Pimentel of Carson was eating a roast beef sandwich and talking on his cell phone. Because of the hill's height--or perhaps because of the cellular antennas lining a nearby hilltop tower--reception was perfect.

"I come up here three or four times a week. I've told all my co-workers about this place. The scenery is nice and you get some of the stress out up here," said Pimentel, an executive with a wheel accessory company.

Park visitor Landon Richardson, a 19-year-old cashier from Long Beach, said Hilltop Park has developed a reputation as a nighttime date destination. That's because of the sparkling lights below, and the fact that it's open until 11 p.m.

For others, it's turned into an eye-opener.

"I never realized Signal Hill was this pretty," said Michelle Gray, a 14-year-old Lakewood resident who trotted through Hilltop Park Wednesday with fellow Wilson High School cross-country runners Bina Gold, Tracey Morgan and Ashley Hobelman. The team regularly jogs up the hill during practice runs, stopping at the park's reservoir-fed drinking fountain.

"Until I came to this park, my impression had been it was a trashy, industrial place."

All of which proves that oil and water can mix. So can old oilfields and people.

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