Families roast marshmallows at Vista Hermosa Natural Park west of downtown… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)
Ricardo Brizuela tasted his first s'more this summer at a campfire at Vista Hermosa Natural Park. That wasn't surprising, as Ricardo is only 8 years old.
But it was also a first for his mother, who is 39. Not once in her Lincoln Heights childhood did Silvia Brizuela's family barbecue or cook out, let alone roast a marshmallow.
She was an apartment latchkey kid whose parents worked long hours as a sheet-metal installer and cook at a convalescent home. "My parents were worker bees," she said. "I had to take care of my brother and sister."
The campfire was part of a summer outdoor skills program at Vista Hermosa, the Mountains Recreation & Conservation Authority's 10-acre urban wilderness project atop an old oil field.
Say what you want about the new Grand Park downtown. It's a great idea, but for my money, the most astounding public space in the city is Vista Hermosa, a paradoxical patch of meadows and native plantings in Temple-Beaudry, just a few blocks to the west of the downtown core.
Vista Hermosa is like no other spot in L.A. Hilly and beguiling, it even smells like the Santa Monica Mountains. In the daytime, it's like you've entered a genius sculpture riffing the best of Southern California's natural features. A sandy path winds past falling water. Thickets with white sage, coyote bush and sycamores break up slopes of soft green grassland. Giant models of snakes and turtles for the kids to scamper across were built with help from prop artists from the movie industry.
In the early morning, the fog lifts and the downtown skyline suddenly appears like the city of Oz, shining and majestic. At night, you might as well be a hundred miles away.
The place feels wild and curated at the same time. The conservation authority tends it carefully and has designed programs like the campfire night to help people trapped in the city's hot, traffic-clogged asphalt inlands to feel welcome in nature. "Urban kids have a lot of fear of it," explained Dash Stolarz, authority spokeswoman.
There's another nature park in South Los Angeles, and a couple more in the works around the city, but they remain rare exceptions.
Thousands of poor, mostly black and Latino people in central L.A. barely ever make it out to the beaches, let alone to the mountains. People such as Brizuela and her son, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's disorder and comes home from school to their cramped Westlake apartment bursting with energy and needing to get outside. She has no car and their building has no courtyard, no yard at all.
"Its like living in a cube," she says. "You're being segregated from nature."
They found Vista Hermosa a five-minute walk from home. Silvia lies in the grass and smells the earth, or walks the nature path that winds up the park incline, with that stupendous skyscraper view at every turn. Ricardo and his cousin Anja Royal play in the water, run through the meadow and try to identify the flora and fauna described on the park signs.
"They want to touch everything, the rocks, the trees," she said. "When you're there, you forget you're in the city."
Los Angeles is one of the most park-starved metropolises in the U.S.; only a third of L.A. residents live within a quarter-mile of a park, far fewer than in other major urban centers, according to a 2004 Trust for Public Land study. Vista Hermosa almost didn't happen: The product of a decade of political battles over land once slated for the monumental civic fiasco known as the Belmont Learning Center, it sits over an earthquake fault as well as the old oil field. Its opening was hailed as a major civil rights victory.
Last week, the first of what Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said will be 50 new city parks in park-poor neighborhoods opened in South Los Angles. Most will be less than an acre and built on vacant properties left blighted by foreclosure, my colleague Jessica Garrison reported Friday. The city has also embarked on a pilot program to turn parking spots into "parklets," with greenery and pedestrian seating.
This is all well and good, and we should absolutely hold Villaraigosa and his City Council colleagues to their promises. When it comes to parks, we have a lot of catching up to do.
But children and families do not live by swings and molded plastic alone. We should focus on providing not just park space, but a chance to sample what people in wealthier neighborhoods enjoy at their doorsteps: Southern California's fabulous natural assets. Places such as Runyon Canyon might look like airport escalators with dogs on weekends, but they open a door to wilderness for thousands of people. The rest of the city should get this, too.
Making not just a park, but a park like Vista Hermosa, takes a little more effort and it's not necessarily cheap. The conservancy held long meetings to find out what community members wanted and hired a brilliant L.A. landscape architecture firm, Mia Lehrer + Associates, to carry out their vision. But the fact they pulled it off shows it's possible, and Brizuela's gooey marshmallow shows it's worth it.
With all the blocks and blocks of boarded-up stores and warehouses left over from the last recession, and the one before that, surely there is room for some larger nature parks as well.
In 1930, the Olmsted brothers, sons of Frederick Olmsted, who designed New York's Central Park, urged the L.A. Chamber of Commerce to set aside 70,000 acres of "pleasureways" from the mountains to the Pacific, Los Angeles journalist Emily Green wrote in The Times last year. City fathers ignored them. It's not too late to reclaim some of this lost legacy.