A few weeks ago a few of us from the office made a site visit to Magic Johnson Park, a 94-acre recreation area located in the heart of the Willowbrook community, an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County south of Watts. While experiencing the interior of the park we were also drawn to the park’s context, in particular the relics of Ujima Village, a sprawling complex of mostly government-subsidized apartments.
Prior to the Village, which was erected in 1972 and included community gardens, a fitness center, and computer labs, ExxonMobil operated an oil tank storage facility on the site from the 1920s to the mid-1960s. By 2004, Ujima Village needed more than $20 million in renovations; the county tried to sell the site to developers. Some developers commissioned a soil and groundwater test which revealed gas and crude oil contamination. Although county officials declared the contamination did not pose a health risk, the results warranted further testing.
By March of 2008, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board had ordered the County and Housing Authority – as well as ExxonMobil – to clean up the site. Soon afterward, HUD began to relocate subsidized tenants from Ujima. By November of 2008, $2.5 million was used to relocate remaining tenants as the complex was to be closed. The last tenant did not leave Ujima until August of 2010.
The name of the Village, “Ujima”, means “collective work and responsibility” in Swahili, one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Although there remains a certain melancholic beauty to be found in the ruins of urban decay today, how can we see Ujima as a place to learn rather than to gawk? How can we pay respect to the relationships formed there, and how can we incorporate Ujima’s original intent of “collective work and responsibility”.
I believe one way is to consider Ujima Village a public lab, a space to continue to test the levels of contamination in the soil, water, and in the plants still present on the site. The possibilities are endless. The site could be strategically planted for bio-retention or as a pollinator landscape. Plants that are known to break down toxins through bioremediation could be planted and tested. The sites presents the opportunity for researchers to learn from the history of the site, as well as its present condition, as it transitions into its next stage.
As I continue to imagine the possibilities of this landscape and other landscapes that share similar stories, I can’t help but think of a quote from Diana Balmori, a mentor of mine recently deceased:
“All things in nature are constantly changing. Landscape architects need to design to allow for change, while seeking a new course that enhances the co-existence of humans with the rest of nature.”