Continuing the national call for more green urban landscapes, a unique recreation center in South Los Angeles will open soon with hopes of capturing the natural beauty of the Southland’s numerous watersheds. The nine-acre South Los Angeles Wetlands Park at the former Metropolitan Transit Association bus yard at 54th Street and Avalon Boulevard is scheduled to open at the end of the year and, said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, and will be a “transformative project” combining wildlife, park space and educational facilities.

“In a time when both water and green space are at a premium, this project makes good sense,” Perry said. “It offers nine acres of recreational opportunity and a wetland that will bring beauty to the area while helping to clean the region’s water.” When completed, the park will act as a natural habitat for capturing, cleaning and recycling storm water.

Phase I of the wetlands park combines numerous elements for passive recreational activities such as walking, cycling, photography and bird-watching. Phase II will include a rail museum and community meeting space. The park replaces a near-abandoned, blighted lot that often served as a nighttime hangout for gang members, drug sales, prostitution and refuge dumping.

This portion of Avalon Boulevard between Vernon Avenue north and Florence Avenue south was part of the long-gone industrial core of South Los Angeles. After World War II the area became home to hundreds of Black families fleeing oppression in the South and seeking to establish a vibrant Black middle class during the Los Angeles industrial boom of 1950s and ’60s.

However, the area began to decline shortly after electric rail transportation was discontinued; the so-called “white flight” of the 1950s, the destruction of the 1965 and 1992, and decades of political indifference and social neglect all combined to economically cripple South Los Angeles. The old MTA bus yard goes back to the era of the Pacific Electric Red Car, which traversed the thriving industrial area to transport workers from what were then predominantly white “suburban” towns such as Huntington Park (named after Henry Huntington who owned Southern Pacific Railroad, and the Red Car), South Gate, Compton or Inglewood.

The construction marks the area’s first operation of a marine facility to study the migratory habits of waterfowl and organisms that live in estuaries. Just across from a new state-of-the-art charter high school Central Region High School No. 16 (with unique, high-rise classrooms overlooking the lakes and flowers), the wetland will work in conjunction with the nearby Augustus F. Hawkins nature preserve at Slauson Avenue and Compton Boulevard.

Opened in February 2006, the Hawkins nature preserve is operated by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, which works with the 9th councilmanic district and the city Department of Recreation and Parks to transport a small portion of the region’s lush botanical environment to underprivileged and underserved local youth. Most of these youngsters have never visited the surrounding mountains and canyons of the Los Angeles Basin, and the nature park provides the opportunity to learn about native plants and trees and to observe the birds and numerous species of insect that live within and pollinate such flora and fauna.

Like the wetland park, the nature preserve was also a dank, desolate municipal storage facility for obsolete Department of Water & Power pipes and construction equipment.

The wetland will also boast an outdoor classroom and feature educational signage along its perimeter.

“This project is a transformation of an historic rail yard into open green park space, park space sorely needed in South Los Angeles,” said City Engineer Gary Lee Moore. A smaller pocket park at the Avalon Boulevard site will reflect the overall look and design of the wetland. Asphalt and concrete there will be replaced by trees and shrubs, park benches and boulders for passive recreation. There will be extensive solar-powered lighting as well as full, decorative wrought-iron fencing to help maintain the park’s commitment to sustainability. Also, a meandering walking path (at the Hawkins preserve as well) will provide an unobstructed view of the marine landscape and officials will refurbish the historic Art Modern-style MTA repair garage and use that for community meetings and classroom space.

“The Department of Public works is working to contribute solutions to revitalizing South Los Angeles,” said Commissioner of Public Works Valerie Lynne Shaw. Shaw is referring to the dearth of green space in Los Angeles County (which reports have shown has the least amount of parkland for any county its size nationwide) as well as the needed upgrading of the local water reclamation system.

(Still, there is an ongoing non-industrial controversy that relates to this and other construction projects taking place locally, which is the absence of qualified African American professionals working on these and other projects. These neglected contractors include engineers, electricians, carpenters, plumbers and hydrologists, dry wall finishers, cement masons, landscapers and other professional guilds that have traditionally been included on construction sites within their community.

(An outcry first arose at the construction of the Alameda Corridor, which transports goods by underground rail from the Long Beach and San Pedro harbors into the downtown distribution centers. When many local African American construction firms–and individual workers–bid for these jobs they were told that the positions had been filled by local and some East Coast firms which, because of their size and influence, were able to “underbid” their smaller and less financially heeled African American counterparts.)

The wetland project is the result of more than five years of effort and negotiations with the MTA, which included meetings with community stakeholders and the amassing of more than $26 million for site acquisition and development of the park. In 2006, the City Council approved $8.1 million in Proposition O General Bond funding to develop the site.

“By the end of this year,” explained Bureau of Sanitation Director Enrique Zaldivar, “we will complete the rest of this project that transforms this historic parcel of land into a wetland park that improves water quality in the L.A. River while providing a green space for residents to enjoy.”

The South Los Angeles area has seen major, ongoing construction during the past five years–outside of the vibrant new Figueroa Corridor–in the form of many new secondary schools for a burgeoning youth population. Refurbishment of numerous existing parks (South and Ross Snyder parks, the Gilbert W. Lindsay Center and the Van Ness Recreation center to name a few) has resulted in the resurgence of Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, American Youth Soccer Organization football and other youth sporting activities spurred on by Perry, Council colleagues Bernard Parks and Herb Wesson, Los Angeles County 2nd Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas as well as members of the Los Angeles Police Department the latter of whom coach these youth sports during their off hours.

“I can think of no better way to encourage wholesome recreation–and fun–than to open this cutting-edge, environmentally focused project,” Councilwoman Perry said.