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An urban oasis

How progressive design built Village Green, an affordable “garden city” in the heart of Los Angeles

In 2008, design consultant Colombene Gorton became a homeowner. She purchased one of the 629 historic condos at Village Green, a midcentury complex that sprawls across 64 acres at the foot of Baldwin Hills. Her decision was a no brainer. Her family had roots in the area, and the unit was affordable, centrally located, and surrounded by lush acres of green space. But once she moved in, Gorton discovered that perhaps the best thing about her new home was its people.

“It has the most amazing, creative, smart, accomplished, diverse, eclectic residents: musicians, architects, teachers, organizers, academics, tech workers, families, single people, all ages, all backgrounds, from a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters to a Tuskegee Airman,” she says.

Longtime resident Daniel Millner had a similar revelation after moving in, in 2001. “I came down here because of architecture—and I found community,” he says.

Village Green’s architectural pedigree is nothing to sneeze at. Both a National Historic Landmark and a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, the complex is, according to former resident and landscape historian Steven Keylon, a particularly successful example of the Garden City Movement, which came to America via the British Isles in the 20th century.

The movement had started during the industrialized Victorian-era in England, when city planner Ebenezer Howard drew plans for self-sustaining communities surrounded by green space.

“In the United States, Clarence Stein and Henry Wright took Howard’s ideas and began planning similar communities on the East Coast,” Keylon says. “At Radburn, New Jersey, they perfected these ideas—concepts that included superblocks, which allowed for separation of automobile and pedestrian; houses turned away from streets, so that primary rooms looked out over landscaped greenbelts; shared community gardens and recreational spaces.”

This new community concept filtered to Southern California in the early 1930s, when LA’s population explosion, compounded by bad traffic, high rents and the Depression, caused an acute housing shortage. “The 1930s were like the 1980s in the terrible shortage of affordable places to live,” architect Robert Alexander, who would work on Village Green, told the Los Angeles Times in 1990. “People were truly desperate.”

A group of investors and architects sought to alleviate the housing shortage by building a Garden City in congested Los Angeles. In 1935, they found a perfect parcel of relatively flat land, originally owned by the Baldwin family (who would invest in the project) and set about to build a self-contained community following the Radburn plan.

In a huge get, Clarence Stein himself was hired as a consulting architect for the project. According to Keylon, local architects including Reginald D. Johnson, Lewis E. Wilson, Edwin Merrill, and Robert Alexander would also work on the community, in collaboration with landscape architect Fred Barlow, Jr.

Originally called Thousand Gardens, the project was soon rechristened Baldwin Hills Village. The apartments, which would all look out on the central Village Green, were slated to only use 14 percent of the entire park area.

“The site plan and landscape took precedence over the architecture, which was kept deliberately simple,” Keylon says. “The contemporary architecture and landscape were wholly modern but used design details hearkening back to Old California to give it a sense of place. Both active and passive recreation were planned for, as well as ample room for outdoor living, which would encourage people to experience the acres and acres of beautifully landscape grounds.”

Progressive design also stretched to the landscaping, which included drought-tolerant planting and pathways and plazas of decomposed granite. Tennis courts, croquet fields, and horseshoe pits were installed, as were nine playgrounds. Cars were pushed to the periphery. “Stein’s directive to the designers was to ‘tame the car,’” Keylon says. “A child could walk from his own front door to any of the other 627 units and never encounter an automobile.”

Due to legal issues, construction did not begin until 1941. The initial construction, which cost more than $3.25 million, included 97 structures. Apartments, which ranged from three and a half to six rooms, consisted of simple, large rooms and windows, walled in private patios, and wood burning fireplaces. An ad from 1942 advertised Baldwin Hills Village and the Village Green as “the finest deluxe apartment that can be found” with views “unmarred by unsightly yards and neighboring buildings.”

The first residents moved into Baldwin Hills Village on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. The affordable units, which cost no more than $80 a month, filled up quickly with young, progressive families. According to Keylon, though there was no racially restrictive covenants written up in the deeds, property managers did discriminate based on race, and the first residents were middle and upper middle-class and white.

“The group of investors hired management that restricted the rental of the apartments,” he says. ‘Incredibly, that practice was in place until August of 1972.”

Despite the Village’s egalitarian origins, management frequently touted the Village’s “country club atmosphere.” In the summer of 1942, the Los Angeles Times reported on the community’s new clubhouse:

In an atmosphere akin to that of a swank private country club, residents may enjoy a game of ping-pong, billiards, or just plain lounging in easy chairs... A large rental library is another attractive feature. There are ample tables for bridge and games and for those who wish to entertain, kitchen facilities in a wing adjoining the cardroom are a miracle of modern convenience. For camera addicts, a completely equipped photo darkroom is provided and… rumba classes and informal dancing find their way onto the weekly schedule of activities.

During the 1940s, life at Baldwin Hill’s Village often took the tone of a magical, utopian village. There were lectures, weekly sermons, and picnics. Residents organized ride shares and art clubs. Twenty-year resident Gailyn Saroyan recalls a story told to her by an early resident of Village Green.

“She described an episode in the midst of World War II, where to the astonishment of the community worn down by the deprivations and constant anxieties of war time, a white horse galloped unbridled along the entire length of the three enormous central greens, inspiring everyone to remember that hope and freedom would someday return to their lives,” Saroyan says.

Photo by Liz Kuball

According to Saroyan, even Reginald Johnson, one of the community’s main architects, moved in to experience his plan in action. Baldwin Hills Village, “modern as tomorrow,” was honored in 1946 when the Museum of Modern Art named it “one of the most significant works of architecture in the Nation.” Its holistic, purposeful design was considered particularly amenable to the typical middle-class housewife, according to the Los Angeles Times:

Her apartment is simple to care for and many of her afternoons are free. These she spends on the tennis or badminton courts or the putting greens or playing croquet or ping-pong. Of course, she has Junior to think about, but Junior has already been thought about, and on days that Mrs. Jones goes shopping… she has no qualms about him. Right in the midst of the country club grounds is the nursery school. Trained care is here at all times to supervise the eating, sleeping and playing for the children. Outside the nursery rooms themselves is a large fenced in play yard…the children play… in an area completely free from traffic and any endangering interference's.

But during the 1950s, children became scarcer at Baldwin Hills Village. “The demographics began to change in 1949, when the development was sold to the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company,” Keylon says. “They began, by attrition, to remove children from this place designed for families with children in mind. They began removing playgrounds, and filling those spaces with garages, which they could rent. The community clubhouse building was turned into two large apartments, which again could be rented.”

In 1962, yachtsman and art patron Baldwin M. Baldwin, whose family had been original investors in Baldwin Hills Village, purchased the community from the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company.

He may have soon regretted this purchase. On December 14, 1963, the Baldwin Hills Dam broke and released 250 million gallons of water into Baldwin Hills, flooding Baldwin Hills Village, ripping out trees, crushing cars, and severely damaging many of its buildings. The Los Angeles Times reported:

Before the dam went out Saturday it was known as Village Green—a choice apartment development…the…two story apartments were grouped around the Green—a lush grassy mall dotted with trees. Now it’s a sea of mud with rubble piled to the tops of many of the two-story apartments that are still standing. Policemen continued to search the deep debris that is Village Green throughout Monday for many elderly couples living in the development.

Though the development slowly rebuilt, Baldwin Hills Village was forever altered. According to Keylon, acres of grass and concrete pathways were installed, dramatically changing the original landscaping.

By 1970, the year owner Baldwin M. Baldwin died, the neighborhood had a reputation as a community of elderly, white people. “Baldwin Hills Village has held out against open occupancy, even though it is surrounded by a predominately Negro, middle class population,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1970. “Often cited as a textbook class of garden apartment planning, it has evolved from a community of all age groups to one where the youngest tenants seem to be over 50. Its segregation is thus twofold.”

In 1972, the complex was sold to Terramics Associates, which officially renamed it The Village Green. That same year, it was honored by the AIA for its excellence. Terramics also started the process of turning the 629 units into condos, with prices ranging from $19,500 to $34,5000.

The condo conversion was an enormous success, and the ownership change brought much needed diversity and youth into Village Green. “After 1972, people of all ethnicity and backgrounds were welcomed, and after the Village Green went condo from 1973-78, it became one of the most successfully integrated places,” Keylon says.

During the ’80s and early ’90s, Village Green became known as a racially integrated and affordable peaceful oasis within the middle of a loud, bustling city. “The price of the condos, now starting at about $110,000 for a one-bedroom unit, is moderate by current standards. Where else in LA would you get so much green space so cheaply?” resident Dorothy Wong told the Los Angeles Times in 1990.

But some residents who moved to Village Green often had to convince friends and family from the Westside and Central Los Angeles, who had rarely ventured to South Los Angeles, to visit them. “I had people that were hesitant to come here,” Millner says. “They were like, ‘south of the 10?’ I don’t want to go there!’ You know. And I was like, ‘No, it’s actually really cool. Come on down.’ And when they came, they go, ‘Oh, this is really cool.’”

All that has changed in the past 15 years, as Village Green has been discovered by many in the greater LA area seeking less expensive homes. This has led to a noticeable demographic shift. The complex is still diverse, but more young white residents are moving in. The new owners are also considerably younger, and many families with children have moved in and changed the Green’s once serene, contemplative atmosphere.

“I was surprised how little used the green spaces were when I first moved in… You would go out at five o’clock in the afternoon on a beautiful day, and there wouldn’t be anybody out on the green,” Millner says. “Now when you go to the green there’s going to be a dozen two to five-year olds running around, there’s people jogging, there’s people doing yoga and there’s people walking and people chilling and the occasional wine drinker, that type of thing.”

For many young professionals looking for affordable homes in Los Angeles, Village Green and the Baldwin Hills area have become increasingly in demand. Newly married, Leigh Dierck and Dave Brock purchased their first home in Village Green in 2018, drawn there because of its price, location, and sense of peace.

“Once we went to the first open house in Village Green, I was adamant about making it our home,” Dierck says. “The unit was so charming, and the grounds were so beautiful. It took us three tries to buy our condo… I saw myself in every unit we stepped foot into.”

The changing demographics of Village Green have caused some growing pains in the community. “Some older residents aren’t crazy about the kids running around,” Millner says. “There are some younger parents who don’t like that the older parents call security sometimes about their kids making noise. Dogs have become kind of an issue, because there’s more dog people.”

For longtime resident Cynthia Singleton “every day is a pleasure” at Village Green, and she hopes it stays that way.

“I sincerely hope that we can maintain our privacy. Unfortunately, the more people learn about our oasis in the middle of the city, they seem to be under the impression it is a public space. This is private property not a public park,” Singleton says. “Many of the new residents are not aware of HOA restrictions, which are so important to maintain the beautiful space. Also, some do not realize my front yard is your front yard, only a wall separates you from your neighbor.”

With an active HOA board and numerous committees, conflict is a given at a close-knit community of homeowners like Village Green. “There is always maintenance in a place this big, and it’s hard to get this many people to agree on how to do it,” Gorton says. “It also takes work for everyone to get along living close together and sharing space. I’m concerned people will live here just because it’s what they can afford in a very expensive city, not because they appreciate the space or the community and then feel very entitled and want to change everything.”

But overall, the sense of community is holding strong at Village Green, helped in large part by its innovative design. “My favorite thing about the design is the way it fosters community,” Keylon says. “I’ve never lived anywhere else where I so quickly met my neighbors, so many of whom became friends. That’s all a deliberate part of the plan.”

“The architecture is so smart, mostly because it just stays out of the way, and it’s all about the green areas,” Gorton says. “It’s a nice density. Single-family homes take up a lot of space, expense, and maintenance. But with high-rises you can get disconnected from the earth... Village Green feels very proportional.”

Saroyan agrees. “It is fascinating how the design works for people at all the different stages of life, from newborn all the way through to retirement.”

The lack of roads running through the property also aids tremendously in its ongoing appeal. “The way the parking lots are, and the garage courts are arranged, you really get away from your car. That sense of peace... is something that has told me how important design can be because it really works,” Millner says.

Dave Brock concurs. “It feels like an oasis at times,” he says. “I like the secluded feeling even though it’s right in the middle of a few big intersections in LA. It’s so quiet walking around.”

This enduring appeal is remarkable in an ever-changing, anonymous Los Angeles. “Village Green is such an interesting place, because it has worked so well for so long,” Keylon says. “People feel passionately about their community, and love living there.”

The continuation of simple, time-tested traditions is one of the reasons Village Green residents feel so tied to the community. Almost every resident has a favorite event at Village Green.

“The central green is also host to one of the most awesome Halloween nights I have seen since I was a kid,” Leigh Dierck says. “Trick-or-treaters from surrounding areas… are going from door to door, sometimes running, and people go all out decorating. The space is very safe for the kids. I lived in our old apartment for nine-plus years and never got a single visitor. The night kicks up feelings of nostalgia for me.”

This sense of a kind of urban Mayberry is exactly what the original developers were aiming for almost 80 years ago—just more inclusive.

“Every summer we have two or three concerts out on the Green,” Millner says. “And that’s when I sit at Village Green, and I look around and I see an 80-year-old African American woman dancing with a two-year old white kid, and a Hispanic couple over there. There are your trendy hipsters over there with handlebar mustaches… and we’re all just there grooving on music, and I’m really happy in that moment. That’s when I go—‘I love Los Angeles. I love where I live. This is a really, really good life.’”

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