Spotlight: California Dreaming

August 30, 2011

It's late afternoon, and music from a tent set up by a local radio station blends with the sound of children's laughter and the coo of chickens in an adjacent yard. A hundred people mingle amid printed signs that offer a glimpse into the future: This will be the water feature. The picnic area. The pathway—tiled in a colorful mosaic to resemble a meandering California King Snake. This will be our park.

The fraction-of-an-acre lot at Pine Avenue and 53rd in Maywood, Los Angeles County, has been vacant for 90 years. The crowd—city officials, neighbors, advocates—is eclectic, but they're all here because they, like TPL's Los Angeles Program Director Carolyn Ramsay, see potential in the tiny parcel that far exceeds its size.

For Carolyn, this groundbreaking ceremony in late June was the "feel-good moment of all feel-good moments"—a critical project milestone, certainly, but also the celebration of a long-held personal mission to create and protect the outdoor gathering places that bring people together.

From the day 20 years ago that Carolyn first moved to Los Angeles, she felt a keen awareness of the dearth of such public spaces. More than other American cities, Los Angeles developed around the ideal of single-family homes, replete with private yards—"a little patch of paradise," as Carolyn puts it. As that vision evaporated into urban sprawl, it revealed a massive metropolitan area that didn't have a central green space like Golden Gate Park in San Francisco or Millennium Park in Chicago—didn't, in fact, have many parks at all.

"I took my son, who was a baby at the time, to the parks. There were very few, and some felt unsafe. They weren't lively," Carolyn recalls. "Even now, there aren't enough places for people to get to know each other. Los Angeles is one of the most diverse cities on the planet: it would benefit all of us to learn more, to have more public space where everyone can just be together."

Never content merely to define the problem, Carolyn began work toward a solution-starting with an effort in her own neighborhood to plant 1,000 trees as part of a beautification project. In the wake of the Rodney King riots, she was struck by the fact that local parks had emerged from the violence largely unscathed.

"With parks, people feel, 'This is mine, too. This is public, and it belongs to everyone,'" she says. "People have positive memories from their own childhoods about playing in a playground, swinging on the swings, having a picnic with their families—they don't want to destroy that."

Building on this observation, Carolyn formed her own nonprofit—called Olive Branches—that brought together like-minded community leaders to support green-space projects across the city. In time, her activism led her to the office of Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge, where for five years she applied her media savvy and skills as an organizer to everything from community outreach to large infrastructure projects.

As the councilmember's deputy chief of staff, Carolyn worked closely with TPL on the campaign to save Cahuenga Peak. "It brought into play everything in my background up to that point," says Carolyn, whose career includes 15 years in journalism. "It was a peak career experience: a pivotal land acquisition in the Hollywood hills that everyone in the Los Angeles could see. Preserving it had symbolic value to the entire city."

There's symbolic value to Carolyn personally, too. Just as Griffith Park represents an intersection between urban and natural lands projects, so, too, was Cahuenga Peak a transition from Carolyn's work with the city to her current role at TPL.

Carolyn remembers another golden Los Angeles afternoon in the early stages of the campaign, touring the peak with TPL staffers, donors, and her then-boss Councilmember LaBonge. As the day dissolved into evening, LaBonge, through the loudspeaker setup on his Crown Victoria, broke into a rendition of Elvis Presley's "If I Can Dream":

There must be lights burning brighter somewhere
Got to be birds flying higher in a sky more blue

"We had to raise $8 million in two months—the breadth and the scope of the challenge was daunting," Carolyn says. "But Tom singing that song crystallized how we were all feeling. I think all of us started to feel that we could pull it off."

With the Cahuenga campaign successful, Carolyn's looking to new green-space ventures for TPL–Los Angeles—including urban park openings and a renewed focus on the city's riverfront. From the imposing canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains to the vacant lot on Pine Avenue, she sees a landscape of possibility.