In 2018, West Carson resident Cynthia Babich was conducting door-to-door outreach in her neighborhood. She was working
to inform the community about upcoming meetings to solicit input on a proposed park project for a community with zero acres
of park space. She knocked on a door at a home adjacent to the proposed park site and a grandmotherly figure answered the door,
releasing what Babich called “these little butterflies.”
“Three little kids come flittering out. She had probably spent the day trying to keep them contained inside the house, because there’s really no place for people to play,” Babich said. “They said, ‘Oh, what are you going to do with the tree?’ And so, I said, ‘Which tree are you talking about?’ [They answered], ‘Oh the wishing tree.’”
The kids went on to explain that they write messages on little notes titled, “our wishes,” and place them up in the tree.
After I was done talking to them, I walked over there to look, and sure enough, you could see old tattered little notes that were tied
up in the tree,” she said.
The tree has become a focal point of inspiration for the community, now in the final phase of a three decades long journey to get a park built. It’s been an effort with many stops and starts, as the neighborhood’s residents, former industrial tenants and the government have often been at odds on what to do with this “brownfield,” (i.e., property developed for industrial purposes, polluted and then abandoned), located near Del Amo Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in unincorporated West Carson. The now nearly finished park straddles two sites, measuring hundreds of acres, which are considered among the most environmentally contaminated in the nation.
THE LAND’S STORIED PAST
During World War II, the site served as a rubber plant owned by the federal government. Subsequently Shell Oil purchased and operated the plant until its 1972 closure. Along the way, Capital Metals used the area as a dumping ground for metal slag, found to still be present in the soil during the land’s recent excavation. Shell Oil eventually purchased 67 homes near the future park site to create a buffer zone between toxic waste dumped in the area and the community.
“People who lived on this property were getting bloody noses, rashes, miscarriages—just really a whole slew of weird health problems,” Babich said. The homes were eventually torn down due to the environmental concerns and residents relocated to hotels in the area. “When they were at hotels most of the problems went away,” she added.
The community applied for and received a grant from The California Endowment to test the site. During testing, heavy metals “were found everywhere,” according to Babich, who in 1994 founded the Del Amo Action Committee to advocate for the area’s cleanup and now serves as the group’s director.
A turning point came when the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust (LANLT) acquired the property from Shell in 2015 and through
that process also became the park’s developer. After many drafted revisions to cleanup plans and park designs, the community agreed to
move forward, with a condition that a two-foot buffer of clean soil and demarcation barrier be placed over the entire site.
A WISH BECOMES REALITY
The park is now slated to open with a ribbon cutting in the early fall of 2022. When completed, the park will feature 223 trees, two futsal
courts (a variation of soccer), a baseball field, a basketball court, group exercise equipment, a half-mile of walking trails, a community building with restrooms, an office and community space for classes and activities. LANLT will lease the property to Los Angeles County Parks to manage its operations.
“Our goal is for every child in LA County to be able to walk to a park. We specifically focus our efforts on communities like West Carson
that have a huge amount of industry and no green space,” Tori Kjer, executive director, the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust, said.
LANLT advocates for new parks, and also public funding to build and maintain parks. “This property was tricky. No one wanted it because of its history as a superfund site,” she said. “The community has no parks nearby. Building a new park on the property is a step towards healing from past and current environmental trauma.”
Assembly Member Al Muratsuchi helped secure $500,000 in state funding to finalize the design of the 8.5-acre park. In total, the project will cost more than $16 million, raised mostly through public grants and private foundation funding, including $5 million provided by the LANLT through the Proposition 68 State Parks Bond.
THE FATE OF THE WISHING TREE
Although the current whereabouts of the grandmother and children is unknown to Babich, the original “Wishing Tree” still stands in an alley adjacent to the park—its origin finally explained. According to Babich, the tree was one of several boxed ficus trees Shell Oil had purchased in 1998 in anticipation of being planted in a future park. But after sitting for two decades, the trees eventually grew out of their boxes, with their roots anchoring into the dirt to resemble large mangrove trees. When the committee began considering possible names for the park, Babich shared the “Wishing Tree” story with the park committee, who agreed with her suggestion to make it the park’s name.
Those who congregate at the park’s community building will have the opportunity to learn about the origin of the park’s name at its Wishing Tree Plaza. There, benches form a half circle around a newly planted tree. Near the community building, a tree mosaic art piece designed by artist Kim Emerson will list names of 300 community members.
“People have died waiting for this park to happen. There are generations that have grown up with no amenities. And we want to recognize them,” Babich said. Kiosks placed around the park will tell the land’s story as a native American trade route, followed by industrialization and homes, and eventually she adds, “ending with the fact that now mother nature has to continue the healing, probably for hundreds of years, but the healing has begun.” •