Los Angeles, California, United States
Evan Mather, FASLA
Willowbrook, a community within Los Angeles County, centers around Magic Johnson Park—a 120-acre parcel that, as open space became much more urgently needed in the face of the global pandemic, brought outsized importance to the site's revitalization efforts. A member of the landscape architecture team working on the project developed this 6 ½-minute documentary video in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, combining voices from the community with ethereal, aerial drone footage of the park. “Parks and open space represent equity: economic, physical, and social equity,” Rev. Dawnesha Beaver, one such community voice, proclaims. “Parks show that a community is valued.” In concert with other voices, the significance of landscape to the residents who interact with it resonates with emotion.
- 2021 Awards Jury
AHBE/MIG, Prime Consultant, Landscape Architecture
Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, Los Angeles City Council, District 10 (formerly Los Angeles County Supervisor, District 2)
Reverend Dawnesha Beaver, New Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church
Kim De Lay-Manning, Community Member
Sandi Hamilton, Willowbrook Senior Center
George Christopher Harpole, Community Member
Carla Jay Harris, Artist
Scott Levester, Amino Watts College Preparatory Academy
Carlos Agredano, LACMA
Michael Govan, LACMA
Naima Keith, LACMA
Juuso Auvinen, Music
Parks are sacred spaces for Black communities, and in challenging times they serve as islands of calm amidst the chaos. Case in point is Magic Johnson Park in the unincorporated Los Angeles County community of Willowbrook. During the summer of 2020 – in the midst of a global pandemic, civil unrest, and pivotal Presidential election – the initial phase of transforming the park into a model of environmental sustainability and resilience neared completion. This 6-½ minute video was conceived by one of the landscape architects leading the project, as a means of documenting this historic moment by asking Willowbrook residents why parks – and specifically Magic Johnson Park – are important. The result is an innovative spiritual expression of the meaning of parks and open space to urban communities.
What do parks mean to urban communities?
This was the question the filmmaker, a landscape architect, considered in mid-2020, as construction of the initial phase of Magic Johnson Park’s transformation neared completion. As an integral part of the design team, leading the project since it began with master planning in 2013, the filmmaker was uniquely positioned to create a video response to this inquiry.
(For context, Magic Johnson Park is a 120-acre park and centerpiece of the unincorporated Los Angeles County community of Willowbrook. Originally developed in the 1970s, the park has been under-designed and over-utilized for years.)
As the video was conceptualized, the filmmaker challenged himself to question his own assumptions of what parks mean to urban communities. It was determined that the video should not take the form of a typical promotional video - one characterized by self-congratulatory platitudes from the client and design professionals. Rather, it was imperative that the narrative be driven by the voices of the Willowbrook community itself.
The filmmaker worked with the field office of Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to identify a core group of Willowbrook community members to be interviewed for the project. These diverse voices included longtime residents and representatives of area schools, churches, libraries, community centers, and arts organizations. Additionally, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) enlisted an intern from the local community to help with interviewing the “voices of Willowbrook” and filming the video.
Video production began not only shortly after civil unrest erupted nationwide in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, but also during the global coronovirus pandemic. The challenges of interviewing community members during this moment were alleviated with the use of video conferencing. As these hours of recorded interviews were edited and assembled, a powerful narrative began to emerge: that of parks as a spiritual sanctuary for the residents of Willowbrook.
This message demanded a unique expression. The centerpiece of the video’s narration emerged as s a “prayer for open space”, composed by a locally-recognized minister of a historic Black congregation. The sermon advocates that parks such as Magic Johnson Park are the heartbeat of urban communities: they represent people, purpose, prosperity, protection – and sanctuary. The importance of this message relative to the 2020 moment in which it was created, should not be underestimated.
The video is intended for a wide audience: it is freely distributed via streaming video on the filmmaker’s personal website showcasing his films about landscape architectural design issues. In its first months of availability, the video has been widely shared on social media and viewed around the world; used as an educational tool for local high school students; screened for visitors to the park’s community center; and used as an advocacy piece for future park development. A limited number of DVDs are in production for distribution to local schools and universities, community members, design professionals, and potential clients.