Written by Karina Muñiz
Massive redevelopment threatens Wyvernwood Garden Apartments, the first large-scale garden apartment complex ever built in Los Angeles. Completed in 1939, Wyvernwood is located in East Los Angeles’ Boyle Heights area, and has been determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Residents oppose the complex’s demolition which would quadruple the site’s density and significantly impair its historic layout and park-like setting. These qualities paired with the close-knit community and family ties spanning generations have shaped Wyvernwood’s unique sense of place. Not only would Wyvernwood’s destruction mean losing an important part of the social fabric, architectural heritage, and urban landscape of Los Angeles, but it would also translate into a tragic loss for the city.
Wyvernwood is a living, successful example of design intended to foster community. More than 6,000 mostly working-class Latina/os, of Mexican, Mexican-American, Central American and Quiché descent, inhabit this lively, well-manicured, tree-studded community. In a metropolis like Los Angeles, with one of the highest-density populations in the nation, hundreds of children grow up surrounded by acres of grass and trees as their home and playground. Residents, concerned supporters, and preservationists are rallying to keep this treasure trove intact. As part of the ongoing preservation effort, they recently developed multimedia oral history project documenting Wyvernwood’s cultural significance and the contribution the community has made there over the decades.
From May to November 2009, resident group Comité de la Esperanza worked with the Los Angeles Conservancy and LA CO MEDIA, a media collective that helps communities record and share their own stories. The project allowed residents to show how their presence over several decades has shaped the built environment and why Wyvernwood deserves to be valued.
On December 3, 2009, residents presented their projects at “Wyvernwood: Our Histories, Our Future.” Residents, supporters, dancers, and musicians gathered while images of past events and memories projected against the buildings. Carrying signs that read, “This Place Matters” and “Este Lugar es Importante” a procession of approximately 200 people made its way through the complex to nearby Costello Recreation Center. There the group’s multimedia projects described what Wyvernwood means to them.
Grant support from the National Trust for Historic Preservation produced the event. The Los Angeles Conservancy spearheaded this local effort to connect communities to the National Trust’s “This Place Matters” campaign. This grassroots initiative builds momentum by drawing national attention to places where the people themselves–who are directly connected to the sites and the history–speak out and identify places that matter.
Wyvernwood certainly merits special attention. The first large-scale garden apartment complex in Los Angeles, it pre-dates Village Green in Baldwin Hills, Lincoln Place in Venice, and Park LaBrea in the Fairfax area. Architects David J. Witmer and Loyall F. Watson designed the garden apartments to provide middle-income and worker housing close to jobs in downtown and nearby industrial centers. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) privately financed Wyvernwood’s development.
Wyvernwood’s planning and design can be traced to the Garden City planning principles first articulated by Ebenezer Howard at the turn of the twentieth century. Responding to England’s overcrowded, unsanitary, and dilapidated housing conditions for the working poor in urban centers, Howard imagined planned, self-contained communities on the periphery of cities with large open spaces or greenbelts, with or near industry to support employment for residents. Wyvernwood’s intimate green spaces and courtyards clearly articulated these principles. It also took advantage of the existing topography to provide views of the nearby Sears Tower as well as distant mountains.
Wyvernwood’s park-like setting provides a vast open space in an urban context. Today, in open spaces soccer games are a daily affair for neighborhood children, and families of any ethnic background are free to live without the white-only restrictive policies practiced in Wyvernwood for the first two decades of its existence. Interestingly, several of the original planning principles—pedestrian-friendly communities, communal open spaces, environmentally sensitive siting, and affordability—have found renewed interest in today’s New Urbanism and the green building movements. Yet, where in Los Angeles could such an apartment complex be built today?
Developers and supporters of the $2 billion proposed replacement project tout the plan as an unquestionable catalyst for neighborhood improvement, but residents and historians claim that such promises are nothing new for Boyle Heights. Time and time again, the people and places that make up the very rich and vibrant fabric of the neighborhood have been excluded from its plans for the future.
December’s “Our Histories: Our Future” offered an opportunity to highlight the stories of the people and sense of place that make Wyvernwood so unique. Residents showcased how their presence, history, and culture have shaped the built environment and contributed to its history through their dedication, courage, documentation, and love for their community.
All year long Wyvernwood successfully maintains a sense of tradition. On el Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe beautiful altars decorate dozens of front-door archways in homage to the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, and at the stroke of midnight the mariachis singing Las Mañanitas in honor of La Virgen can be heard throughout the complex. During the holiday season, a large procession of residents participate in Las Posadas, an important cultural and religious tradition. On any night before an important community event, La Danza del Comité de la Esperanza, a dance troupe of women and girls, rehearse outside in the open courtyards. On the weekend parents sitting on the sidelines, i.e the front porches of their homes, cheer on their children as a soccer game gets going. Knock on the door of any mother and she’ll tell you how happy she is knowing that her neighbors are always looking out for her kids while they play outside in the green space.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. You can see for yourself as you scroll through the photos and videos of the residents who have shared with the world the history they have made in their town within a big city -- visit the Somos Wyvernwood website to learn more.
Karina Muñiz is the Community Outreach Coordinator for the Los Angeles Conservancy, in partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Karina Muñiz: Coordinadora de Enlace Comunitario, Para la Conservación de Los Ángeles, en colaboración con el Fideicomiso Nacional para la Preservación Histórica.