When Melanie Ingalls moved to Los Angeles in 1984, the scenery amazed her. But in a city crowded by mountains and ocean, she was shocked by how disconnected kids were from nature. "There were millions growing up within easy distance of the ocean that had never seen it," she says. Under Ingalls' direction in the '90s, the L.A. office of the National Audubon Society began busing inner-city kids to coastal wetlands to help bridge the gap. But it wasn't enough, she says: "We needed to find a place where the access was daily, not once a year."
So on a clear spring day, Ingalls climbed to the top of Dodger Stadium with binoculars and searched the built-out horizon for green space. She wanted to build an Audubon nature center east of the L.A. River, home to most of the city's low-income minority communities. Something caught her eye: a nearly 300-acre chunk of city land called Debs Park.
Debs hadn't been maintained in years. The main access to its rugged west side was blocked by a padlocked gate, and it had a reputation as a haunt for gangs and prostitutes. But the neglected park was wild by city standards -- a prime spot for a nature center intended to provide environmental education and safe outdoor recreation for the 50,000 or so mostly low-income, Latino kids living within a two-mile radius.
Audubon is an organization dedicated to protecting birds and wildlife, and sinking millions into degraded urban parks was not its usual line of work. Before it could transform Debs, Audubon would have to change, too. In 1999, then-CEO John Flicker began an organization-wide push to reach out to the kind of ethnically diverse urban communities that Audubon, and most big environmental outfits, have tended to ignore. He envisioned 1,000 nature centers nationwide by 2020, many in cities. Protecting open space in the urban neighborhoods that needed it most was the right thing to do. But it was also good politics: Audubon's aging, mostly white base was not the future face of political power in America.
It was a more substantial -- even if theoretical -- commitment to diversity than many environmental groups had made. "The level of permanence (of the centers) is well beyond what anyone else is doing," says Flicker. "That's part of building trust. Most of these communities have seen lots of programs come and go." But translating good intentions into lasting relationships -- especially in neighborhoods where names like "Audubon" mean little or nothing -- isn't easy to do. Today, there are only a dozen Audubon nature centers in such communities, including four in the West, and Audubon employees say it's too early to tell whether they'll succeed in diversifying the group's membership, staff and board, which are still mostly white. "It took much longer and it's much harder than I expected," says Flicker. "You live on faith for a long time."
That's been the case at Debs Park. Initially, "the relationships were not in place at all," Ingalls says. "We didn't have the credibility." Today, almost seven years after the center opened, growing its audience remains the biggest challenge. "Just because you build it," she says, "doesn't mean anybody knows what it is or how to get there."
Los Angeles is starved for parks. Only 33 percent of L.A.'s kids live within walking distance of one, according to the Trust for Public Land, compared to 85 percent in San Francisco, 79 percent in Seattle, and 91 percent in New York. When Ingalls arrived in the neighborhood, the city council districts around Debs Park averaged just under an acre of park space per 1,000 residents. In L.A. County's white neighborhoods, the figure rose to 17.4 acres.
Freeways, however, are plentiful in northeast L.A.; five cut through it. The area's residents are 67 percent Latino, and 20 percent live below the federal poverty line. The neighborhoods around Debs are often described as the invisible parts of the city, plagued by deteriorating housing, gangs and floundering commercial centers.
Ironically, this invisibility may have helped preserve open space. Debs Park and a few other undeveloped spots in the Repetto Hills sustain fragments of rare native habitat, including stands of oak-walnut woodlands and coastal sage scrub. Red-tailed hawks, California thrashers, and a few varieties of woodpeckers and hummingbirds -- many of them rarely seen inside city limits -- are among the more than 140 bird species spotted in Debs.
Even so, many environmentalists have long considered these patches of urban habitat -- and the communities surrounding them -- lost causes. "To move over there was such a statement," Ingalls says. Many of Audubon's members were supportive, but others quit over the project. Audubon, critics argued, "was not a social service organization."