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Know the West

Urban habitat

Building an inner-city base hasn't been easy for the Audubon Society


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."

Still, in 1998, Ingalls opened a temporary storefront office on the corner of Avenue 61 and Monte Vista within sight of Debs. The landlords were a Korean couple who ran a dry-cleaning business next door. Negotiating the lease was a challenge: Ingalls spoke English to their son, who relayed what she said to his parents in Spanish, who replied in Korean, which he translated back into English. "That was sort of where the big learning curve developed," Ingalls says. She didn't speak Spanish, much less Korean. But that wasn't really the problem.

Outsiders had come to northeast L.A. before with bright ideas -- including constructing a state prison near schools, an oil pipeline and a garbage incinerator. Well-intentioned outside groups brought beneficial projects, too. But they often vanished when their grants dried up. "Everybody like you leaves," Ingalls was told.

There were huge cultural hurdles as well. "The idea of a nature center is very much a middle-class American phenomena," says Elva Yanez, who directed the Audubon Center at Debs Park from 2006 to 2008. Ingalls bumped up against that reality immediately. When she explained Audubon's mission, her enthusiasm typically met with glazed expressions. It wasn't necessarily a language barrier, she says; "It was how we as environmentalists communicated. Eventually, I would say, 'Well, I just love birds.' "

In 2003, after about five years and upwards of $12 million, the Audubon center in Debs Park opened its doors. It was the first platinum-rated LEED building in the country. And in a city that has historically placed little value on public space, it was a rare infusion of cash into parks: A 1978 statewide property-tax cap had strangled parks funding, and the distribution of money from measures since passed often favors wealthier, whiter neighborhoods.

The project looked groundbreaking, and in many ways it was. But the center struggled to have the impact that visionaries like Ingalls had imagined. The showcase building turned out to be a distracting financial sinkhole, with many of its custom features falling into disrepair. Leadership was inconsistent; Ingalls left soon after the center opened because she felt that it would only succeed if it were run by locals, and the first director stayed on for a little more than two years. For the first few years, the center lacked a strategic plan and Spanish language programs. Outreach efforts were lackluster and visitation lower than expected.

A survey of surrounding neighborhoods in 2008 found that 71 percent of the locals didn't even know the place existed. Perched on a well-vegetated hill above Griffin Ave., it is easy to miss.

"To make is a thriving community institution was really important to me," says  Yanez, who lives nearby and was recruited to direct the center from the Trust for Public Land, filling a position that sat vacant for about a year. To Yanez, that meant making sure the HVAC worked, for one, but also breaking down language barriers in the center's new programs and addressing health issues and other pressing community needs. She hired Jeff Chapman, the center's current director, to head up education, and together they went about remaking the center. They drafted a strategic plan, convened community focus groups, reached out to local schools, and bused neighbors in for open houses.

Debs Park had been set up mostly for self-guided excursions, Chapman says. They figured if they provided trails and backpacks that could be checked out for hikes, people would use them. But it didn't work. "We learned that if people were unfamiliar with Audubon and the park, they wanted a guided experience. It kind of turned what we had thought on its head." So the center began offering a variety of new programs, including Spanish-language bird walks, guided women's fitness hikes and bilingual family nature walks.

Today, staff members try to stay in "constant" contact with visitors and the neighborhood. "We're building relationships of people to the land and people with our organization," says Chapman. "(Those) take time to nurture. I don't know that we completely understood that in the early days."

About a year ago, Chapman hired Victoria Munguia, a former intern, as a part-time outreach specialist. Munguia, who grew up a few blocks from the center, sets up tables at community events and gives presentations at schools ­­-- even stops people on the street. Before events at the center, she sends out e-mail blasts and personal reminders, and makes 20 to 30 phone calls to invite past participants back.

The center just recently started tracking visitors closely, but it's seen significant gains in the last two years. More than 5,000 took part in school programs in fiscal year 2009, up from 2,534 the year before. Youth program participation rose to 492 from 114, and family programs almost doubled, from 1,062 to 1,920.

"(These communities) definitely have an environmental perspective," Yanez says. "It's nurturing that that's challenging and interesting."

To do that in the long run, however, Audubon may have to expand its agenda still further, tackling issues like affordable housing. "Environmental work is also about society," says Marcelo Bonta, director of the Center for Diversity and the Environment and a diversity consultant to Audubon. Audubon's mere presence in Debs Park could accelerate the gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods, Bonta warns. So the center has to be part of broader efforts to improve the area's livability. "(Otherwise) over time, you see a much different community than you were hoping to connect with."

Last November, Ingalls, who now lives in Massachusetts, visited Debs Park for the first time in six years. Trudging up the path to the center from Griffin Avenue, she felt apprehensive. "These things require very long-term commitments," she says. "There's so much lack of focus -- people get bored and they move on." The scene she found, however, was "magical," a beautiful place full of children.

The center has certainly attracted converts, including Lila Sanchez, a mother of two. When Sanchez was a teenager, the only reason to go to Debs Park was to party. Years later, it wasn't a place to take one's kids. "I would drive down that street and see the male prostitutes hanging out," she says.

But now, Sanchez and her kids are regulars. Her daughter's birthday party was celebrated at the center, and her son volunteers there almost every weekend. These days, she talks about Audubon with an evangelist's zeal. "To me, it was groundbreaking," she says. "This was a place that was going to have a major influence on (my kids) for the rest of their lives." Sanchez is pleased when her son comes home with his pants covered in dirt.

This story was funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.