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Magic Johnson Park in South LA: Renovation and History

An oasis at the edge of South Los Angeles? Yep. But you wouldn’t believe how this region acquired this park, and why that still matters today. 

Earvin “Magic” Johnson Park is whopping 94 or 120-acre park–depending who you ask–that’s plopped right here in Willowbrook, which is an unincorporated neighborhood in South Los Angeles. 

The park was built somewhere around the very late 80s, but the LA County Board of Supervisor officially named it in honor of Earvin “Magic” Johnson in 1991

Now, if we’re not including golf courses, this is the largest single recreational space in South Los Angeles, and amongst the largest in the city. It has two man-made lakes; sprawling green spaces; picnic shelters; built-in fitness equipment–which was really cool before COVID; ducks and geese; towering oak and pine trees, large boulders, and several spaces that can be used as a soccer field in a pinch.

Ironically, it doesn’t have a basketball court, despite being named after a basketball legend.

There’s also a bright future for this park–unlike any other in South LA right now. Since December 2018, This South LA park is undergoing a $70 million renovation, which includes adding an outdoor wedding pavilion, a brand new children play areas, improved lighting, walking paths, a new recyclable water source for the lakes, and additional parking lots. You’ll also find 300 new trees and 30,000 new plants. 

The majority of the renovations are complete, but right now three-quarters of the original walking trail is still open to the public.

Brief History

The Magic Johnson Park is bounded by Avalon Boulevard to the West, 120th Street to the North, Central Avenue to the East, and El Segundo Boulevard to the South. It’s surrounded by several homes and three charter schools. 

At 120 acres, this is a large piece of land. 

And if you’re familiar with Los Angeles, then you already know that it’s hard to come across a large piece of land. So how did the people of South LA get so lucky to score over 100 acres of recreational space?

Well, I found one document by the California Water Boards that accounts for most of the history of the park.

According to the California Water Boards, this site was formerly an oil tank farm. Yep. That close to residences. An oil tank farm. Between 1923 and 1964. This 100 acres was used by General Petroleum Company, Mobil Oil, and ExxonMobil–where these companies stored and distributed petroleum products. It also held a compression station and a crude oil storage area and an absorption plant. Right. Next. To. Residential. Zoning.

Sorry, I just think it’s insane—or, really just disrespectful—to have industry next to residential zoning. This happens a lot in South LA. Does this happen in West LA?

Anyway, where things get unclear is when the park changed hands from the petroleum companies to the state and county.  What I can infer from the Water Boards document, is that the land was split into two parts. Most of it was transitioned to the state, but the Water Boards specifically mention that a portion of it was sold to a private developer in the 60s who built a large housing development called Ujima Village.

Yes. A 300-unit apartment complex built on top of a former oil farm. But if you’re looking for that complex now, you won’t find it. The private developer who owned the complex ended up foreclosing in the 90s, and the “Department of Housing and Urban Development” sold the property back to the State of California, who, in turn, gave it back to the County of Los Angeles. Somewhere along that line, the property was razed. Now, it sits as a desolate, but soon to be renovated part of the park. 

The Water Boards and Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment have led several environmental investigations after the land has been transferred. Just before the Ujima Village was sold, HUD conducted a limited environmental investigation and found that the soil underneath the development still contained chemicals from petroleum activity caused by ExxonMobil and the other petroleum companies. However. They said the presence of these chemicals did not present a significant health risk to residents. Even though former Ujima Village residences disagree.

In 2006 the park was tested again, and the agencies found chemicals in the ground water (an average of 37 feet under the ground). But the Water Board assures the drinking water and water used to irrigate—or water—the park is safe. 

Yep. So one of the best parks in South Los Angeles was an oil tank farm. But even with that conflicting history, I still love this park. Today, it stands as a community center for people who live in South LA, Willowbrook, and Compton. It’s a beacon of hope for development. It’s a place for kids to play, for couples to walk dogs, and for families to gather openly. And during COVID – This park, I imagine, has helped many people maintain their sanity right here in South LA.

Everything comes at a price, but this park is worth its cost.


  1. […] One of the most notable features of this park is its water treatment system that treats up to 14,000 gallons of stormwater runoff. If you’re wondering what this giant 81,000 square-foot building is, it houses the water treatment system that recycles the water in the lakes. The recently renovated Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook has a similar system.  […]

  2. […] 1. Amanda Gorman is from Los Angeles, and her mother works in South Los Angeles. News publications haven’t shied away from identifying Amanda’s mother, Joan Wicks, who works for  Alliance Jack H. Skirball Middle School, a public charter school that is operated by Alliance College-Ready Public Schools. Publications listed this school in Watts, but it’s not. It’s at the edge of Green Meadows South neighborhood in South Los Angeles, about 10 blocks from the Magic Johnson Park in Willowbrook. […]

  3. And this you now know And this you now know

    I’m at this very park, right now! The remnants of the past remains. Currently, there are machines that run 24-7, a strong odor is present. I have sat in my car long enough to have a headache from the chemical smells emanating from these machines. They are cameras that have been placed next to the machines that monitor who come near them and there is a fence that surrounds these machines and signs that warn not to trespass. I think the park remains a great thought but maybe ulterior motives remain but a good attempt to redeem its past history.

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