South LA has plenty of secrets nestled away in its 16 square miles. But very few like this one.
This is Village Green, a meticulously landscaped condominium community that’s nestled behind Obama Boulevard in South LA’s Baldwin Hills neighborhood. Within it are thousands of residents, and hundreds of families, spread across 67 acres, 97 structures, and 627 condominium units.
It is also regarded as one of the most ambitious and awarded large-scale housing developments in the nation, being among the first planned communities in the United States that prioritized nature and community over automobiles and roadways.
Today, Village Green stands as a multicultural community in the heart of Baldwin Hills, a neighborhood that is facing an identity crisis as its residents tackle new neighbors, rising home prices, and unaccustomed developments.
So, what’s behind the story behind Village Green in South LA? And how does it fit into the crisis that Baldwin Hills faces today?
A Thousand Gardens
In early 1941, The Los Angeles Times reported on a new housing community called Thousand Gardens, a planned $3.5 million private development at the historic site of the Rancho Cienega de Paso de La Tijera in Southwest Los Angeles—which was land sold from the estate of E.J. Lucky Baldwin, who owned hundreds of acres of ranch land that has been developed into the present day Baldwin Hills and Crenshaw neighborhoods in South LA.
The Los Angeles Times also reported that the money used to finance the Thousand Gardens development, which had plans for 97 structures and 627 units, was, at the time, the second largest mortgage insured by the Federal Housing Administration—the FHA.
FHA mortgage insurance is crucial to the future of Thousand Gardens. As the United States tackled housing shortages in the late 30s and early 40s, a result of the Great Depression, the FHA worked with lending institutions to insure housing loans for single-family homes and large housing developments. The catch, however, is the lender would have to abide by special FHA provisions that were designed to protect the equity in the loan insured. One way it reduced financial risk is through red lining–a practice that marginalized communities based on race and location, two of many factors that the FHA believe could negatively impact property values.
In short, Thousand Gardens, like many housing developments in Southwest Los Angeles that were backed by the FHA, initially began as racially restrictive, often white-only, communities.
While the FHA insurance outlines who could live in this development, the Thousand Gardens community was also the result of over two years of research on what makes a community a community. The end result was the joint architectural development of planner Clarence Stein, architect Reginald D. Johnson, the Wilson, Merril, and Alexander of Los Angeles architectural firm, and landscape architect, Fred Barlow, Jr, who all imagined a low-density, car-free community built around nature.
The apartment development made headlines for its amenity-driven and nature-oriented community planning. Journalists raved about the planned underground utilities, and new electric and gas appliances. The buildings offered a great deal of privacy, with many units having access to private patios, and all units having private entrances. Though, the most unique factor about this development was that it was a super block, meaning there would be no internal roadways that would divide the community; instead it would be one, cohesive housing development. Emphasizing the importance of nature, the architects reserved roughly 85 percent of the land for the park-like grounds, and housing occupied the remaining 15 percent.
Building The Baldwin Hills Village
Construction for Thousand Gardens started in March of 1941, and within 7 months, the housing development was nearly 75 percent complete. At the same time, the developers dropped the Thousand Gardens brand and renamed the development The Baldwin Hills Village, which was likely indicative of the flourishing Baldwin Hills neighborhood that had begun to see a great deal of investment (Development photo 1) (Development photo 2). In this name change, part of the complex would also be named, in part, The Village Green, and nearly half the homes of this development would have Village Green home addresses.
Built in phases, some of the first apartments landed on the rental market in December of 1941. New tenants were welcomed into a “country club atmosphere,” complete with homeownership-like seclusion, hotel-level luxuries, including 24-hour switchboard service and on-call maid services. In early 1942, The Baldwin Hills Village officially opened its first phase, revealing its lush landscaping, private patio gardens, central clubhouse, and 9 children play areas.
During my visit to Village Green in February of 2022, I had the opportunity to speak with a couple of long-term Village Green residents about their experience living in this planned community. I met Joe Khoury, who has lived in Village Green for the past 20 years, who learned about this neighborhood from a relative and Leimert Park resident.
“What made me fall in love with it was really, when my wife and I were getting married.,” Khoury said. “We’re looking for a place to live. And we wanted to find a place that was diverse, and it’s hard to find in LA. So, her uncle, Truitt White, who lives in Leimert Park, told us that Village Green was at the intersection of rich and white, black and poor is an ideal great place to raise a family.”
“Like I said, his family was one of the first African American families to move in there, right after the 1953 Supreme Court decision. So he was very familiar with this area. He said he used to ride his bike through here as a kid. And he would get chased. Because then it was racially segregated. And they would, you know, the security would chase him through, through the neighborhood. So anyway, that’s what attracted us here was the diversity of the place.”
While diversity may not have been prioritized for the developers of The Baldwin Hills Village, the planned community was undoubtedly an instant success. At the start of 1942, The Baldwin Hills Village broke rental records (Alt Image: Rentals set), and by the end of that year, just as the final phases were complete, The Baldwin Hills Village was a handful of tenants away from being fully rented.
It Takes A Village
By 1943, life at The Baldwin Hills Village was in full swing. It was a growing community that sat at the crossroads of entertainment, nature, and community. In fact, in 1946, just four years after The Village was built, architect Reginald D. Johnson and the Wilson, Merrill, and Alexander firm received a distinguished honor from the Southern California chapter of the American Institute of Architects for planning The Baldwin Hills Village. Fred Barlow, Jr. the landscape architect for The Village, was also included in that honor.
Despite this architectural achievement, The Baldwin Village was sold twice within the 1940s. The first acquisition was by The Bankers Life Company of Des Moines, Iowa in 1944 for $2.6 million, which appears to be the principal of the original, FHA-insured mortgage. Later it was sold to the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company of Boston purchased the property for $4.5 million, a sale that ranked as one of the largest sales in Southern California at the time. While these acquisitions did not impact life at The Baldwin Village, it did, however, prove that The Baldwin Village was a profitable asset.
For the most part, life at the Baldwin Hills Village remained pretty steady. Well, besides the Great Pet Eviction that upset tenants.
And in the late 40s and early 50s, in the hills behind The Village, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began constructing a $5 million man-made water reservoir near a fault line. But the engineers and geologists believed they could work around it, and that it wasn’t an issue.
This is obviously not concerning. At all.
Coming Full Circle
On The Baldwin Hills Village’s 20th anniversary, 1962, the apartment development was sold again, this time purchased by Baldwin M. Baldwin.
In case the double name doesn’t ring the bell, this was the grandson of Lucky E.J. Baldwin, the former owner of the land that The Baldwin Hills Village occupied.
Despite the best intentions of the engineers and geologist, the man-made reservoirs that the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power built in the hills above the Village broke in 1963, and several homes, including those at The Baldwin Hills Village, were damaged in the disaster that had also claimed five lives. Baldwin M. Baldwin asked for $1.5 million from the Board of Supervisors, but those claims, along with many others across the Baldwin Hills neighborhood, were denied.
No Place Like Home
The Baldwin Hills Village undoubtedly recovered after the Baldwin Hills Reservoir, but by the mid 1960s, the neighborhood underwent a dramatic demographic shift. The once white, middle-class enclave of Baldwin Hills in Southwest Los Angeles quickly became a black neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles.
But that demographic shift, however, didn’t impact The Baldwin Hills Village the same way. While The Baldwin Hills Village started as a young, family-centered community in the 1940s, it morphed into a white, reclusive super block in the heart of Black Los Angeles by the 1970s.
Like I mentioned earlier, The Baldwin Hills Village was initially bounded by racial restrictions imposed by the FHA. Since then, the development had been bought a handful of times, which had essentially removed the FHA’s racial provision and, by this time, the United States Federal Government implemented the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Yet, by 1973, The Baldwin Hills Village had three confirmed Black families that rented a home in the predominantly white, planned community.
This storyline of The Baldwin Hills Village changed, however, when developer Terramics acquired the 32-year-old complex from the estate of Baldwin M. Baldwin in 1971. While the community being bought and sold was nothing new, this time the developer planned to subdivide the super block into individual condominiums for sale.
Outraged, residents from Baldwin Hills and the impacted Baldwin Hills Village quickly banded together to form the “Concerned Citizens of Baldwin Vista,” which opposed Terramics condominium proposal.
In a battle of appeals to the City of Los Angeles, The Baldwin Hills Village tenants voiced concerns about being displaced during the conversion process. In fact, the majority of residents preferred to remain as tenants, and as little as two percent planned to purchase their apartment unit.
Terramics positioned itself as “anxious to preserve what’s there as an example of outstanding community planning,” and believed that selling condominiums—not renting them—would help the super block resolve its diversity issue in the now black neighborhood of Baldwin Hills. Terrammics signed a non-discrimination agreement with the Concerned Citizens of Baldwin Vista as part of its condominium conversion. It also agreed to run ads in newspapers serving minority areas.
Cynthia Singleton, a 28-year resident of the today’s Village Green, bought her home in the mid 90s, but initially faced some discrimination during the buying process.
“Yeah, you know, I encountered that when I bought my unit, the lady didn’t want to sell me my unit,” Singleton said. “I encountered that from when I went to buy my unit when she met me with the realtor. She said, ‘I don’t want to sell to that black,’ believe it or not, here in Village Green.
And my realtor told her ‘no, you have to sell it, legally you can’t do that.’ Anyway, I ended up buying it. And her daughter came back to see me and apologized and said, you know, my mother’s elderly.
“I noticed when I moved here, it keeps going through transitions, though. But when I moved here, the region was predominantly Caucasian because most of the elderly were here that I bought originally. So as they started passing away and moving and selling, then their children started moving in and then different people started moving in. So then it became more integrated. And now it’s starting to go through a transition again, due to gentrification, they say we’re almost 85 percent Caucasian now it’s changed again, but the people moving in fortunately 90 percent have a very broad welcoming attitude,” Singleton added.
In 1973, the Los Angeles Council expressed support for The Baldwin Hills Village condominium conversion, despite tenant appeals. However, Terramics penned an agreement that gave tenants the first option to buy the condos, and its promise to maintain the historical integrity of the community as much as possible..
Terramics began the conversion process in 1974. In its first act to reinvent The Baldwin Village as condos, it officially renamed the community The Village Green. In the conversion process, Terramics left the architecture, floorplans, and landscaping practically untouched. It did, however, outfit units with new appliances, floorings, and countertop surfaces.
Terramics began converting the apartments into condominiums into phases. Advertisements began rolling in, selling the Village Green as an adults-only condominium, while marketing the park-like setting, and the central commuting location to a sea of potential buyers.
Those ads generated a lot of attention, and by 1977, three years after the start of the conversion process, over half of the condominiums were sold.
Village Green Today
Today, The Village Green remains a vibrant yet tranquil community at the edge of LA’s Baldwin Hills neighborhood. Its open fields, private nooks, and thoughtful landscaping makes it far too easy to fall in love with this community–and even easier to forget you’re standing in South Los Angeles.
Yet, on the outskirts of the property, rising home prices and general cost of living in Los Angeles have notoriously displaced many in the heart of Black Los Angeles. And Baldwin Hills in particular has found itself in a transitional period of gentrification, yet in some odd sense, it’s coming back to its initial 1940s Southwest Los Angeles roots. Either way it goes, the fate of the neighborhood remains contentious.
Village Green has found itself in a pivotal moment of its history. It is no longer an elderly and white enclave, but a community with a growing population of young professionals, new couples, and budding families. This shift in ownership will continue to determine the outlook of Village Green as the larger Baldwin Hills community continues to reconcile its changing colors.
“So how are we going to be a model?” Khoury said. “How are we going to have an integrated racial community, which I think Village Green can be to our sister communities in South Los Angeles, we can be a model that says community can transcend barriers of race and class. Like uncle Shula said, this is the intersection of black and white, rich and poor. That’s how he described it. But are we going to let the real estate business operate on that model of segregation?”
“When you ask most people how they found Village Green, and they had a friend who lived here, and they came here to visit,” Khoury added. “That’s how people find Village Green. So who are we going to invite to visit? That’s who I am going to invite to come visit Village Green. That’s how we’re going to keep our that’s how we’re going to build a diverse community.”
It’s hard to believe this tranquil, architecturally distinguished, planned paradise is tucked neatly away in South LA’s Baldwin Hills neighborhood,just behind Obama Boulevard. While Village Green is in constant flux, its historic status will continue to remain still. The Cultural Heritage Board of the City of Los Angeles recognized Village Green as an Historic-Cultural Landmark in 1977. The Village Green was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2001. At the very least, South LA should be proud to hold such a historically-relevant piece of architecture in one of its most prominent neighborhoods.
Knowing how pretty Village Green is, I asked Singleton if she had any words for the viewers if they decided to visit, and she had one thing to say.
“I think you should know this is a private property,” Singleton said. “This is not a park. This is our home. That yard is my front yard. We’re welcoming nice people but this is not a public space. It’s a beautiful place to live. I welcome you wholeheartedly if you want to buy, rent, or move. It’s gorgeous. But let’s just keep it gorgeous when you move here. I hope that you will have the attitude to say I didn’t come to change it. I came to enjoy it.”