Have you ever stood in a park, any neighborhood park in South Los Angeles, and wondered how the city prioritized an open sliver of greenery rather than just building more housing on top of it? It’s a challenging question, and one that Mount Carmel Park on Hoover and 70th streets in South LA helps answer.
The story behind this park begins with its unique and peculiar name, Mount Carmel, which pays homage to the Catholic high school that stood on this block slightly more than four decades ago. But what happened to this school? And how did it disappear and become one of the few South LA parks that are nestled in the region’s neighborhoods?
This is the story of the rise and fall of Mount Carmel High School in Southwest Los Angeles, and how it became a community park.
Building Mount Carmel High School
In the Summer of 1934, The Southwest Wave reported that the Carmelite Fathers of the New York Province planned a new, all-boy Catholic school destined for Southwest Los Angeles. The senior high school would be the first campus built in Los Angeles under the newest earthquake provisions, with hopes of preventing the devastation of the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake that severely damaged several LA high schools, including the George Washington and Thomas Jefferson high school campuses. While the Archdiocese of Los Angeles administered many elementary and secondary schools across the city, it invited the east coast Carmelites religious order to build and lead a new campus in the rapidly expanding parishes in the developing Southwest Los Angeles region.
The school building was two stories tall, and included spaces for a library, a chapel, and laboratories–while the entire campus nearly filled a city block. By 1939, the school’s footprint would extend by adding a cafeteria for the students and a gym and swimming pool for the school’s expanding sports program.
The Mount Carmel Campus
At the end of 1934, life at Mount Carmel began to blossom. The school community fostered community engagement, including a frequent meeting of its Mothers’ Club, and community events to aid the fundraising efforts of the school.
Mount Carmel opened its campus with high expectations both academically and athletically for its 60 enrolled boy students. Within the first five years of operation, Mount Carmel High School established accredited college-track courses in humanities, language, and science that met the standards of the University of California system. On the sports front, it developed a wide array of competitive sport teams, including remarkable basketball, football, and swim teams, which frequently made local headlines. By the start of the 1940s, Mount Carmel’s sports program matured. The school recruited a decorated football player to grow its popular and driven football team, and it showed its basketball prowess during its annual Catholic high school tournament. The Southwest Wave reported Mount Carmel being a contender for championship-level achievements in all branches of its sports. During the 1942-43 school year, Mount Carmel’s sports teams gained their first championship titles in the Catholic High School league for basketball, football, and swimming–and each of the teams remained formidable contenders for years to come.
The impressive track record of college preparedness and exciting sports came at a cost for capacity. By the 1948 school year, Mount Carmel enrolled 600 students—10 times the number of students the school opened with in 1934—and was constantly turning students away. The Carmelites purchased the adjacent site of the Grace Nazarene Church to create more room for athletic facilities, a faculty residence, and a new wing to the two-story school building. With the new addition of land, Mount Carmel spanned an entire city block between 70th and 71st streets.
The new expansion marked the tone of the school through the 50s and early 60s. While the Tiding and Southwest Wave kept a frequent tab on Mount Carmel’s sports program, the school made room to highlight its performing arts, including its Glee Club, musical band, and school-wide musical theater performance called the Show Boat, which had multiple showings due to popular demand.
Mount Carmel’s Swift Decline
In 1965, Mount Carmel had a peak enrollment of 606 students, but it decreased to 400 students by the start of the 1972 school year, a seven year period. The Watts Rebellion occurred in between that time and the aftermath shifted the demographics of neighborhoods in the inner city and in Southwest Los Angeles, including the Mount Carmel area drastically amid the White Flight phenomenon. By 1976, The Los Angeles Times described The Mount Carmel High School student body, which began as homogeneously White, as 99 percent Black and Latino.
The demographics weren’t the only things shifting at the school. In the spring of 1976, student enrollment declined further to 276 students, a near 50 percent decline from the school’s peak capacity. But this sharp decline in attendance was enough for the Carmelites to announce its closure of the school, and deem it “too late” to save, despite nearly 80 percent of the graduating student population pursuing college degrees. The sudden declaration was published in newspapers just two months before the end of Mount Carmel’s final semester.
Race, the Carmelites said, was not the factor for closing the school. Then-school principal Reverend Quinn Conners said “Anyone who feels we are fleeing the ghetto just does not understand the time, money and effort we have expended to make the school a viable educational institution. Had we not been interested in educating Blacks, we would have left 10 years ago because the racial mix has been majority Black since then.” Instead, the Carmelites blamed the disinterest of local parents of middle schoolers post the Watts Rebellion for the school’s low enrollment, and that low enrollment made it nearly impossible for the school to maintain its high quality of education.
The sudden school closure announcement by the Carmelite Board was met with opposition from the parents and the local Carmelite priests and brothers who served the school. Parents rallied against the school closures, even pleading with Pope Paul VI to stop the Carmelites from closing the school. But none of it was enough.
Mount Carmel closed its doors at the end of the spring semester of 1976, just as the Carmelites declared.
Post Mount Carmel High School
Just like that, a school once filled with life, achievement, and community was left abandoned on Hoover Street. It did, however, see a few last moments in Los Angeles history before being demolished.
In 1976, the Mount Carmel gym was a rally site for California Proposition 14, an Initiative spearheaded by Cesar Chavez to secure state protections for farm workers’ to hold secret ballot union elections as an addendum to the Agricultural Labor Relations act of 1975.
On the big screen, the abandoned Mount Carmel school building became the setting for Vince Lombardi High School in the 1979 Roger Corman film Rock & Roll High School. It appears the property was handed over to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, because the production of Rock & Roll High School paid the Archdiocese to use the school as a location in the movie.
In June of 1979, the Mount Carmel High School building became a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, denoted for its mission architecture.
Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments recognizes and grants protections to buildings and landmarks, but it doesn’t make them immune to demolition.
Sometime before 1979, the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks became the owner of the Mount Carmel property. In November of 1980, the department elected to demolish the old two-story school building, but maintained the gym and a detached classroom. In 1984, the gym was later demolished, leaving the classroom building the last original structure on the lot.
Today, the park and community center offer a wide selection of children, adult, and senior programming including intramural sports for children and cardio courses for adults and seniors. The present day community center, which was built in 1986, has a stage and indoor basketball court. While it’s not the school that once towered on Hoover Street is is a well-used resource by youth and families in this area of South LA. On a recent Saturday morning, I saw neighborhood youth flood the indoor facility, ready to take part in sports programming–which at least embodies the athletic spirit of Mount Carmel.
Besides the park’s consistent usage, there is no savior. No plaque of recognition. And hardly any clues to the incredible story of Mount Carmel High School. What’s left is just an open park and a community center that bears the name of a historic school that once graced the Hoover block between 70th and 71st streets.
Like I said earlier, parks in LA come at a cost, and in this case that cost was history.