Monday, August 1, 2011

"Since the Summer of '42 - Reminiscences of the War Years"

An aerial photograph from 1924 shows the Baldwin Hills, with Los Angeles in the distance.
The Culver City Speedway is in the foreground.

     This article is reprinted from a 1975 Village Green newsletter, and was written by Helen Spears (who told her fascinating story of the Baldwin Hills Dam disaster here).
     Helen P. Spears married Weldon T. "Doc" Spears in Los Angeles in 1936. "Doc" was a teacher of Social Science at John C. Fremont High School. 
     They moved into a two bedroom townhouse (called a "studio" then) at 5482 Village Green in the summer of 1942, next door to lead architect Reginald D. Johnson. Helen and Doc continued to live at 5482 for decades - Helen stayed on after her husband died in 1987; she died in 1996.

It was always a welcome sight, coming south on La Brea, to reach Jefferson Boulevard, where the uncluttered vista of the great open fields below the Baldwin Hills gave one a real out in the country feeling.

The Sunset Golf Course stretched to the east, with almost no through streets between La Brea and Crenshaw.  In fact, there was no Crenshaw Center, no Rancho Cienega playground, no Dorsey High School. Only a few homes occupied the far eastern end of the Baldwin Hills.  Most was open space, a reminder of horseback rides on horses from the Sunset Stables – near the location of the now-building Fox Hills Plaza.

A photograph taken in 1924, looking south towards the Baldwin Hills. The Heinz 57 concrete numbers are
visible on the side of the Baldwin Hills.

The immense old white concrete number “57” advertising the famous pickle-maker was visible from most of the West Adams district.      

This day, however, there was a mist; an acrid smell assailed one’s nostrils. For days, the peat beds in the area had been burning underground. The fire department had worked diligently to douse the stubborn smoldering, to no avail. Now, according to the news, they would try a new approach – dynamite.

Workers dig trenches to combat the Baldwin Hills peat fire of 1927

To the west another great open space stretched toward the sea. A meadowlark burst into song, welcoming the morning with liquid notes.

Aerial photograph taken looking west towards Culver City and the Pacific Ocean,
showing the oil wells atop the Baldwin Hills, circa 1939.
"Dick" Whittington Photo Collection, USC.

The two-lane winding road through the hills pulled one back to the business at hand, watching for slow vehicles ahead.

The years passed and then one day a great crew began to lay out a tremendous project near the hills. Apartment buildings took form, nestling close to the land and becoming part of it.  Their colors were soft pastels and they continued to appear for several blocks west of Sycamore.

The year was 1941.

As the structures were completed, signs announced that Baldwin Hills Village was ready for occupancy.

In the summer of 1942 (not the movie of a similar name), a young couple came to see what was happening – and went away starry-eyed with a brochure and a list of prices: one bedroom, upstairs, $47.50; two bedrooms, downstairs, $51.50; two bedroom studio with bath and a half, $57.50.

Pushed into action by the famous and mysterious Los Angeles air raid, replete with wardens, sirens and anti-aircraft fire, and by the threat of a call to military service, the two moved into a studio apartment on the west green. The month was August.

The new residents were delighted! There were tennis courts, a badminton court at the back door, telephones connected to a central switchboard (private telephones were already a war casualty), and maid service for less than a dollar an hour by arrangement with the management.

These 30 year old olive tree specimens, between courts 2 and 3, were given to Baldwin Hills Village
as a gift from the estate of Anita Baldwin.
Margaret Lowe photograph, LAPL

In addition, they enjoyed the view, the beautiful new landscape with specimen trees being added regularly, the very modern Electrolux gas refrigerator functioning silently and inexpensively, the large closets, the bath and a half, the quiet park-like atmosphere and anticipation of new neighbors. There was only one other occupant in the six-unit building.  He was Reginald Johnson, principal architect, living temporarily in the end apartment during construction of the remainder of the village.

To make matters even better there was natural air-conditioning, provided by the movement of sea air along the hills!

Just behind the office, which has remained much the same in external appearance, was the clubhouse with its large hall, kitchen, billiard room and circulating library. The facility could be reserved for private parties.  (It has now become two large apartments).

The circular wading pool outside the Clubhouse.
From Reginald D. Johnson's 1944 Kodachrome film,
courtesy David Lebrun and Night Fire Films

A circular wading pool, now filled in and landscaped, enhanced the view toward the main green.

A small newspaper kept residents informed of “happenings”.

Nearby on the east one building housed a small Thriftimart, a delightful little restaurant serving good home cooked meals to hungry Villagers, and a barber and beauty shop.

The Village station wagon, later to be replaced by a small bus, traveled around the perimeter once each hour to take residents to West Adams, the nearest area for shopping, and it was free!  It also connected with the La Brea bus, which did not travel this far south, and with the “J” and “A” streetcars – long since extinct.

Every patio presently provided with a brick wall was then open, as were all garages. Later, both patio walls and garage doors could be installed on request by paying an increased rental.

The section for families with children was provided with several small playgrounds, and extended from Rodeo and Hauser on the north side to about midway in the Village.

One night watchman patrolled the grounds – on foot.

Each laundry housed a single washing machine, though no clothes dryer – they had not come into general use, but drying yards were conveniently close at hand. Garbage cans were in concrete holes in the patios, and pick-up was provided.

And then came November. The couple found that the move to Baldwin Hills Village had been made just in time. The man of the house was needed by the military and would be stationed at Santa Ana Army Air Base to take part in the training of Air Corps Cadets.

He was not to come home to the Village for four years.

Photo of Weldon "Doc" Spears from the
1946 John C. Fremont High School yearbook


Across Coliseum the fields extending to the hills are plowed into great brown clods, soon to be worked and planted to beans as they are regularly. Dry farming by someone we never see continues.

We tend Victory gardens along the south side of Coliseum, stretching hoses across from VG faucets, and are rewarded by the vigorous growth of bean, tomato, radish, onion, carrot, corn, turnip, beet, squash and lettuce plants.

Street and exterior lights have been painted, black above and translucent below to make the city’s glow less evident to approaching planes. 

Everything takes on an eerie look at night – and there is total blackness during air raid alerts when window shades and draperies must be tightly drawn. We waited an alert at Santa Fe Springs for two hours last weekend, as we made our way home from Palm Springs. This was a last fling, since now gas is to be rationed.

Car pooling becomes essential, and five of us destined for Washington High (three from the Village and two from the area north of here) are allotted enough gas coupons for five round trips weekly.  Personal needs are met from a small supplemental allowance for essential trips, to buy supplies, keep medical appointments, etc. To get a new tire the old one must be officially inspected, deemed irretrievable, and turned in.  Obviously, we make no unnecessary trips.

Coffee, butter and sugar are now rationed, as well as meat. A lively exchange of ration stamps takes place among neighbors who have more than enough of one kind and too few of another.  The debate is heated between producers of butter and margarine, as to whether the latter can be colored and packaged in four cubes to resemble butter, instead of the one pound white blocks we now buy, with the appearance of lard.

Three Feathers, it leaves you GASPING!
We stand in long lines, hoping to obtain items in short supply. Scarce items are soon gone, with neighbors passing the word to each other when something becomes available. Paper towels, napkins, toilet paper and cigarettes, whole not rationed, are hard to find. We are learning to mix “Southern Comfort” in many innovative ways, and patiently queue up to buy “Three Feathers”, a bourbon which is supposed to tickle the palate. Instead, it “leaves you breathless” – GASPING! 

We are in training for air raids, gas attacks, and other war emergencies.  An actual submarine attack on oil wells and tanks along the Ventura coast has been reported. Barrage balloons go up nightly over war production plants as protection from low altitude bombing passes. Air raid wardens have been issued helmets, gas masks and fire extinguishers. A triangular metal dinner gong and ringer, like those used to summon ranch hands to meals, hangs under the eaves near the laundry room in each garage court.

Dinner bells were provided in each garage court during World War II,
and were to be used in case of emergencies.
From Reginald D. Johnson's Kodachrome films,
courtesy David Lebrun and Night Fire Films
Many of us have taken a Red Cross first aid course, and have equipped ourselves with fire spray pumps inserted in buckets. We are instructed in putting out magnesium bomb fires with this apparatus, filled with water. We have made and stored soda-gauze masks to moisten and wear if poisonous gas comes, and have stored supplies of food, water and first aid materials. When sirens signal a black-out we fill the bath tub with water.

The anti-aircraft battery on the crest of the hill west of the Hauser Blvd. power line is on regular alert.  Soldiers practice in loud and, we hope, efficient manner. When not so occupied they relax in their ready room, and are paged by bull-horn or buzzer to receive phone calls in a booth installed toward the Village. They are popular neighbors, and are invited to the homes of villagers. In December they planted a small Christmas tree, which can still be seen if one looks carefully.

Only the very first residents of Baldwin Hills Village were able
to get private telephone lines. Most residents were required to use
a switchboard service, located in the Administration Building, until private
telephones were once again available beginning in 1946.
From Reginald D. Johnson's Kodachrome films,
courtesy David Lebrun and Night Fire Films
The Village switchboard is loaded to capacity, and pay phone booths have been installed at strategic locations around the Village. No private phones are available for civilians. Rents in the Village are frozen, as they are throughout the country. Prices and wages are also under strict controls. More and more items, including black pepper, cinnamon and rubber goods, are becoming scarce or unavailable. Some Village apartments were finished without sealer coats under the paint, and plumbing pipes under sinks lack the chrome finish.

The first Liberty Ship, the Fremont, is launched at the Calship yard in Wilmington, and we are thrilled to receive tickets to attend. In the Village as in the general population most men are under 18 or over 45, excepting essential war workers. “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” is the day’s hit song.  Women work in the plants and shipyards, and the village has its fair share of “Rosie the Riveters”. They have adopted slacks, never to be given up, as standard attire, and kerchief bandanas, to keep their hair from being caught in the machinery.

Lunchtime brings a few minutes of rest for these women workers
 of the assembly line at Douglas Aircraft Company's plant, Long Beach, Calif.
Sand bags for protection against air raid form the background.
Alfred T. Palmer Kodachrome photo, 1942.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
The 3 bedroom apartment at the end of the next building has become a fascinating show.  Usually we have a speaking acquaintance with our neighbors, but in this instance the numbers baffle us.  In addition to the matronly lady who is there most of the time there are at least 12 others coming and going.  Changing of the guard coincides with the change of shift – daytime, swing and graveyard – in the plants. The beds never get cold in this non-stop boarding house!  We are not surprised.  Throughout Los Angeles housing is almost impossible to obtain for the large war time transient population.

Our patio is open, bordered by a very pretty privet hedge covered with white blossoms.  Today’s curved brick enclosures were added later. We have a covered-wagon type redwood lounge, for outdoor sitting and sunning. Waking one Sunday morning we are startled to find in occupied by a G.I. who could find no other place to sleep. We give him breakfast and send him on his way. At least our patio lounge was better than a bus or railway depot bench or a hotel lobby chair.

A "covered wagon" chair similar to the chair described by Helen Spears,
in a redwood enclosed private patio at Baldwin Hills Village, 1944.
Margaret Lowe Photograph, LAPL

Life becomes more and more restricted. There is little travel, and boredom is sometimes inevitable.   Tonight we must do something different. It is midnight, the green beautiful in the moonlight, dew beginning to settle on the grass. We doff shoes and hose and run barefoot, quiet as the night, mindless of the February chill. Finally, tired and cold, we come in and sit on the edge of the tub, dangling our feet in warm water and laughing at our appreciation of so simple a pleasure in these troubled times.

The view from the top of Baldwin Hills, 1944
From Reginald D. Johnson's Kodachrome films,
courtesy David Lebrun and Night Fire Films
Wandering around the Village area is always rewarding. A hike to the top of the hill over rough terrain, without trails or roads, is tiring but stimulating. The view from the top is a rare treat – and we’ve used no gasoline. The Village spreads out below and we gain a new perspective in viewing the plan from this height. It is thrilling when the day is clear and snow on the nearby mountains is down to 2,000 feet, or in the evening to watch the full moon rise.   On one walk we explored the area northwest of the Village, and were surprised to find a small clear stream bordered by willows.  Later we learn it is Ballona Creek.

Patio gardening is one of the pleasures of staying at home. Today, working with azaleas, we hear sirens and stop to watch the burning over of dry grass on the hill, an occurrence each summer. The county fire department comes to the rescue. No visible harm results, and it is exciting to watch the flames leap his with crackling sounds conveying the heat’s intensity. No structures are endangered, because there are none south of the Village.

Later we are dismayed to find that the burn left the tunnels of little burrowing owls entirely denuded and exposed on the gentle lower slopes of the hill. With field glasses we can see the forlorn little fellows standing near their holes as if to say, “Where are we? This doesn’t look like home!” Almost every chimney in the Village is the resting point for one of these perky bits of fluff, and if we succeed in imitating his “Who-o-o wh-o-o-o” he will answer. We hope there are no nestlings and that our little friends were away at the time of the fire.

Today a United Parcel deliveryman wanders about seeking an address, carrying a heavy package. We explain that the odd numbers on Village Green and the even numbers on Rodeo are across the Green; that only the even VG numbers and the odd Coliseum ones are on our side. He says, “To hell with it! I get paid by the piece and I’ve been looking for this place for an hour already!” Confused? So are we all until we learn! (Since then all numbers have been converted to VG addresses, with even numbers on the Coliseum side and odd on Rodeo – and still confusing!)

Often we stand and just look out at the green through the large front windows. It refreshes the spirit, calms the inner upheavals brought on by the impact of war news, rests the eyes and brings a fleeting calm to jangled nerves. Today we are jolted by the sight of two horses, manes and tails flying, running full gallop down the length of the green – unbridled an unattended. Where have they come from and where are they going?

At last some of the men are coming home from the service. A group of teen-age friends are invited for dinner, despite rationing, and a Navy flier, former school friend, is going to demonstrate hypnosis. Wee see him amazingly control one of the fellows, influencing him to remove shoes and socks, go to the kitchen for a glass of water, empty out exactly half of it, drink the remainder, return to the living room and put on shoes and socks – then he comes out of his trance and tells us how good he feels. Our Navy friend tells us he learned this while being instructed in self-hypnosis so that in event of capture he would withhold vital information even though pressed to reveal it.

Time has passed, the war is ended, and the business of recovery is underway. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a part of history, and nothing will ever be the same again. Yet we will always remember “the way we were”.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a wonderful blog entry. I have one question. You wrote: "On one walk we explored the area northwest of the Village, and were surprised to find a small clear stream bordered by willows. Later we learn it is Ballona Creek."

    I believe Ballona Creek was "channelized" by he Army Corps back in the mid 1930s. Was there are portion that was still "natural" at the time (which is what your blog entry suggests) and do you recall when that part was channelized?

    Chris Bungo
    Miami Beach, FL