Even with a population of 35,000 people, there is a sense that Willowbrook is tucked away — overshadowed by its more famous neighbors, Watts and Compton. In the early 1800s, the South Los Angeles neighborhood was known for its acres of farmland and willow trees that surrounded Compton creek. The creek is now gone and over the decades, as development encroached, Willowbrook began to see new challenges; these include a large but underserved youth population, a major cultural shift as its population continues to change from predominantly African American to a majority Latino population, high unemployment and significant health challenges.
The community, however, is poised for resurgence.
Willowbrook is at the heart of a $600 million-investment from Los Angeles County, mostly in the form of redevelopment projects. The construction and opening this year of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Campus, which is in the heart of Willowbrook, is expected to be major economic engine that will spur jobs, health reform and a stronger identity in the community. The campus will be home to a state – of – the – art hospital, a specialty outpatient center, outdoor fitness area and more programs and facilities that will help area residents focus on health and wellness.
Also, the National Endowment of the Arts’ Our Town initiative awarded the community with a $100,000-grant for Project Willowbrook: Cultivating a Healthy Community through Arts and Culture. The project builds on the community planning, construction boom and ongoing effort to re-energize Willowbrook and create a sense of place
With the grant, artist Rosten Woo was commissioned by the Los Angeles Arts Commission to find hidden treasures in the community and encourage neighbors to share their creative endeavors. Among his finds: lovely neighborhood homes and gardens, a self-taught stonemason’s sculptural fountain made from rubble excavated from the 105 freeway, a model railroad garden and perhaps not a “find,” but an artistic treasure nonetheless, the Fellowship Baptist Church choir.
On a recent weekend, the choir was joined by the Centennial High School marching band trombones and cymbals, as residents enjoyed homemade mole and barbecued ribs, gathering to celebrate their community.
The Willowbrook event, held at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Public Health, was sponsored by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, in partnership with L.A. Commons, a nonprofit organization that promotes art and Los Angeles County Board of Supervisor Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas.
“This is a community that is up and coming,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “We see the potential and the promise and we will continue to support the residents. The MLK Medical Campus already is an important source of construction jobs for this community, but will also be a place that focuses on prevention and healthy living — Willowbrook stands to benefit directly. ”
Sinetta Farley, a resident of East Rancho Dominguez, who attended the event said it was a successful example of a community coming together but more needs to be done.
“There is a lot that has to be done for our community and for communities that have gone through a transition,” said Farley who says that Willowbrook is facing the same issues as her community. “There is not one way to reach a community. For our communities it takes a lot to get people out. The struggle is with all of us, not just one. You have to find out where people are in order to reach them.”
Pastor Deloris Glass, president of Concerned Citizens of Willowbrook agreed: “Those who have been long timers and a part of the community have carried a sense of community. Residents are engaged in activities and for many of us it is a way of life,” she said. “What we need is for individuals outside of the community to understand the close comraderie that what we have. This event served as a good start to let others in the community know how Willowbrook is so different form Compton and from Watts. Even though they are communities that are similar, we are different and unique.”