Willowbrook Is…

Willowbrook, a community just south of downtown and only four square miles, has long been in the shadow of its larger and more well-known neighbors, Compton and Watts.

However, with the opening next year of the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital and Outpatient Center, the upcoming renovation of the Rosa Parks Metro Station, a parks master plan and a streetscape improvement project for Wilmington Avenue—about half a billion dollars invested into the community—Willowbrook is primed and poised to emerge as a destination in its own right.

Willowbrook resident Aurelia stands in front of her home.

To capture the spirit of Willowbrook and its unique sense of place, the Los Angeles County Arts Commission hired artist Rosten Woo to chronicle the stories of its residents, their homes and surroundings.  The result is a beautiful book of essays and photographs called Willowbrook is…Willowbrook es, which was unveiled Saturday, March 14, at a public book signing event. The book is also available for sale at the AC Bilbrew Library, with proceeds to benefit the nonprofit Friends of the Library.

Willowbrook, a farming area settled in the 1800s, derived its name from the willow trees and rambling brook that decorated its landscape.  As its population grew, the neighborhood became known for its homes with deep lots and a community of residents determined to protect it from the encroaching development.

“I wrote this book in the hopes that it will help readers see Willowbrook more vividly, more tenderly and more accurately,” Woo said.

Longtime residents have seen the area undergo a demographic transformation over the years, from white, to African American to predominately Latino.  For more than a year, Woo knocked on doors and found residents who would tell their stories.  Pastor Delores Glass of the Fellowship Baptist Church, for instance, has lived in the community for 48 years and has, in her words “seen the best of times and the worst of times as the community has wedged forward and survived, holding on to its passion for family, friends and the simple life.”

There are people like 35-year residents Otis and Olinda (last names were not used) who have planted sweet corn with seeds from Arkansas every summer in their large lot and have shared their bounty with friends and neighbors for 33 years now.  Then there is 16-year resident Aurelia, a green thumb gardener whose agaves and elephant ear plants adorn the front entrance to her white bungalow or Maria and Jose who remodeled their stucco home to become a rancho, drenched in a vibrant yellow.  These individual stories capture the ebbs and flows of changing demographics and immigration but mostly, they highlight the pride residents have in their homes and community.

“All of these projects were aimed at creating a way for people inside and outside of the neighborhood to appreciate it,” said Woo. “I tried to become a conduit and provide a framework for residents to present the things that they were proud of—the things that that they had made.”

The individual stories from the book will be posted here.