20 days out here and finally I’m mobile. I have a car. You need a car in this city. I have it for the weekend only. Can’t afford more than that as they skin you alive for insurance if you don’t have a good credit card. But it’s a start.
I want to see something green, and walk and think. I find a big park. It looks very green on the map but I’m suspicious. Not the most alluring name: Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area. The drive is a little scary as I have paid for super basic insurance which means the only thing covered is the person I hit. And it’s raining. Everyone in town will be in a museum or working. It’s SuperBowl weekend. If I have a crash the other guy is probably drunk so he’ll be liable…
Back in the day, there was a lot of oil in this area. I’ve been told that the city was built around the oil industry as much as film, and that the terrible public transport is a byproduct. One guy told me darkly “They bought the trams, the trains, all that. The oil men bought them and shut them down. Force people to drive. Now they’re trying to build trains but it’s too late. You gotta have a car.” Such a strange thing to have shaped an area, the drilling of black gold. Made out of dormant plant and animal matter coagulating over hundreds of million years. Who would have thought that this potent sludge could have shaped not only the geography of the world we live in, but also the geopolitics. A byproduct of great extinctions past, driving a probable great extinction yet to come. What does 150 million years even mean? Like the infinity of space, it’s too big for our monkey brains. We can try. We should try. But we’ll probably only scratch at the edges, so our instinct is to avoid thinking about it.
One of the first things I stumble upon in the park is a dinosaur. Slow, vast, deliberate, contemplative, it drops its head to the earth, up again, down again, up again. There’s loads of them. I feel like the kids in Jurassic Park confronted with the diplodocus. “Wow!” This is a relic on my time scale. A modern dinosaur. A working oil derric. A herd of them.
The park is a reclaimed oil field, but parts of it are still active. So you walk alongside a sculpted ornamental river stocked with fish, active with ducks, thriving, and through the trees, in drab mud, dozens of huge rusted metal monsters dip and suck, dip and suck relentlessly pulling the history out of the ground to be burnt in engines. Like the one in the car I’m so pleased to have. Surely this field will run out soon. Maybe it’s already run out and they’re only for show?
The park is named for Kenneth Hahn, the councillor who determined that the land stripped of oil should be repurposed as a park. I walk around an exhibition celebrating him, and sadly listen to a recording of Martin Luther King quoting and dissecting The Bill of Rights.
I leave the park. I don’t like it. Even in the prettiest places you can see those things behind the trees and they both fascinate and unnerve me. And there’s no nature here, just poured concrete paths and picnic tables. Nature in a box.
I drive a short way to Culver City, and walk up and down a long flight of stairs a few times. The stairs are uneven, and seem to have been haphazardly jammed into the side of a hill, scrubland either side. This helps bring me back to earth.
It seems to be the thing to do here at Baldwin Hills. People at all stages of fitness are using them as a free gym, even on a crappy rainy day like this. And they’re talking and laughing and out in the cold improving themselves just because. The stairs feel happy, and the derrics feel oppressive. Do things take on the character of their use?
I stop at the top as the sun goes down. Nobody else has stopped. I watch the foggy skyline and smile. A scab has been pulled off today. The past can be burnt as fuel.