Joe Mathews: Space for Southern Californians to do their thing, whatever that may be

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View of Whittier Narrows Dam from downstream looking upstream. Photo by US Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles District

It’s hard to overstate the importance of places like the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area in highly-urbanized Southern California. The regional park in the San Gabriel Valley offers something for everyone – a bird sanctuary, lakes, equestrian, organized sports (during non-pandemic times) and wide open lawns for family reunions, quinceanera’s,  or tossing a Frisbee. Zocalo commentator Joe Mathews says it’s perfect for his three boys, who never seem to want to do the same thing. He says the park is also an endorsement for creating public spaces that are not targeted for a single purpose, but rather invite people to do what they want.

Read Mathews’ column below: 

Narrows minded


In pandemic days, it’s hard to find public places that offered both ample social distance and community. But I managed to do both at a park 10 miles east of Downtown L.A. 

I wish our entire state was as broad-minded as the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area. The 1,500-acre park, spanning the 60 Freeway in South El Monte, isn’t just one of L.A. County’s largest and most popular parks. It’s a vision of what California might be.

Right now, Whittier Narrows feels especially glorious. California can’t stop itself from adding categories and qualifications and rules, even when the task is as straightforward as giving everybody a shot in the arm. But Whittier Narrows is for everybody, all the time. You don’t have to make an appointment or wait in long lines to use it. You can get inoculated with whatever recreational medicine you prefer, from pedal-boating to BMX biking, fishing to frisbee golf.

“A stroll through Whittier Narrows Park is never anything less than a walk through many worlds,” David Reid wrote in the magnificent essay collection, East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte. “On any given day, the scent of carne asada barbeques wafts on a breeze that is suddenly interrupted by the scent of sunblock from a runner in full stride… Weekends are filled with rowdy soccer games and families flocking from distant corners of Southern California for reunions.” 

Big family reunions are on hold, but the park’s very existence also offers a tonic of optimism: that even dark moments can produce things worth celebrating.

Whittier Narrows is a gap between hills through which the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel Rivers flow. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposed building a dam in the narrows as part of a 1938 flood control plan. But a citizens’ committee fought the dam, which threatened residences, schools, farms, and a bird sanctuary. In 1948, local congressman Richard Nixon brokered a compromise that moved the dam site about a mile, preserving some businesses, homes, and open land. 

It was a decidedly mixed victory. The dam, completed in 1957, still displaced about 2,000 people. The bird sanctuary, and nearby trails, lawns, and a lake, were handed over to county parks in 1970.

Whittier Narrows Park has since grown. It’s ideal if, like me, you have three finicky children who never want to do the same thing. On our visits, we walked and biked trails around the three lakes—North, Center, and Legg—which are home to watercraft from pedal boats to model speedboats. We’ve climbed on the lake shore’s sea “creatures”—sculptures by the Mexican artist Benjamin Dominguez. We’ve played the massive disc golf course on the park’s east side, which nearly extends to a second freeway, the 605.

And we still haven’t checked out the shooting range, the horse center, the military museum, or the urban farm. 

Regional parks like Whittier Narrows, with their something-for-everybody approach, increasingly feel out of fashion in an era when smaller, prettier, highly designed urban parks get the accolades. And the middle-class and working-class families served by Whittier Narrows, or El Dorado Regional Park in Long Beach, or by Hansen Dam Recreational Area in the San Fernando Valley, lack cultural power in a Southern California increasingly divided between, and defined by, rich and poor.

But these are both reasons why Whittier Narrows should be celebrated. Here’s another: the park may become even bigger.

In December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers offered another 47 acres in the dam area for a park expansion. In response, L.A. County officials disclosed three ideas for this additional space—a venue for festivals; a soccer complex, or a large cricket field.

It’ll be fitting if Whittier Narrows somehow incorporates it all.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square



Joe Mathews