From “watershed walks,” replicas of native Tongva tribe structures and even a sacred burial ground, the Ballona Discovery Park has plenty to offer. A quick walk beyond LMU’s main entrance and you can find yourself at the entry of a two-acre native garden and wildlife habitat.
I recently spent a lovely Friday afternoon taking a tour of the park lead by LMU’s own Presidential Professor/Executive Director Eric Strauss and Lisa Fimiani of the Center for Urban Resilience. Lunch was generously provided to our group of about 30 attendees, most of whom were LMU staff and faculty. Once lunch concluded, Professor Strauss and Ms. Fimiani both spoke about the natural foliage and culture that Ballona Discovery Park preserves.
The pair spoke about how the park and the adjacent Wetlands were once over 2,000 acres; now this is the only Wetland remaining in Los Angeles County. Not only did early industrialization nearly wipe out the plant life, but the culture of the Tongva tribe that once resided in Los Angeles was nearly wiped out as well. Strauss and Fimiani explained that Discovery Park’s goal was to restore the native plant life that is vital to our ecosystem as well as the memory of the people that tended to it.
We started the tour observing what the park calls a “watershed walk,” which demonstrates how water from the mountains or rainfall moves throughout an urbanized city into marshes and eventually the ocean. Concrete blocks are set up to resemble the buildings and a sprinkler in the middle mimics rainfall onto the ‘buildings.’ There is even a small river where the water runs into the storm drains. This exhibit is in place to show how society could better manage our runoff.
We moved from the watershed walk to see some of the plant structures, which our city could be utilizing to filter the aforementioned runoff water. Ms. Fimiani also explained that in addition to the natural filtration that the plants provide, the Tongva tribe used other plants in the park for medicinal purposes due to their natural healing abilities, such as white sage. She also expressed that every plant in the park is native to Southern California.
Moving through the park, our tour group walked through a beautiful willow tunnel to a large Ki structure. Made out of wood and rope, the airy enclosure functioned as a portable shelter for the Tongva tribe. Inside, we sat and listened to the kiosk placed in the middle. It told the legend of the turtle brothers on which the Earth was built, as well as an excerpt from thrilling novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins, which is the story of a Tongva woman who becomes stranded on an island for nearly two decades.
Perhaps the most riveting aspect of the park came at the end of the tour. Lisa Fimiani revealed that during the construction of the park, they came upon a gravesite and the skeletal remains of what is certain to be members of the Tongva tribe were unearthed. The development partners involved decided to move the remains and bury them just as members of the Tongva tribe had once done; this decision was both revered and vilified. Covered by shrubbery, the unmarked graves are hidden, but ever present.
While the Tongva tribe may be long gone, the tribe’s history is not. There is a myriad of history packed into just two acres right below LMU. The volunteers who manage it all do so out of an intrinsic passion to restore and preserve Los Angeles and do their best to ensure the story of those who lived here before us is not lost.