A few days ago I was wrapping up a semi-regular housesitting gig in El Sereno. Regular readers will know that that particular gig also involves taking care of a dog named Dooley, who during my stays accompanies me on explorations around the Eastside, Northeast Los Angeles, and the San Gabriel Valley. On the last day of my most recent stay, I decided that Dooley and I would wander through Rose Hill Park and Ernest E. Debs Park up to a small pond known colloquially as “Peanut Lake.”
Ernest E. Debs Park is, by my reckoning, the only seventh largest park in Los Angeles but the largest in the city east of the Los Angeles River and part of a mostly unbroken section of the unrealized “emerald necklace” that stretches from Rose Hill Park in the Rose Hill neighborhood of Los Angeles to Hahamongna Watershed Park in the Arroyo neighborhood of Pasadena.
The regional park has some amenities, including barbecue pits, a gazebo, picnic tables, trails, public restrooms, and an environmental education and conservation center known as the Audubon Center at Debs Park. Most of the action seems to take place in the parking lot-adjacent picnic area although Peanut Lake attracts its fair share of visitors willing to hike a bit. Dooley and I had last visited the pond the evening before, with our friend Mike. When we returned in the morning, I found myself wondering about its history and possible purpose.
With a surface area of about 2,300 square meters, most would describe the small body of water not as a lake but as a pond. There is a curve to its shape, but its shape is not especially similar to any goober pea I’ve ever seen. In fact, it’s kind of shaped like a Pringles® potato crisp, but Pringles® Pond sounds more like a sports venue whose naming rights have been sold to a corporation than to a tarn named for its physical resemblance to a popular junk food. Besides, there are several bodies of water that nicknamed “peanut lake” in the English speaking world, and precedence counts for something in these issues.
The perimeter of the pond is only about 215 meters, and thus takes the average person about three minutes to stroll the length of its shoreline — provided they’re uninterrupted by a dog which insists in stopping every few seconds to sniff new smells and occasionally plunge into the waters, which can’t be much more than a few meters deep at their deepest.
The water is fairly clear, although more stagnant at the northern end where, according to a woman recounting summers spent there “back in the day,” there used to a “wooden thing like an island” — by which I assume she was referring to a dock — but where there’s no dock today. There are cattails and other reeds lining the shore and in the water, the occasional invasive water hyacinth.
According to Sandi Hemmerlein’s piece, “Six Great LA ‘Lakes’” Peanut Lake is stocked with “bass, bluegill, and bullhead.” As far as I know, of those three, only the bluegill is native. The same piece also states that fishing is prohibited — although I saw no signs prohibiting it and there was also a man with a rod and reel, I assume for just that purpose.
Tiny bubbles indicate the presence of terrapins and occasionally red-eared sliders bask near the shore. Near the northwestern shore are what appear to be the ruins of some sort of water feature, consisting of what are now two, small stagnant pools crossed by a footbridge and supporting rich populations of both duckweed and mosquitos. Looking at it the “ruins” you might guess that feature was least 75 years old and yet, having researched the park, it was probably constructed no earlier than 1970.
That’s because Ernest E. Debs Park only dates back to 1968, when its creation was approved, albeit as Rose Hill Regional Park. Before the park, it had once been known locally as the Monterey Woods. After the passage of the 1949 Federal Housing Act, some ninety homes in the area were demolished to make way for the construction of 2,000 public housing units.
The Monterey Woods Improvement Association and Montecito Hills Improvement Association both formed in 1950, primarily to oppose the construction of “socialistic” housing and in 1953, Republican mayor Norris Poulson was elected largely due to his staunch opposition to providing housing for war veterans, the poor, and the elderly.
The motion to create the park was made by Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors member Ernest E. Debs. Construction of the park began in 1969. In 1974, Debs’s tenure on the Board of Supervisors ended and the park was renamed Ernest E. Debs Park — according to Debs in order to avoid confusion with Rose Hills — the name of a small community and large cemetery north of Whittier. The following year, Ed Edelman — a fellow supervisor and political rival of Debs’s— advocated for the renaming of the park, Montecito Hills Park, claiming that the area was previously known as Montecito Hills (Montecito Hills was, in fact, the name of a planned-but-never-built residential development centered around a resort hotel, proposed in 1910). The park remains named after the man who was most instrumental in its creation but at the same time, the sign at the east entrance to the park reads “Ernest E. Debs Park – Montecito Hills.” Meanwhile, in 2013, the city installed signs in the area stating “Rose Hills,” rather than “Rose Hill.”
Anyway, back to the lake which is not really a lake — it’s actually a small reservoir fed by a subterranean, 30-centimeter wide pipe. However, though entirely dependent on humans for its existence, it’s nevertheless important for wildlife, including migratory birds, as most of the region’s natural wetlands have been degraded or destroyed by humans. On the day of our visit, we only saw (and heard) crows and ravens and a lone female mallard. Growing near the pond are a variety of trees and shrubs including native California black walnut, sugar sumac, interior live oak, and toyon; and non-natives like the silky oak, pepper tree, silky oak, eucalyptus, and towering pines.
So how could Peanut Lake be improved? If I were the benevolent overlord of Los Angeles, I would begin my reign by installing full-time caretakers in every park of over five hectares. I would also place a premium on native species which would mean, in the case of Ernest E. Debs Park, capturing and relocating Peanut Lake’s cute but invasive red-eared sliders and replacing them with native (and equally cute) Western Painted and vulnerable Western pond turtles. I’d also consult a biologist on the possibility of stocking the pond with native fish, frogs, and any other aquatic species. And if it wouldn’t disturb them, I’d rebuild that “wooden thing kind of like an island” and tie to it a rowboat for the use of park visitors as Peanut Lake begs for a lackadaisical messabout.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.