Willows and a slow, shallow brook distinguished this portion of the Los Angeles plain long before it was given the name “Willowbrook.” A lone-standing streamside willow tree near the present intersection of 125th Street and Mona Boulevard was an original rancho boundary marker in the 1840s.
Willowbrook was rich in springs in the early days and winter rains would bring up fine stands of rye grass between gravelly ridges left by long-ago floods of the Los Angeles River. As early as 1820, Don Anastacio Abila was grazing cattle on the land and by 1843, the Mexican governor had granted him 4,500 acres. This grant was named the Rancho Tajauta and it extended from the marshes along present Alameda Street westward to approximately the present line of the Harbor Freeway. All of present-day Willowbrook is within the area covered by Rancho Tajauta.
The first subdivisions in the Willowbrook area were filed in 1894 and 1895 on land along what is now Rosecrans Boulevard. The first official use of the name Willowbrook came in 1903, when the Willowbrook Tract was recorded with the County Recorder. The tract straddled the newly opened Pacific Electric railway line to Long Beach. There is no evidence that a townsite was envisioned and street patterns were not coordinated with adjacent tracts. The name Willowbrook came into use for the whole area, because the Big Red Cars of the Pacific Electric Railroad Company stopped at 126th Street in Willowbrook.
Lot buyers in Willowbrook expected to live a definitely suburban life. The deep lots (up to 300 feet deep in many cases) attracted working-class families, especially newcomers to Southern California. The Big Red Cars provided fast, reasonable transportation to department stores in downtown Los Angeles and to jobs in the Long Beach and San Pedro harbor areas. During the Depression years, residents used the land behind their homes to grow fruits and vegetables, run hogs, and raise chickens. These land uses, together with the vacant lots covered with mustard plants, intensified the area’s rural appearance. After the end of the Depression and World War II, increasing suburban development occurred in Willowbrook, but not to the extent that it substantially altered the area’s rural character. Even the 1965 Watts Riots did not change that, although Willowbrook suffered damage to a number of its buildings, including Willowbrook’s community library.
The mixture of suburban and rural land uses continued in Willowbrook into the early 1980s, when the area began to lose its rural character due to a redevelopment plan drafted by the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) under the leadership of Ted Watkins and supported by Los Angeles County. Under this plan, 365 acres of Willowbrook land was redeveloped to provide new commercial and residential facilities. As a result, present-day Willowbrook appears similar to other communities in the South Central section of Los Angeles.
Watts Labor Community Action Committee