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Real estate developers have drawn a bullseye around many of the most historic neighborhoods in Los Angeles, where they are displacing working class tenants, demolishing naturally occurring affordable housing, and getting parcels rezoned to build out-of-scale new projects that nobody who lives in these communities can afford.

They are aided in this harmful work by elected officials and civil servants operating under the shadow of a massive Federal racketeering investigation. Most of these property sales, land use hearings, evictions and demolitions happen quickly and are only observed by members of the “city family” and a small community of tenants’ rights advocates and historic preservationists.

But every once in a while, the forces of destruction target a Los Angeles landmark that’s so significant, the whole world takes notice.

Behold, the 87-year-old oak tree in the back yard of 1156 South Hobart, just north of Pico Boulevard. This tree was presented as a sapling to the son of the household, Cornelius Cooper “Corny” Johnson, on the occasion of his Gold Medal in the high jump competition at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. During the competition, Johnson was shunned by Adolph Hitler, who left the stadium rather than watch his winning jump and shake the hand of a black champion.

Medalists Tilly Fleischer and Sohn Kee-chung with their oaks.

Corny Johnson returned to his parents house and planted the sapling in the backyard, where it provided shade for his master plasterer father Shadrick and mother Pearl for many years.

But Corny wasn’t there to enjoy it. He joined the Marines and served in the Pacific, then stayed on as a merchant marine baker. In 1946 he was aboard the Grace Line ship S.S. Santa Cruz at dock in San Francisco when he suffered some kind of psychiatric emergency that was too much for his shipmates to manage.

The Pasadena Star-News reported, “The police said they found the athlete jumping around the deck in wild fashion and that they had trouble subduing him. Johnson was placed in an ambulance and pronounced dead on arrival at Harbor Emergency Hospital.” Despite exhaustive tests, no cause of death could be determined. He is buried in a family plot at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery, a mile from the family home.

Over the decades, many of the 129 Olympic Oaks given out during the Berlin games have died, or their locations been forgotten. USC had two, now one. But the tree on Hobart is not especially obscure. In 2007, Jerry Crowe wrote about Corny’s oak in the Los Angeles Times, describing an annual bus tour visit from a group hoping to get the tree declared a landmark. In 2005, New Zealand photographer Ann Shelton photographed it as part of a series on surviving Olympic Oaks.

And in 2017, the Vienna-based artist Christian Kosmas Mayer exhibited a multimedia installation, The Life Story of Cornelius Johnson’s Olympic Oak and Other Matters of Survival, organized around cloned oak seedlings smuggled back into Europe and featuring video of the immigrant family that lived in the Johnson home and cared for the oak. We don’t know if the family still lives on Hobart today, but can’t help but notice that the tree looks much less healthy than when Mayer’s film was made.

But none of this matters to development drunk Los Angeles City Hall, where everything old that can be torn down for profit can be. The 119-year-old house has been on and off the market as a development opportunity since 2018. It sold in 2019 for $927,000, and was re-listed for $1,490,000 in 2020 with plans for a 4-unit townhouse apartment flush to the property line. A sale is pending.

There’s no room in this rendering for Corny Johnson’s Olympic oak, nor for a little front yard with roses for the tenants and neighbors and birds and butterflies to enjoy. It’s a fortress for newcomers who drive in and drive out.

But the demolition permit has not yet been granted, and the parcel has not yet been rezoned. The preservation community has begun raising the alarm, and brought the threat to the attention of the Cultural Heritage Commission and Office of Historic Resources. Yesterday, March 14, 2022, Building and Safety marked the demolition permit as withdrawn, and hit the reset button on the process. It’s not too late to stop before a terrible mistake is made.

We need to save Cornelius Johnson’s Olympic Oak. We need to save the pretty, useful house beneath its branches. We need to save Los Angeles for Angelenos. We need to save the Eagle Tree, too. Will you join us?


Update May 5, 2022: An Historic-Cultural Monument application has been submitted for the demolition threatened Cornelius Johnson Residence and Olympic Oak. The first hearing will be June 2.