Los Angeles is a nexus of diverse industries. Hollywood celebrities mingle with sports stars and cultural luminaries, amidst the urban sprawl and vast networks of freight, rail, and automobile traffic. To most, the interplay of these dynamic sectors is the foundation and lifeblood of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
A closer look at its hills and residential neighborhoods reveals a different truth, however. Los Angeles is home to the largest urban oil field in the United States. Many of the region’s most notable fortunes and cultural landmarks are legacies of this resource. And now, with the advent of new extraction methods, urban drilling has resumed in many neighborhoods.
In the short documentary Behind These Walls, Lillian Marenco and the residents of the Jefferson neighborhood of South-Central Los Angeles confront this truth. Born in El Salvador, Marenco came to Los Angeles to escape the violent, terrifying civil war that raged in her home country. After struggling to find affordable housing in Los Angeles, she at last settled in South Central, where she felt she could finally breathe freely. Despite its less-than peaceful reputation, South Central gave her stability and community. It was a place to raise her children, and it gave her a space in which to cultivate a garden filled with plants native to her home country.
But a shadow came over Lillian’s sanctuary. Her son developed chronic nosebleeds, her trees began to die, and her husband was stricken with cancer. Unbeknownst to her, a property in her neighborhood that appeared to be a large, walled estate, was, in fact, an oil drilling site, home to over thirty wells. In 2015, Marenco joined community organizer and fellow resident Niki Wong in a neighborhood campaign to shut down the drill site, and to enforce stricter regulations at numerous urban oil sites across Los Angeles.
For five years, director Caitlyn Hynes has followed Lillian Marenco and Niki Wong in their battle to take back their neighborhood from the interests of the oil industry. Behind These Walls is the story of Marenco, Wong, and the Jefferson neighborhood’s crusade against inadequate Los Angeles regulations and the oil lobby. This short documentary situates the Jefferson Drill Site as a focal point in the larger context of Los Angeles as a city built on oil, and in California, the fourth-largest oil producing state in the country.
The story of this marginalized and disregarded neighborhood, and its mobilization against both the powerful interests of big business and a complacent local government, illuminates both the human cost of urban oil drilling, and the strength that a small community can wield through a unified, committed effort.