Pendersleigh & Sons‘ Official Map of Southeast Los Angeles County
One of my favorite aspects of the Southland is that there is no single, dominant center. Whereas many bemoan the region’s sprawl, I prefer to think of it as a vast, occasionally smoggy theme park, with scattered neighborhoods and cities all exhibiting their own charms just like the rides at “the happiest place on Earth.” But instead of Critter Country, Mickey’s Toontown or Tomorrowland, we have the IE (Inland Empire), the Valley (the San Fernando Valley), the Eastside, the Westside, South LA, the Pomona Valley, The Harbor, the San Gabriel Valley, the South Bay, the Santa Monica Mountains, Angeles Forest, the Channel Islands, Northeast LA (NELA), the Antelope Valley, Northwest County, the Verdugos, Downtown, Midtown, the Mideast Side, &c.Outside of Los Angeles County there’s the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario Metropolitan Area, the Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura Metro Area, more Channel Islands, and Orange County, each with their own regions. But there is one scarcely-discussed region of Los Angeles County that, as far as I know, lacks a name despite its unique character, like that part of Fantasyland around Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. I speak of the communities of southeast Los Angeles County. OK, whilst hardly the epicenter of, well, much of note in the Southland, it’s in no way the complete, cultural no man’s land that its near absolute lack of exposure or press suggests and I hope to suggest that there are actual points of interest or at least note in the area.
The character of Southeast Los Angeles
The area that makes up Southeast Los Angeles, like almost all of the Southland, passed from the hands of the Tongva, to the Spanish, then the Mexicans, and finally the US. Once part of the US, the area was largely inundated with Dutch and Portuguese dairy farmers. With the expansion of trains and the discovery of oil, many more people moved to the area. During World War II, much of the area became the site of heavy industry and Southeast Los Angeles, along with South Los Angeles, made up the industrial core of the Southland. During and following World War II, areas of Southeast Los Angeles also became heavily suburban and populated by returning GIs and their families. When industry began to relocate, jobs began to disappear and crime rose. In the face of vacating industry and suburban decay, many of the mainly middle class black and white residents moved away to newer suburbs in other parts of the county. A large majority of the new inhabitants were recent immigrants from Mexico. In spite of any apparent heterogeneity, Southeast Los Angeles is in fact fairly diverse. In fact, the so-called ABC region (Artesia-Bellflower-Cerritos) is ethnically and linguistically among the most diverse regions in the country. Being a vast flood plain, it tends to be quite flat geologically, but also architecturally. There are a few taller structures however, probably the tallest being the 10-story Bank of the West in Commerce.
Artesia is named after the area’s many artesian wells, which I vaguely remember learning about in my Rocks for Jocks (Geology 101) class. As it suburbanized, most of the dairy farmers moved to Chino or the Central Valley. The stretch of Pioneer Blvd between 183rd and South is known to most people as Little India. There is a huge number of clothing stores, various varieties of Indian restaurants and lots of beauty salons. Pretty much any night (besides Mondays) the sidewalks are bustling with a mostly south Asian crowd. However, Indians only make up a small percentage of greater Artesia and around Little India there are a large number of Korean-owned businesses. Because there are also large numbers of Azoreans, Chinese, Filipinos and Mexicans, the city compromised and the official name of the area is the unfortunately faceless but thankfully rarely-used “International and Cultural Shopping District.”
Pioneer James George Bell moved from Missouri to the area, which he subsequently farmed, presided over as the first postmaster, and established himself as a noted Freemason, living in the Victorian, eponymous Bell House. In 1896, he graciously leant his name to the town he lived in. Bell (the town, not the man) didn’t see significant growth until the 1920s. In 1925, the Alcazar Theater opened. Not surprisingly, it later became known as the Bell Theater and subsequently, when James was safely gone, the Liberty Theater before it was demolished in the late 1980s. In the 1960s, 15-year-old George Escobedo of Huntington Park stabbed to death two 17-year-olds in the theater’s restroom, Robert Haney of Cudahy and Billie Bogard of Bell Gardens. According to Escobedo, they and two other cornered him and his friend, telling them, “We don’t like surfers round here,” at which point Escobedo jabbed them.
In other film-related news, AMPAS Executive Director Bruce Davis described Bell as a “Bermuda Triangle for Oscar things” after, in 2000, 55 Oscars were stolen from a City of Bell loading dock… following 4,000 Oscar ballots being misrouted and showing up at Post Office processing center in Bell.
1989’s Intruder and the 2008 short Cure were filmed in Bell.
Unlike other Southeast Los Angeles towns with “bell” in the name, Bellflower most likely derives its name from a mispronunciation of Belle Fleur, a type of apple grown by local pioneer William Gregory. How it became the name of the town is something of a mystery, although it was reportedly foisted upon the unknowing townsfolk by a group of so-called “leading citizens.” It originally experienced a jolt of growth when the famed Red Cars made a stop there and the population grew from about 100 to 1200 in just a few years, with Somerset Avenue becoming the center of excitement in town. Before that, its citizens took joy in being “The home of 200,000 laying hens.” By the 1950s and ‘60s, Bellflower Boulevard was a happening thoroughfare popular with those wanting to cruise and Clark Street was known for its shopping. In large part rejecting malls and chains, Bellflower chose to promote mom-and-pop stores and its small-town vibe. Nicknaming itself “The Friendly City,” many of the residents nonetheless moved away to the more modern suburbs of the SFV, SGV and OC. By the ‘90s, Bellflower was nearly bankrupt. Most recently, the media has returned to “The Friendly City” to follow the adventures of Octomom.
The school scenes of The Invisible Kid, and the short films Picket Guy and Until Next Time were filmed in Bellflower.
With its connotations of polluted air, deafening noise, gridlock and road rage, it’s hard to imagine a city crowing over its bounty of interstates and congested roadways. Cerritos (aka “The Freeway City”) presumably chose that appellation back when people thought that cigarettes were good for one’s T-zone or that carpets were a good idea. Cerritos, formerly Dairy Valley, became Cerritos in 1967. For the first two years of the ‘70s, it held the distinction of being the fastest growing city in the state. In keeping with the town’s tradition of curious priorities, today citizens of Cerritos boast the New Orleans-style architecture of the Cerritos Auto Square (the world’s largest auto mall), the antiquatedly-spelled “Ceritos Towne Center” (built in ’94) and a big mall built in 1971, Los Cerritos Center. In the 1980s, Cerritos became a favored destination for Filipino immigrants, as well as many Chinese and Koreans. In 1986, an air collision above the city killed 82 and the Cerritos Sculpture Garden was created to commemorate the disaster. Public transportation in the city is courtesy of the propane-fuelled Cerritos On Wheels (COW). The four-acre Pat Nixon Park occupies the site of the former First Lady’s childhood home and truck farm, where she lived from 1914 until 1931.
The city has many ties to the entertainment industry. The Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1993 with “Old Blue Eyes” singing four consecutive dates. Cerritos is also the birthplace of Morris Chesnut and the hometown of Roger Lodge. Until Tomorrow Comes, Coneheads, She’s All That and Eli’s Liquor Store were all mostly or entirely filmed there, as was Thunder’s “Boys Like Girls” music video and the short film The First Time.
Straight out of Commerce. In the northwest corner of Southeast Los Angeles, with the Eastside to the north and South Central to the west, the city of Commerce is often called “City of Commerce” and it is indeed where it takes place, if the “it” in question is… commerce. In 1887, when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway built its main line through the area, the area quickly became industrialized. In the late 1940s, industrial figures, along with residents of Bandini, Rosewood and Bell Gardens, gave the city its name to encourage commerce. It became a city in 1960 to avoid annexation by Los Angeles or Vernon. Whereas many of the Gateway Cities suffered heavily during the deindustrialization of the next two decades, Commerce remains oriented around manufacture and retail.
The aforementioned outlet mall is the city’s recognizable feature. It was built in 1929 to resemble the palace of Assyrian ruler Šarru-kên II (Sargon II) as the new home for Adolph Schleicher‘s Samson Tire & Rubber Company. Given Hollywood’s vague notions about accuracy, it was featured in Ben-Hur.
To the south is the rather less impressive, castle-like Shoe City. The various duchies of Commerce are currently ruled by the court of current Miss Commerce, Leilani Davis. 1975’s made-for-TV youth/crime Susan Dey vehicle Cage Without a Key was also filmed there.
Cudahy holds the distinction of being the second smallest city in Los Angeles County. Its name is taken from meat baron Michael Cudahy, who also lent his name to a suburb of Milwaukee. Cudahy sold railroad lots along the LA River to mostly Midwestern and Southern immigrants who moved to the town in substantial numbers beginning in the 1910s. In the 1920s, the library was still operated out of a private home and records show that the most popular subjects involved gardening and poultry. In fact, the city retained a very rural character into the 1950s when people still rode around town on horseback. It was in 1960, when it was incorporated, that it began to rapidly develop. As small as it is, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that not much happens there and the entertainment industry is no exception.
Downey (aka D-Town) was founded by and named after California’s first foreign-born governor, an Irishman, John Gately Downey. Following the establishment of a train stop in 1873, farmers dominated the area growing fruit, grains and castor beans until the 1940s, when it became a suburb organized around Lakewood and Firestone.
Now, in keeping with its roots in the food industry, Downey holds several lofty distinctions in the storied history of fast food. The McDonalds at Lakewood and Florence opened in 1953 and is the oldest operating example of the chain currently operating. The first Taco Bell opened in Downey in 1962 (at 7112 Firestone Boulevard — it’s now Sea Food & Tacos Raul). In 1958, Harvey’s Broiler (later Johnie’s) was built in the googie/populuxe style. When the owners began illegally demolishing the historical property, citizens intervened and the remaining parts of the structure were incorporated into a Bob’s Big Boy. In addition to its many chain restaurants and donut shops, Downey also is home to the Civic Light Opera, Downey Theater, Downey History Center, Downey Museum of Art and the Rives Mansion.
Part of LA County’s old Dairyland, Hawaiian Gardens (inevitably nicknamed “Hawaiian Garbage”) derives its improbable name from a prohibition-defying “refreshment stand” decorated with in tropical style near Carson and Norwalk. Located in an area known as “the Delta,” with the end of prohibition, the area didn’t have much draw and is now the county’s smallest city. Even today, Hawaiian Gardens prides itself on its tightknit vibe and is famous for having the highest rate of gang associates and injunctees in the county.
La Habra Heights
Located at the eastern edge of Southeast Los Angeles, the population of tiny, posh La Habra Heights looks more like surrounding Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley than most of the region, being mostly Asian (mostly Chinese, Korean and Indian) and white (mostly Armenian, English, German, Irish and Italian), with a relatively small Latino population. Several mansions were built in the ‘20s and ‘30s for some of the county’s richest citizens of the day, including the Potato Chip Queen, Laura Scudder and Jack Halt, the star of many western films. With avocado-covered hills and filthy rich inhabitants, real estate people often referred to it (and, it should be noted, several other cities) as “the Second Beverly Hills.”
Despite being home to the pirate-themed and exclamatorily-named water park, Splash!, La Mirada is famously low key and was recently and appropriately named one of the “Best Places to Live” by the no doubt boring CNN Money Magazine. In keeping with the low excitement level, the town was founded by famous map-publisher Andrew McNally (of Rand, McNally & Co.) and his son-in-law. The two published a booklet titled “The Country Gentleman in California” advertising land covered with citrus and olive groves hoping to attract potential homebuyers to their sleepy town. McNally turned over his home, the flamboyantly-named Windermere Ranch to his daughter’s family in 1896. By the 1940s, the population still numbered just over 200. In 1953, confirming its reputation for orderliness, the town of by then over 8,000 homes prided itself on being “the Nation’s completely planned city.”
Lakewood, inevitably nicknamed with disappointing lack of creativity, “L-Wood,” is distinct for just how stereotypically suburban it is. After mainly being used to grow lima beans, the next distasteful crop came when loads of small, mass-produced, identical homes were constructed for returning vets and workers at aerospace factories over in Long Beach and the South Bay. The city is laid out with truly maddening uniformity, with boulevards running adjacent to tree-lined frontage roads on block after block. And it’s all oriented around a shopping center in the middle of town. Lakewood’s hopelessly corny slogan, “Tomorrow’s City Today,” is appropriate for such a retro town founded on a quaint, anachronistic, Wonder Years-type vision of the good life. In a note of trivia that only serves to confirm Lakewood’s status as the most suburban of suburbs, in 1953 Harold Butler founded Danny’s Donuts there, which later became Denny’s. In 1993, Lakewood’s wholesome image was challenged by the media scandal surrounding the Spur Posse, a group of high school chooches who gained notoriety as part of the early ‘90s teen sex moral panic when their not especially interesting sexual practices managed to be the subject of national news coverage.
Due, no doubt, to its über-subürban character, the Leave it to Beaver remake, Mystery Men and the California portions of Nurse Betty were filmed there.
Maywood is a city of small charms that was incorporated in 1912 but only named Maywood in 1919. Before that, it was owned by the Laguna Land & Water Company. In 1971, Tapatío hot sauce was invented there. In 2006, it became the sight of heated confrontation between locals and the white supremacist organization the Minutemen when the city announced that it wouldn’t persecute so-called “illegal immigrants” (aka the “undocumented indigenous”). With a large undocumented population, citizens have proven less likely to file formal complaints against the notorious police department. However, a fifteen month investigation by the Attorney General found the police department guilty of “gross misconduct and widespread abuse including unlawful use of force against civilians.” On a more peaceful front, it’s the only city in Southeast Los Angeles to provide free WiFi along several commercial corridors, making it ideal for wardrivers.
Montebello is partially located in the southwestern corner of the San Gabriel Valley and partially in Southeast Los Angeles, just to the east of the Eastside. It was formerly known as Newmark, named after a prominent grocer/historian, Harris Newmark. When oil was discovered in 1917, it quickly changed from an agricultural area to a more developed one. Its name was changed to Montebello at the suggestion of William Mulholland when it was incorporated in 1920. After World War II, a significant number of Japanese Hawaiians and Peruvians moved to the area, although it is mainly Mexican-American with a large Armenian population as well.
Montebello is the birthplace of Jack Russell, lead singer of Great White as well as actor Jay Hernandez. Cry ‘Havoc’;Joe Smith, American and the shorts Crossing Frontiers and Perfect Beat were all filmed there. To read more about Montebello, click here.
Three days after the Anaheim Branch Railroad crossed the “North-walk” for the first time, Gilbert Sproul surveyed the town site that would in 1874 become known as Norwalk. Despite the presence of passenger stop, the area remained lightly populated till the 1940s mostly by Dutch dairy farmers and Tom Lumbard’s cheese factory. In 1957, Norwalk was incorporated as a city. The following year, two planes collided above the city, killing 48 people and a plaque now stands in front of the minimall at Firestone and Pioneer commemorating the disaster. In keeping with its origins as a glorified train stop, Norwalk is now accessible to many additional transportation lines, including the green line, metrolink, 105, 605, 5 and 91 freeways (take that Cerritos!). The population grew heavily in the 1990s, when many Asian and Mexican immigrants relocated to Norwalk after being priced out of Cerritos and Orange County. Norwalk was in the news a few years ago when one of its citizens, Cindy Sheehan, became famous for protesting the Occupation of Iraq, making a second home, of sorts, in front of George W. Bush’s Texas ranch.
In addition to its primary claim to fame revolving around cheese, highways and an air disaster, Norwalk also has a noteworthy musical history– it is the birthplace of Tiffany, Gene Taylor and Delinquent Habits as well as the hometown of Poncho Sanchez.
In film history, it was the home of the incomparable William Conrad and several films have featured Excelsior High School, Norwalk Greyhound Station and other Norwalk locations, including 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Grease 2, High School USA, The Karate Kid, Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead, Best Men, Another Day in Paradise, Life, Corvette Summer, the TV series Heroes,Cutting Class, Speed and Frailty.
Paramount, aka (you guessed it) “P-Mount” was created in 1948 when the US Postmaster General ushered the decree that the post offices of Hynes and Clearwater merge together to form one mighty post office on the pre-existing Paramount Boulevard. Before that, the area’s claim to fame was boasting 25,000 cows and Hynes having the second largest hay market in the world, second only to the one in Kansas City, Missouri. The camphor tree at Paramount and Harrison was where the price of hay was set daily for the global hay market and the so-called Paramount Hay Tree is an historical landmark. It was incorporated as a city in ’57 after successfully avoiding annexation by imperialistic Long Beach. Paramount was named an “All-American City” by the National Civic League in 1988.
If hay is for horses, ice is for skaters and Paramount is important in ice-related sports. Frank Joseph Zamboni Jr, a Paramount native, founded Zamboni & Co. which is still headquartered in Paramount. In 1939, the Zamboni family opened Iceland, an ice skating rink where Sonie Henie and Dorothy Hamill have trained.
Pico Rivera was created when two communities, Pico and Rivera, united. Located between the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel river, the lush, alluvial plain was used to cultivate avocados, citrus and walnuts. In 1958, “Pico Rivera” was settled upon as a name and today the city boasts a Del Taco, a Starbucks and a Wal-mart and is conveniently located south of Whittier Narrows, adjacent to Montebello and Whittier. At my first job in LA, my co-worker lived in Pico Rivera.
Rose Hills is a CDP with a population of 2,803 people (according the the 2010 Census). Most of the community live on Spy Glass Hill within an unincorporated area mostly surrounded by Rose Hills Memorial Park. The population is roughly 59% Latino of any race, 16% Asian, and 2% black. It’s also sometimes referred to as “North Whittier.”
Santa Fe Springs
Santa Fe Springs is home to several historically-oriented structures, including the Irving Gill-designed Clarke Estate (which I have hazy, drunken memories of), The Hathaway Ranch and the Historical Railroad Exhibit in Heritage Park. The name of the city comes from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe. [ed. Railway, not the song from the Harvey Girls.]
The go-kart scene of Guess Who and the short Reduced to Dust were filmed in the city.
After the Mexican-American War, German Jacob F. Gerkens bought a portion of the newly-acquired American land, lived in what’s now known as the Jacob Bailey house and became LA’s first Chief of Police. Casa de Governor Pío Pico, the home of the last governor of Mexican California, still stands. A substantial number of Quakers moved to the area and grew citrus and walnuts, making Whittier the biggest producer of the nuts in the state [insert joke about “Hollyweird” here]. Whittier became a city in 1898 and took its name from the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who was not among the Quakers who lived there and, with Quaker-like humility, never visited the city that bears his name.
Many films are shot either entirely or partially in Whittier, probably due to its varied scenic nature that allows for it to convincingly pass for a variety of locales, as evinced by Blow, Masters of the Universe, The Oh in Ohio, Back to the Future, Back to the Future Part II, Hocus Pocus, Father of the Bride Part II, the final episode of The Wonder Years, Ali, Big Fat Liar, and Disturbia.
Whittier is also the birthplace of many in the entertainment industry, including Brendon Baerg from Yes, Dear, Caprice Bourret, Adrienne Janic, Martika, Lorna Patterson, Chuck Prophet, Ron Shelton, Eric Stoltz and Tina Yothers. Many ginger and many celebrities (including Carrot Top, Rick Astley and Kathy Griffin) who display ginger tendencies have joined Stoltz and Yothers and turned Whittier into a bit of a ginger preserve.
So there you have it, Selaco! Ask for it by name!
Eric Brightwell is a writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities; however, job offers must pay more than slave wages and involve neither listicles nor television personalities. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, theArchitecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, and 1650 Gallery. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. Brightwell has been featured as subject in theLos Angeles Times, Huffington Post, and Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker onKCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
21 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold – a Southeast Los Angeles primer”
The first time I took Maya to Pico Rivera she called it a cross between South Central and West Covina … lol
LikeLiked by 1 person
Kind of! Geographically and psychologically 🙂