WITH SHANTY PADS SQUATTING ON MUD HILLS
Back in 2012 I had an opportunity to house-and-pet-sit for friends in El Sereno. Pulled along by the homeowners’ dog, Dooley, I explored much of that neighborhood – the easternmost in the city – on a series of long, daily strolls. In the fall of 2013 I returned once more to the Eastside and again we resumed our explorations, only this time we branched out, exploring the communities of Arroyo View Estates, East Los Angeles, City Terrace, Garvanza, Happy Valley, Highland Park, Hillside Village, Lincoln Heights, Monterey Hills, University Hills, and on one drizzly, late autumn morning, Rose Hill.
Rose Hill should not to be confused with Rose Hills – a small community in the Puente Hills north of Whittier (also known as North Whittier). Rose Hill (almost always singular although occasionally and confoundingly plural) is in Los Angeles‘s Eastside and is bordered by Lincoln Heights to the southwest, Happy Valley to the west, El Sereno to the east, and Montecito Heights and Monterey Hills to the north. An obscure neighborhood, Rose Hill is often lumped in with Montecito Heights, less often with El Sereno, and still-less-often with Lincoln Heights. It is occasionally (but absolutely incorrectly) referred to as being in East Los Angeles — an unincorporated area that is not synonymous with the Eastside (which refers to the Los Angeles neighborhoods east of the Los Angeles River).
Rose Hill is a mostly residential neighborhood with Hungtington Drive serving as its high street since its development as a streetcar suburb over 100 years ago. Rose Hill may surprise visitors unfamiliar with the city services-neglected Eastside with just how rural and undeveloped so much of it is. The often trash-strewn hillsides are traversed with crumbling or simply dirt (or mud after an overnight rain) roads and modest homes routinely guarded by insanely aggressive dogs. That being said, there are also attractive, well-kept homes, interesting buildings, friendly residents, murals, and thanks to a largely-ignored history, a sense that there’s much to discover throughout the community.
EARLY HISTORY OF THE AREA
The Rose Hill community is nestled in the low, rolling hills at the northwest end of the Repetto Hills, which stretch from the vicinity of the San Rafael Hills, Elysian Hills, and Arroyo Seco to the Whittier Narrows and San Gabriel River at the other end and in doing so delineate the San Gabriel Valley. The cluster of hills in Monterey Park on one end and the Monterey Hills neighborhood on the other. The earliest known human inhabitants of the area were likely the ancestors to today’s Chumash people. They lived in the area at least 13,000 years ago.
Some 10,000 years later, a Shoshonean language-speaking people arrived from the Sonoran Desert to the east and eventually became the Tongva nation. Near the present location of Rose Hill, the Tongva established the village of Otsungna, meaning “Place of roses.” In the other direction was the village of Yaangna, meaning “Place of poison oak.”
SPANISH & MEXICAN ERA
The Tongva reign ended shortly after Spaniard Gaspar de Portolà‘s overland expedition passed through the area in 1769, an event which set the stage for the Spanish Conquest and the subjugation of the Native American population. The conquerors first constructed their Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in 1771, in the Whittier Narrows region. To remove it from the threat of flooding, they relocate the mission to its present location in San Gabriel in 1776 – roughly nine kilometers east of what is now Rose Hill.
In 1781, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula was founded eight kilometers to the southwest of Rose Hill‘s location. The easternmost boundary of the pueblo’s historic holdings is formed by Boundary Avenue, which runs straight into Rose Hill Park. To the east were lands that after conquest became controlled by the Mission. Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821. The Spanish missions were secularized and the land containing modern day Rose Hill was granted to Juan Ballesteros in 1831. Ballesteros named his acquisition Rancho Rosa Castilla.
EARLY AMERICAN ERA
The United States conquered Alta California in 1848 but the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo required that preexisting land grants would be honored. In the case of Rosa Castilla, the grant was rejected and in 1852 the land thus became the property of Basque sheep herders Jean-Baptiste and Catalina Batz. In 1882, after both had died, the Batz’s holdings were divided among six of their children.
GETTING TO ROSE HILL
Although Los Angeles is often inaccurately characterized as having primarily developed around the automobile, it did in fact developed around the train. In 1901 Henry E. Huntington (nephew and heir to Southern Pacific Railroad founder Collis P. Huntington) launched the Pacific Electric Railway, which at its peak became the world’s largest network of electric interurban rail. Beginning in 1902, the red cars of its Monrovia-Glendora Line began traveling up Huntington Drive to Sierra Vista Junction, at the edge of what’s now El Sereno and Alhambra. The Rose Hill stop was located at the intersection of Huntington and Monterey Road where a local bus then departed north up that street.
THE ROSE HILL TRACT
The site of the Rose Hill Tract was chosen due to its accessibility to and by public transit. The primary developer responsible for it was Leroy M. Grider. In 1857, Grider had moved to Los Angeles with his family. He began his foray into real estate with the establishment of L. M. Grider & Co. in Downey in 1886. He changed partners and locations over the years, forming Grider & Hamilton in 1902. On 3 October 1904, Grider & Hamilton put up 132 lots of their streetcar suburb for sale, advertising it as being just twelve minutes to Downtown via Red Car. In Grider’s obituary he was described as being the first developer to sell neighborhoods via the “excursion method,” in which saw he transported potential homeowners via streetcar to then-new “toonervilles” where they would additionally plied with free BBQ. Grider also served on Los Angeles City Council and after retiring from both politics and real estate, opened a pet store called Birdland.
ROSE HILL SCHOOL – HUNTINGTON DRIVE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
Grider & Hamilton‘s lots sold quickly and the first community school, known as Rose Hill School, opened in 1909. In 1928, some years after Rose Hill was annexed by Los Angeles, it was renamed Huntington Drive School, and later, Huntington Drive Elementary School.
ANNEXATION OF ROSE HILL
That just-mentioned annexation of the then-young Rose Hill took place on 9 February 1912, when the Los Angeles expanded northeasterly with its Arroyo Seco Addition. That annexation moved the city’s easternmost edge to its present location. A few years later, in 1915, The Bairdstown Addition – which includes the bulk of modern day El Sereno – followed, and proved to be the city’s final eastern annexation.
OUR LADY OF GUADALUPE – ROSE HILL
The roots of Rose Hill‘s Our Lady of Guadalupe – Rose Hill church were in the Sacred Heart Parish, which was established in 1921. In 1924 that congregation changed its name to Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission. In 1957 a school, Our Lady of Guadalupe School – Rose Hill, was added to the church.
ROSE HILL PHARMACY
Rose Hill Pharmacy used to stand at 4543 Huntington Drive (at the intersection with Monterey Road — where a self-cleaning restroom labeled “Rose Hills/El Sereno” now stands). On Christmas Eve of 1926, William Edward Hickman and his accomplice Welby L. Hunt attempted a hold-up of the pharmacy that was interrupted by a cop walking in. A shoot-out ensued in which the store proprietor, 24-year-old Clarence Ivy Toms, was shot in the chest and killed. Hickman would go on to commit one of Los Angeles’s most well-known and heinous crimes, the kidnapping and murder of young Marion Parker. He was hanged in 1928. I’m not sure when the pharmacy was demolished.
MEXICAN AMERICANS IN ROSE HILL
The transformation of Sacred Heart Parish into Our Lady of Guadalupe just a few years later is probably a reflection of an early, significant demographic shift. Beginning in 1910, the Mexican Revolution provided ample reason for many Mexicans to immigrate to Los Angeles. Before Sonoratown transformed into Little Italy, many of Los Angeles’s Mexican Americans lived around Downtown and Boyle Heights. After the advent of the revolution, new barrios were established in places like Belvedere and later other pockets of the Eastside beyond Boyle Heights.
In 1928, the Pacific Electric Railway chose Rose Hill Park as the site of the annual work party for its Mexican American employees (Anglo workers’ party was thrown in Redondo Beach). It’s no coincidence that the dates of the Mexican Repatriation correspond almost exactly to those of the Great Depression, which both increased Mexicans‘ impetus for leaving Mexico and for American hostility towards immigrants and native Mexican Angelenos. From 1929 until 1939 (not coincidentally when the US entered World War II), around 2 million Mexican Americans (in many cases US citizens) were forcibly deported to Mexico. Photos of Rose Hill in the 1940s and ’50s suggest that the population was then home to both large percentages of Anglos and Latinos.
ROSE HILL COURTS
The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) formed in 1938 seemingly with the admirable goal of providing safe, affordable housing to Los Angeles‘s poorest inhabitants. Soon after, in the name of “slum clearance,” several (invariably minority) communities were leveled and replaced with new housing projects. The first such housing project was Ramona Gardens in Boyle Heights. During World War II, more project construction continued with Aliso Village, Estrada Courts, and Pico Gardens (all in Boyle Heights), Avalon Gardens (in Green Meadows), Hacienda Village (in Watts), Pueblo del Rio (in Central-Alameda), Rancho San Pedro (in San Pedro), and Rose Hill Courts, built in Rose Hill in 1942.
Rose Hill Courts were designed by architects W.F. Ruck and Claud Beelman. The design of the garden apartments also involved the input of landscape architects, in Rose Hill‘s case, London-born Hammond Sadler. After starting with the Olmsted Brothers, Hammond went on to establish his own firm and in addition to designing the grounds at Rose Hill was responsible for those at Estrada Courts and Wyvernwood in Boyle Heights, and the Jordan Downs renovation in Watts.
After the passage of the 1949 Federal Housing Act, there was a second wave of public housing construction which saw the opening of Mar Vista Gardens in Culver City, Nickerson Gardens in Watts, and San Fernando Gardens in Pacoima. Tiny Rose Hill Courts, built with just 100 units, were planned to be part of a massive expansion into the mostly uninhabited area to the north then known as Monterey Woods, creating 2,100 additional units of affordable housing. The Rose Hill Courts expansion was scuppered (along with the better-known Elysian Park Heights in Chavez Ravine) when right wing forces successfully convinced those in power that affordable housing (often for war vets) was a “socialistic” attack on the American Way.
ROSE HILL GANG
After World War II, most of the non-Latino residents of the Eastside began to move elsewhere. Most Jews moved west, most Italians moved east, and most blacks moved south. As with Happy Valley, Rose Hill had acquired a reputation as a Mexican American barrio.
As early as 1939 there was already a record of a Happy Valley-Rose Hill pachuco gang. A 1941 picture of the so-called slum on Rose Hill’s Victorine Street (taken to lend support for slum clearance and the construction of the projects) depicts a well-dressed, smiling, young Latino cradling a child in his arms and bears the caption, “gang leader.”
According to one source, the Rose Hill Boys split into their own club over a high school football rivalry with kids involved in Lincoln Heights‘ Eastlake Locos. As they battled Anglo servicemen and gangs from El Sereno they evolved into a street gang.
In 1946, the most famous resident of Rose Hill moved to the neighborhood with his family – future author and Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. Among other subjects, Cleaver often documented his childhood in Rose Hill, which he described in 1978’s Soul on Fire as “one of these old, proud Chicano communities, like Mara, Happy Valley, Alpine, and so on” that “boasted one of the fiercest gangs in Los Angeles.” In Target Zero: A Life in Writing, however, Cleaver painted a gentler image of the neighborhood with an untitled poem that includes the lines, “No smog in Rose Hill/ Far from the industrial heart of Los Angeles/ A forgotten hamlet/ A peaceful spot/ site of home.” For those playing at home, the title of this blog entry is taken from that same poem.
ROSE HILL TODAY
Although Eldridge Cleaver wrote of Rose Hill’s then-growing black population and their efforts to establish a local church, today black Angelenos make up only about 3% of Rose Hill’s neighborhood population. The white Anglo population is only about 8%, the Asian population is roughly 12%, and the Latino population about 77%. Although almost entirely residential although there are a few businesses situated mostly along Huntington Drive.
ROSE HILL EATS
As far as I know there is currently only one restaurant in Rose Hill, El Palenque. Judging by the décor and reviews, it serves Northern Mexican food. If Yelp reviews are anything to go by (and they’re usually but not always not), it’s pretty decent food at that. A mural on one of its walls depicts the dated-but-still-popular image of a Mexican peasant improbably enjoying siesta against a saguaro.
The mural on the back of the restaurant is far more unique. Attributed to “Los Diego’s,” La Milpa is a cosmic Mesoamerican educational mural that covers the entire wall.
In addition to El Palenque, there’s also a market called Fresco Foods Super Mercado that seems to be unrelated to the newer, Fresco Community Market that opened up the street and over the hill in nearby Hermon.
GETTING THERE AND GETTING AROUND
Pacific Electric train service to Rose Hill ended in 1951 but the Metro 78/79/378 lines serve pretty much the same route. Rose Hill is also served by Metro lines 252 and 256.
Rose Hill proved to be one of the least-easily-walked neighborhoods that I’ve yet explored – made more difficult by rain that had fallen the night before. Firstly, there are numerous “paper streets” – streets that exist only on maps (both paper and online). Secondly, existing streets are often in extremely poor condition — in many cases nothing more than dirt roads. Parts of Rose Hill Drive make Bolivia‘s Camino de las Yungas look positively well-maintained.
There are several public staircases which, since the publication of Charles Flemming‘s book Secret Stairs, have seemingly catalyzed a real revival in their usage. His book includes a walk, Walk #10, titled “Happy Valley and Montecito Heights” that includes stairs in Rose Hill (and is rated 5 out of 5 in difficulty). The most impressive stairway in Rose Hill is the 223-stair Tourmaline Stairway, which connects Tourmaline Street below to Rose Hill Drive above.
Other stairs are not so great. Dooley and I trudged up a rain-and-mud slickened stairwell that Google Maps showed connecting to a street, but which in fact dead ended behind someone’s back yard. Facing no alternative but to return down the slippery steps, I did so as Dooley eagerly pulled downward. After losing my footing I might very well have added my own spilled brains to the garbage-covered hillside were it not for my anorak’s hood getting caught on a rusty stair rail.
ROSE HILL PARKS
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to determine exactly when Rose Hill Park opened although train maps from the 1930s include it. Around the time that the expansion of Rose Hill Courts was shot down, the former Monterey Woods area broke ground as Rose Hill Regional Park. Rose Hill Regional Park was renamed Ernest E. Debs Regional Park. Although described by the LA Weekly as Los Angeles’s third largest park and by KCET as Los Angeles‘s fourth largest, the Debs Park, although large, is smaller than the city’s Topanga Park, Griffith Park, Sepulveda Basin Recreation Area, Hansen Dam Recreation Area, O’Melveny Park, and Elysian Park. Today it seems to be more often associated with Montecito Heights than Rose Hill. Nonetheless it blends almost seamlessly into Rose Hill Park and is easily accessed from the neighborhood.
The Native American Terraced Garden, in fact, is more easily accessed from Rose Hill than any other neighborhood. It’s located just east of Rose Hill Court.
Rose Hill is also home to Rose Hill Recreation Center. I’m not sure when it was constructed or the park on which its built opened. Anyone?
FILM & MUSIC OF ROSE HILL
My research was unable to locate any filmmakers or actors from Rose Hill. I was, however, able to find one filming location at the neighborhood’s edge. Soto Street Bridge, constructed for the old rails that formerly traveled up Huntington Drive, is where the 1958 Plymouth Fury known as “Christine” hung out before killing Moochie in the John Carpenter film, Christine (1983).
I also wasn’t able to find any musicians from the neighborhood, although someone on Street Gangs mentioned a local rapper known as 2 Real who apparently has a song “The Outta Towners.” Even though in a square of the sidewalk in front of Rose Hill Recreation Center someone wrote “Rock N Roll” and crossed it out – or had it crossed out – there are undoubtedly some rockers in the neighborhood too so please let me know of them in the comment section.
MORE ROSE HILL
I wasn’t able to find any great histories of just Rose Hill. The Los Angeles Public Library has a pretty great collection of historical photos from Rose Hill. To see them, click here. If you know of any other sources, please share them in the comment section.