Normally when I write an account of one of my explorations, it’s after I’ve concluded it. Sometimes I work on them for months and when I can’t stand thinking about it anymore, I just publish it and figure I’ll correct the typos later. However, I began exploring and writing about Valley Boulevard more than a year ago and finally it dawned on me that — through the magic of the internet — I could just publish what I’ve got and update it as I continue exploring. It’s not a book, after all… so what you’re reading (should you continue past this introduction) is a work in progress… unless I’ve made it all the way to Pomona. As of December 2017, I’m less than halfway there, walking it with a walk-loving dog named Dooley when I find myself charged with her care.
Map of Valley Boulevard — in progress
Although it extends beyond it, Valley Boulevard is the main thoroughfare of the San Gabriel Valley. Its name is interesting to me because, although Los Angeles County includes within it many valleys, in colloquial use, “Valley,” when otherwise unqualified, in nearly every case to refer to the San Fernando Valley. Although “the Valley,” is much more interesting than most give it credit for, the San Gabriel Valley is even more so.
Valley Boulevard runs about 45 kilometers from its western terminus in Lincoln Heights to its eastern one in Pomona, where it turns into Holt Boulevard. Over in Fontana, it once again becomes Valley Boulevard and remains so until Colton, where it ends at Sperry Drive. Colton is located in the San Bernardino Valley, not the San Gabriel, and for all intents and purposes, it’s a different Valley Boulevard. I’m sure, for that matter, that there are many Valley Boulevards in the English-speaking world, and if I ever do explore that one or any other, it will be for a separate entry.
In the latter half of the 2000s, I was in a relationship with a Valley Girl, albeit a San Gabriel Valley Girl. She initially lived at her family’s home in Avocado Heights. I lived in Silver Lake, some 32 kilometers to the west. When I’d bicycle over to her neighborhood — just her neck of the woods — Valley was my preferred route. Other routes were shorter, but involved riding up and down hills.
My relationship with the San Gabriel Valley Girl ended but, having fallen in love with the San Gabriel Valley when I first visited Los Angeles in 1998, I still find myself traveling up and down Valley Boulevard semi-regularly. As much as I like it, though, there are things about it which I find rather aggravating. Unlike most great streets, for example, Valley Boulevard does not especially lend itself, flatness aside, to walking. Nor is it as well served by mass transit as a vibrant street in the world’s richest nation might be expected to be.
Although wide enough to accommodate them for its entire length, not one block has a bike lane, nor is there even a single sharrow. There are sections where pretty trees grow from the median, but the sidewalks are almost completely unprotected from the sun by shade provided either by trees or tall buildings. Unsurprisingly, few pedestrians walk along Valley and those that do often wear visors and/or carry parasols. The acreage devoted to vast parking lots is staggering and mixed-use buildings are only just beginning to rise up.
There’s a strong likelihood that Valley’s route was walked first by animals, later by humans, and eventually, cars but in the 21st century, Valley Boulevard, like the San Gabriel Valley itself, still feels like a relic of the car-dependent mid-20th century. Although wide enough to accommodate light rail or at least a street car, as far as I know, none has ever traveled any part of it. Today the western half is served by Metro‘s 76 Lineand sections of the route east of El Monte are served by various lines ofFoothill Transit.
For all of its underdevelopment, though, Valley Boulevard is still fascinating to travel, cutting as it slices through several layers of Los Angeles and in doing so, revealing much of what makes this diverse metropolis so interesting.
Valley Boulevard begins in the Eastside neighborhood of Lincoln Heights. It is not that neighborhood’s main street — nor, for that matter, is Main Street — which terminates at an intersection with Valley. Lincoln Heights’ main street is Broadway, another great street which begins there and ends nearly 30 kilometers south in theHarbor District city of Carson.
Today the population of Lincoln Heights, like all of the Eastside, is predominantly Mexican-American with a sizable Chinese-American majority, most of whom are Hoa from Vietnam and their descendants. Historically, however, Lincoln Heights was home to a sizable population of German-Americans and later (and more famously) Italian-Americans. As the San Gabriel Valley to the east suburbanized, many of the Italians, by then largely assimilated, moved into it. Mrs. Cubbison’s Bakery & Breadis perhaps the only obvious reminder of the Germans’ presence, many of whom were bakers. There are few more reminders that there was once a Little Italy, though, including Lanza Brothers Market, the San Antonio Winery, and the Italian Renaissance-style Federal Bank Building which has since 1993 been the incongruously fancy-looking home of an El Pollo Loco.
Lincoln Park was created in 1881, as East Los Angeles Park. Lincoln Heights was known as East Los Angeles until 1917. In 1901, East Los Angeles Park was renamed Eastlake Park, highlighting its relationship to the neighborhood of Westlake‘s titular Westlake Park — renamed MacArthur Park in 1942. Next to, but separate from Lincoln Park, is El Parque de Mexico. The small park is home to many sculptures commemorating Mexican historical figures but is unfortunately somewhat isolated by busy streets — although that could easily be solved if the last block of Main were closed to cars and some bollards or planters installed.
For a short stretch, Valley Boulevard forms the northern border of the Boyle Heights neighborhood. As with Lincoln Heights, however, Valley is not one of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares. 1st Avenue, on the other side of the 10 Freeway, is the neighborhood’s high street. This northernmost section of the neighborhood is dominated by the ever-expanding campus of theLAC+USC Medical Center and a pocket of aging industrial buildings adjacent a freight train line.
Boyle Heights was, thanks to housing discrimination, historically home to a diverse population of non-Protestant Croats, Japanese, Jews, Mexicans, Russians, Serbs, and others. As with their Italian neighbors to the north, many spread into the western end of the San Gabriel Valley as it developed. As of 2010, the population of Boyle Heights was 94% Mexican, making it the least ethnically diverse neighborhood in the entire city. Because of gentrification, that seems to be changing — although the diversity now is more a result of colonization from wealthy non-Latinos rather than housing discrimination.
Although the railroad adjacent warehouses have a certain aesthetic appeal, they’re set back from the boulevard, on the other side of the tracks. Within five years, all of those aging buildings will probably be turned intofood halls, but for now, it’s a pretty desolate stretch of Valley with no sidewalk along the south side of the boulevard, nor much of anything but litter and detritus. It’s definitely my least favorite stretch to ride a bicycle, as it’s needlessly wide and cars thus tend to drive at unsafe speeds. As I walked along I noticed a broken wall which a car appeared to have crashed into, and a memorial, where someone else seemed to have collided with a pole.
Heading east one passes along the southern edge of Hillside Village, a small neighborhood located on the former site of the New Ascot Speedway. From 1924-1936, roughly 24 race car drivers perished on the course. In 1936, two more died in what had by then been renamed the Ascot Motor Speedway and it closed. Eight months later the grandstands of the abandoned raceway burned to the ground and a few years later, Hillside Village sprang up.
Hillside Village is mostly residential, comprised of small homes and lawn ornaments dating from the 1940s. Although it was formerly promoted as “the Beverly Hills of the Eastside,” it’s one of those many neighborhoods which reminds me more of the neighborhood where The Wonder Years was set than it does that Westside oasis of nouveau riche tackiness.
In a building which originally housed Roscoe Moss Company(now located across the street) is Ming Ya Buddhist Temple. There’s also Cha Cha Chili(a Korean-Mexican fusion restaurant), and a non-descript shopping center which is the neighborhood’s de facto “downtown” and is home to the aesthetically non-descript but highly regarded restaurant, King Torta. Before that, it was home to the neighborhood’s de facto town hall — Hillside Village Market.
Most would argue that Hillside Village and, to the east, University Hills, are both part of the greater El Sereno neighborhood. Valley passes along both neighborhoods but a short stretch between is inarguably El Sereno and nothing else. This section is bisected by Eastern Avenue, appropriately named as El Sereno extends further east than any other neighborhood in the city of Los Angeles.
The area surrounding the 71-hectare campus of California State University, Los Angeles (CalState LA) is known as University Hills. The school, which originally shared a campus in East Hollywood withLos Angeles City College, was formerly known as Los Angeles State College. In 1955 it moved to its present location. Although I’ve still yet to attend an event there, The Harriet and Charles Luckman Fine Arts Complex includes two theaters and an art gallery, and someday soon I hope to catch a performance there.
Walking along Valley, though, you don’t notice any of that, really, as that portion of the neighborhood is dominated by the presence of freight train line which gives the immediate surroundings their distinct character. This side of the hill, however, does boast the Heidleman Stairway, which at 234 steps is the tallest public stairway in Los Angeles. Separating University Hills from Alhambra is the abrupt end of the 710 Freeway, an interstate freeway which will likely be recognized as a misguided mistake and dismantled or turned into something else before its extended north into the wealthier, and thus more politically powerful, communities along its planned route.
As Valley Boulevard crosses into the city of Alhambra, it finally enters the San Gabriel Valley. The motto of Alhambra is, appropriately then, “the Gateway to San Gabriel Valley.” Many are the times I’ve entered Alhambra from the west and noticed both a seeming improvement in air quality and a definite improvement in its scent. The majority of Alhambra’s population is Chinese. The majority of inhabitants were also born abroad, mostly in either China or Vietnam. In addition to the various regional Chinese cuisines, Alhambra is home Burmese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Thai, Vietnamese, and formerly a Malaysian restaurant — all of which have made it a frequent culinary destination for me.
Alhambra, though, is a fairly large suburb — spread across 34 square kilometers. In this instance, its Main Street is its Main Street, and the central business district is centered around the intersection of Main and Garfield Avenue. The section of Valley Boulevard in Alhambra isn’t especially interesting, as it’s dominated by auto maintenance shops and chain restaurants. In fact, I once found myself replacing a flat tire there and, with no apparently better options, ate lunch at a Shakey’s Pizza Parlor.
This section of Valley, in fact, is amongst its most unforgivably shade-deprived and not surprisingly, it’s rare to encounter anyone else using the sun-blasted sidewalks. Looking around, I spied a couple of interesting structures far in the distance. The first, the Pyrenees Castle, was designed by John Walker Smart and built in 1927 for a French-American shepherd named Sylvester Dupuy. Many years later, it was wherePhil Spectorlived and infamously murdered actressLana Clarkson.
The other building, the Sears, Roebuck and Company, Pacific Coast Territory Administrative Officesbuilding, can be seen from nearly any part of Alhambra — in a situation which unfailingly reminds me of experimental filmmaker John Smith‘s, The Black Tower. The Late Modern office building was designed by A. C. Martin & Associatesand built in 1971. It’s only thirteen stories but far taller than any other buildings in the vicinity. Additionally, each floor has two panes of glass, giving it the appearance of a building twice its height. Locally known as the “Big Blue Cube,” it’s since 1987 been home to the Department of Public Works.
One of the last buildings of note that one passes before leaving Alhambra is the 168 Market. I’m assuming that its name is a bit of Chinese numerology. 168 sounds a bit like “路發,” meaning “fortune all the way.” The market and shopping center originally opened as Crawford’s Corner, around 1965. The architectural theme was inspired by New Orleans and the gazebo used to feature life Dixieland bands.
Riding a bicycle, one of the indicators that the Valley Boulevard explorer has left Alhambra and entered San Gabriel (in addition to the signs notifying one of this fact), is that the quality of the road worsens and I believe that it was in San Gabriel where I took my only spill on my bicycle that didn’t involve a car.
There’s no obvious change in the quality of the sidewalk, though. The Asian demographic of San Gabriel, however, is even more pronounced than Alhambra’s. Upon reading this on my tricorder, I decided to pay more attention to the demographics of pedestrians along Valley. By the time I crossed the suburb, I counted zero non-Latino white folks, who as of the last census accounted for 11.4% of the population. As with Alhambra, most Asians in San Gabriel are of Chinese ethnicity. For this reason, I’ve heard locals jokingly (and with pride, I think), refer to San Gabriel as “Chan Gabriel.” It’s worth noting, though, that more than twice as many of San Gabriel’s foreign-born, though ethnically Chinese, come not from China but from Vietnam. If they were ethnically Vietnamese, I wonder, would they refer to it as “Tran Gabriel?”
Along Valley is Petrillo’s Pizza Restaurant, another reminder of the Italian exodus into the San Gabriel Valley. Two blocks east is another, a location of the local Italian market chain, Claro’s. There are now six locations, but the San Gabriel one was the first, opened by Joe Claro in 1948. Brothers-in-law Carl Petrillo and Norbert Lighthouse (one wonders why they didn’t name it Lighthouse’s Pizza) opened Petrillo’s in 1954. A few years later they opened a second location in Glendora. I’ve only eaten at this, the original location, and have always enjoyed it.
To the north, Main Street becomes Las Tunas Drive once it enters San Gabriel. Valley still doesn’t feel like the main street, though, as the titular San Gabriel Mission is located north, on Mission Boulevard, and the area around that, which is home to San Gabriel’s civic buildings, is known as its city center.
The area along Valley, however, does feel less marginal in San Gabriel than it does in Alhambra, and it feels more vibrant and walkable — in part because of a concentration of shopping centers. I doubt there are many urbanists whose idea of walkability includes clusters of malls, but however unlikely, Hilton Plaza, Life Plaza Center, Prospect Plaza, Swiss Plaza, and San Gabriel Square (even though car-oriented and situated behind parking lots or on top of garages) cumulatively suggest something like a suburban “city” center.
As I entered Rosemead, I inhaled the smell of hot cooking oil which hung in the air. Most of the restaurants in Rosemead are either Chinese or Vietnamese — although as elsewhere in the valley, Mexican, Italian, and hamburger restaurants exist as reminders of the region’s past demographic changes. There are several features which distinguish it from the preceding community. Many of the buildings are separated by narrow alleys and lead to parking lots in the buildings’ rears. There are a few attached homes, a 1920s tetraplex, and a trailer court along a street that’s mostly residential — although still no mixed-use ones. When I used to wait for a car to be fixed at TBT Hiep Thanh Car CareCenter, near the border with El Monte, I felt a sort of palpable suburban isolation.
Rosemead was where I experienced my first Bánh Mì Chè Cali. Rosemead’s Lee’s Sandwiches was not my first — but one of my most frequent, as it’s the only one I know that sells đồ chua and other ingredients necessary for making one’s own bánh mì. Speaking of, in 2008, Jonathan Gold referred to “Rosemead’s bánh mì district,” which as far as I know remains an unofficial designation. For what it’s worth, my favorite bánh mì joint was Baguette Express, which operated over in San Gabriel until closing around 2008 but I like Bánh Mì Chè Cali more than Mr. Baguette. I’m sure there are other ones I should try — as long as the chay options thịt chay and not just lemongrass tofu or something like that. Behind the Bánh Mì Chè Cali is 888 Seafood, one of the few places I’ve had dim sum.
Mexican restaurants notable for their appearance (I can’t comment on the food) are El Sason (located inside a roughly trapezoidal building constructed in the 1930s or ’40s) and Garduno’s, which actually opened back then, in 1941. As for historic burger joints, there’s Valley Super Burgers (located in a stand built in 1961) and Jim’s Famous Quarterpound Burger, the building of which at the very least was constructed the same year; I’m not sure whether either was the original tenant. My favorite liquor store, based only on architecture and aesthetics, are Kev’s Liquor Store (located inside a building constructed in 1953) and Mission Valley Liquor (1963). My favorite Italian restaurant, at which I have eaten numerous times, is Di Pilla’s, which has served Rosemead residents and visitors since 1967.
Between 2000 and 2010, Rosemead’s Asian population grew considerably, overtaking the Latino population sometime during the decade. I only heard Spanish spoken once, and only noticed three non-Latino white folks (two freshly-coiffed women exiting a hair salon and one presumably homeless man filing his cracked feet at a bus stop). Although a couple of women told me “hi” and “hello,” I otherwise overheard only Chinese and Vietnamese spoken. Most of Rosemead’s population are foreign-born, mostly in Vietnam. Many are Hoa, though, and Chinese and English are both more common than Vietnamese in the signage along Valley. Rosemead is where the Hoa Chinese Huy Fong sriracha sauce makers were based before moving to Irwindale. Rosemead is home to Saigon Times (founded in Rosemead in 1987). (Rosemead is also home to Siam Media).
That said, I think most people think of Rosemead as the San Gabriel Valley’s answer to Orange County’s Little Saigon. I read somewhere, when researching Little Saigon, that a group of Los Angeles County developers were planning to develop a Little Saigon in the San Gabriel Valley and I’ve always assumed that it must’ve been in Rosemead.
As with the preceding suburbs, I took special note of the strip malls and shopping centers which — along with their soul-killing parking lots — define much of the streetscape. I started to notice a trend in San Gabriel Valley and especially Rosemead business names: Gold World Plaza (across the street, actually, in San Gabriel), Golden Bull Noodle, Golden Heart Medical, Golden Soup, Golden Sun, Golden Valley Plaza (not to be confused with Alhambra’s Golden Valley Center), &c. There’s a nominal hotel (but in reality, a motel) called Valley Hotel although the sign depicts two, interlocked, golden “G”s and I assume they stand for “golden gold” or something like that. Other plazas and pod malls include Empire Commercial Center, Lucky Plaza, Minh Square, Mission Valley Center, New Valley Plaza, Orchid Plaza, Rio Hondo Plaza, Rose Valley Center, Universal Plaza, Universal Square Shopping Center, Valley Gateway, and Valley Hart Plaza.
Signarama (located in an appendage of El Monte) occupies an interesting building constructed in 1958). Located in the same section of El Monte is the sprawling campus of the Gill Corporation, most of the buildings of which were constructed in 1959 and ’60. The Great Wall Supermarket, located in Universal Square Shopping Center, is located in a faux Craftsman built in 1966. The more typically-mid ’60s Rosemead City Hall (built in 1967) and the adjacent library includes a variety of roses, a memorial to 9/11, and to the Vietnam War. The striking Bank of America was built in 1971. Built in 1977, the Los Angeles County Fire Dept. Station 42 was inexplicably still (or is it already) decorated for Halloween, with red lights, a buzzard, and a tombstone for the station itself. Next door is a real cemetery, Savannah Memorial Park, which likely received its first burials in the 1840s. Though probably dismissed as hopelessly banal, Stor Mor Self Storage & Parking Facility (built in 1978) incorporates elements of New Formalism into its Smog Check Revival style. The very 1980s Pacific Western Bank was built in 1984 and is decorated with fake owls presumably meant to convince pigeons to excrete elsewhere.
Rosemead is trisected by the Alhambra Wash and Rubio Wash. Much of its eastern border with El Monte is formed by Eaton Wash. Of the three, I was struck by how easy it would be to line the latter one with bicycle trails — but bicycle infrastructure is as lacking in Rosemead as most of the valley. Eaton Wash is lined along both banks maintenance roads and the only obstacles inhibiting would-be cyclists and pedestrians are the fences, litter, and laws against trespassing. I guess there were efforts to develop an Eaton Wash Corridor Trail which emerged around 2010 but don’t appear to have gone anywhere so we’re left imagining a pleasant ride from Eaton Canyon Falls, through Altadena, Pasadena, East Pasadena, East San Gabriel, Temple City, Rosemead, El Monte to a confluence with the Rio Hondo where it would join the already existing Rio Hondo Bike Path. As far as bicycle infrastructure for suburban commuters (as opposed to recreational cyclists who dominate riparian bicycle trails), Rosemead is, like its neighbors to the west (Alhambra and San Gabriel) strangely underdeveloped, with the only designated bicycle lanes to be found located along a handful of blocks of quiet residential streets in the northwest corner of town.
TO BE CONTINUED…
“How Valley Boulevard’s Restaurants Built L.A.’s New Chinatown“ by Clarissa Wei (2015)