California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Whittier

INTRODUCTION

For this chapter of California Fool’s Gold, I explored the city of Whittier. Whittier is a city in Southeast Los Angeles (County), separated from the San Gabriel Valley to the north by the Puente Hills and sharing a border with Orange County to the southeast. As of the 2020 Census, it had a population of 87,306, making it the 21st most populous city in Los Angeles County. It’s named after John Greenleaf Whittier, a Quaker, an abolitionist, and one of the so-called fireside poets.

Pendersleigh & Sons Cartography‘s oil paint and ink map of Whittier, available in art prints and on a wide variety of merchandise.

WHITTIER CHARACTER

Accompanying me in my exploration of Whittier was frequent traveling companion, Mike Morgan. I mentioned to Mike that we could ride bikes but it was gray and raining on and off. Although I maintain that there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about on bikes in the rain, most Angelenos don’t share my opinion and so, dear readers, Mike drove us to Whittier in his car.

Before we embarked, I asked Mike what, if any, preconceptions he had about Whittier. He said that he expected a community along the lines of East Los Angeles, but acknowledged that that might have to do more with Whittier Boulevard being East Los Angeles’s main thoroughfare than anything else. I was surprised because having only passed through Whittier’s Historic District a couple of times, I told him that I had a vague notion of Whittier being sort of the Claremont of Southeast Los Angeles. After having explored the town for a few hours, I’m tempted to suggest that we were both right.

Whittier is located at a sort of cultural and geographic crosswords. Although relatively small, it shares a border with heavily Taiwanese Hacienda Heights to the north, in the heavily Asian San Gabriel Valley. It also shares a border with La Habra in the heavily Asian North Orange County. Other neighbors include La Habra Heights, Santa Fe Springs, and Pico Rivera. There are also the unincorporated neighbors of East Whittier, South Whittier, West Whittier, North Whittier, Northwest Whittier, and two enclaves that together comprise the Northeast Whittier Islands. Finally, there’s an exclave within unincorporated Whittier Narrows that was annexed in 1970 for reasons unknown to me.

As with most cities, how Whittier is divided into neighborhoods varies but sometimes includes Colima, Friendly Hills, Leffingwell, Sunglow, and Uptown. Whittier also includes four officially designated historic districts: Central Park, College Hills, Earlham, and Hadley-Greenleaf. The population of Whittier is roughly 24% non-Latino white (plurality German), 5% Asian, 4% mixed race, 1% black, and 1% Native American. It is approximated 67% Latino of any race (mostly Mexican and Salvadoran).

HISTORY OF WHITTIER

Historic photos of Whittier next to the public restrooms at King Richard’s Antique Vintage Center

The first human inhabitants of what’s now Whittier were most likely the Tongva, who migrated to the Los Angeles Basin from the Sonoran Desert roughly 3,500 years ago. They established villages nearby along the banks of Coyote Creek and the San Gabriel River. In 1542, a Spanish expedition sailed along the coast and proclaimed all of California for Spain. The Spanish didn’t establish a presence in the area, however, until 1771, when they built a mission in the Whittier Narrows. Being a flood plain, the mission was destroyed by a flood in 1776 and the Spanish built another mission further away in what’s now San Gabriel. In 1784, Spanish soldier Jose Manuel Nieto was granted 300,000 acres (1,200 km2) as a reward for his military service. The land grant was known as Rancho Los Nietos. In 1790, as a result of a dispute with Misión de San Gabriel Arcángel, Nieto’s grant was reduced in size to 167,000 acres (680 km2). Still vast, it stretched from the Puente Hills in the north to the Pacific Ocean in the south and from the Los Angeles River to the west to the Santa Ana River. Nieto lived in a home just west of Whittier and, on his land, grew corn and raised cattle and horses. Nieto died in 1804 and his rancho passed to his widow and four children.

Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1810. Spain recognized Mexico’s independence in 1821. The US invaded Mexico in 1846. The Mexican-American War concluded in 1848 with the US victorious. In 1847, most of the land that would become Whittier was part of Rancho Paso de Bartolo, owned by Don Pío de Jesús Pico, the last Mexican governor of Alta California. California was made the 31st state in 1850. Pico built a hacienda in 1853 at what’s today Whittier’s Pio Pico State Historic Park. It’s located right at a busy on-and-off ramp of the San Gabriel Freeway and so we first drove right past and then circled back. The historic adobe was closed, however. We weren’t surprised, though, as it was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It’s also closed, it turns out, Monday through Wednesday.

Peeking over the fence at Pio Pico’s.

GETTING THERE

As much as I would’ve preferred taking mass transit to Whittier, it just wasn’t practical. It would’ve taken over two hours and meant three transfers… which is about two more than I’m happy to take. Whittier, like most of Metro Los Angeles, suffers from inadequate mass transit and underdeveloped active transit networks. The website Walkscore assigns Whittier a score of 64 out of 100, which is a solid “D.” Its bike score is an even lower 52 — which is an “F.” I don’t see a transit score but I assume it’s similarly low although in the past, Whittier likely had better mass transit and in the future likely will once again.

The Paradox Walnut Tree

Back in 1887, the Southern Pacific Railroad built a ten-kilometer railroad spur to Whittier, primarily, to transport oranges, lemons, and walnuts from the city’s packing houses to Downtown Los Angeles. At one point, Whittier was the nation’s walnut capital. In 1907, George Weinshank planted the Paradox Hybrid Walnut Tree under the direction of Professor Ralph Smith as part of an experimental planting for the University of California Experiment Station. On 29 May 1959 it was designated California Historical Landmark No. 681. Mike and I visited it during our exploration. I’m no arborist but it looked pretty rough to me. Then again, it’s winter so maybe it will look better in spring. A walnut tree can live to about 400 years of age and the Paradox Hybrid Walnut is only 117. Just getting close to it was a challenge. It’s located on a wide median on busy Whittier Boulevard.

There are no crosswalks at the nearest intersection and the GPS said it would take us 25 minutes just to get to and from the nearest one… and so, instead, we darted in and out of speeding traffic to get a closer look, ignoring signs warning us from trespassing (that can only be read by those who are trespassing) because there were at least seven Whitter Police officers involved in something taking place at Athony’s Muffler Shop so they seemed sufficiently pre-occupied. They ended up shutting down the street but, it seems to me, it shouldn’t require a police stand-off to allow people to visit an historic landmark.

The Whittier Greenway Trail

Whittier Boulevard here is 61 meters (200 feet) wide — wide enough for a train, even, which is precisely what it was designed for. Henry Huntington‘s Los Angeles Inter-Urban Electric Railway began operation in late 1903 or early ’04 and connected Whittier to Downtown Los Angeles via the Whittier Line, which was operated by Pacific Electric Railway by the end of 1904. Service was cut to a single trip per day in 1935. PE’s La Habra-Yorba Linda Line additionally served Whittier from 1911-1938. Service on the Whittier Line to the five-points intersection ended on 22 January 1938 and today there are nine lanes surrendered to cars and no space allotted for a single bike lane — although Google Maps considers it to be a “bicycle-friendly road.” A less hectic option is the very nice Whittier Greenway Trail, which runs along a fairly parallel right-of-way formerly used by Union Pacific and that opened in 2009. Currently a respectable 7.5 kilometers, there have been plans for years to extend it just a little further to Orange County.

A bus stop served by Montebello Bus

Whittier Transit began operation in 1985. In 2007, it merged with Norwalk Transit. Service, however, ended in 2011. Today Whittier is served by other regional bus lines, including Foothill Transit‘s 274 and 285 lines; Metro‘s 120 Line; Montebello Bus‘s 10, 40, and 50 lines; Norwalk Transit’s 1 and 7 lines; and Sunshine Shuttle‘s routes A and B. Metro is currently evaluating an extension of the light-rail L Line from its current terminus in East Los Angeles to Whittier. That line is currently predicted to open in 2035. If that could happen more quickly, that would be great.

WHITTIER’S EARLY AMERICAN ERA

“The Old Ranch House”

German immigrant Jacob F. Gerkens paid $234 for 160 acres in what’s now Whittier and built a cabin around 1860. In 1876, Gerkens became the first chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. Gerkens’s former home was acquired by Quakers Jonathan and Rebecca Bailey in 1887. Today it’s known as Jonathan Bailey House and tours of it are provided by the Whittier Historical Society. The Quakers met at Bailey’s house, holding religious meetings on their porch. The Quakers named their colony and academy after Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier and deeded a lot to him and a statue of him stands in Central Park but Whittier himself never visited the town. He did, however, dedicate a poem to his namesake.

“My Name I Give To Thee”


Dear Town, for whom the flowers are born,
Stars shine, and happy songbirds sing,
What can my evening give to thy morn,
My Winter to Thy Spring?
A life not void of pure intent
With small desert of praise or blame;
The Love I felt, the Good I meant,
I leave Thee with My Name.

As the Quakers’ numbers grew, they built a dedicated, 100-seat meeting house at the corner of Comstock Avenue and Wardman Street in 1887. That, too, eventually proved too small and in 1902, an even larger meeting house was built at the corner of Philadelphia Street and Washington Avenue. In 1917, an even larger, 1,700-seat meeting house was constructed on the same site. Finally, the current meeting house was dedicated in 1975 and includes the stained glass windows, pews, and paneling from the previous building. In 1899, the Quakers and a Methodist evangelist founded the Training School for Christian Workers, which later evolved into the Azusa Pacific University.

MOUNT OLIVE CEMETERY & FOUNDERS MEMORIAL PARK

Founders Memorial Park

After stopping by Pio Pico’s crib, our next stop was the Mount Olive Cemetery and Founder’s Memorial Park. We were expecting to find a cemetery but instead found a quiet park with strangely spongey soil that smelled strongly of dogs. There were no headstones so we were confused. Instead, there are lists of names without dates or explanation, some benches, and roses. We speculated as to what the park was but it was only upon returning home that I learned the truth. It turns out that it was, and is, a graveyard. There were 1291 recorded burials between 1888 and 1957. It was declared a nuisance in 1959 and headstones were removed and offered to descendants of those interred there. A street, Citrus Avenue, carved the cemetery in two. The unclaimed headstones were put into storage by Whittier City Parks & Recreation and were later transferred to the Whittier Museum. Dirt was dumped over the graves to make the ground more level and it reopened as a park in 1977.

OTHER PARKS

Most of Whittier’s parks are not macabre, secret boneyards, though. Other Whittier Parks include Broadway Park, Central Park, Friends Park, Kennedy Park, Lee and Erika Owens Park, Michigan Park, Murphy Ranch Park, Parnell Park, and Penn Park. There are also large open spaces in the hills like Sycamore Park and the Turnbull Canyon Open Space, which we didn’t visit during our exploration but which I’ve hiked some of the trails of in the past.

WHITTIER HISTORIC DISTRICT

Some historic Whittier homes and lots of lanes for cars… but none for buses or bikes.
Permit Parking only — because parking is so scarce

Our next stop was the Whittier Historic District in order to see some grand old homes. Upon arriving we discovered that block-after-block stating, in red capital letters, “PERMIT PARKING ONLY THIS BLOCK. PREFERENTIAL PARKING DISTRICT WMC 10.18.120.” They are probably the work of the Whittier Historic Neighborhood Association, which was formed in 1997 to “protect their neighborhood.” The ordinance was adopted in 2013. It seems decidedly unneighborly. I didn’t see any homes without driveways and garages so it hardly seems like residents would need to store their private cars for free in the public streets. Besides, if you’re going to live in an historic district, should you even really allow modern automobiles? It seems to me like residents should commit to horses, streetcars, penny-farthing bicycles, horseless carriages, and walking — all for the sake of maintaining the all-important neighborhood character.

Greetings from Beverly Hills!
Beverly Hills Estates! (Whittier)

Unpermitted and thus banished from this virtually gated community, we drove east looking to find a spot to park and arrived at an actual gated community hidden behind a comically vulgar gated entrance labeled Beverly Hills Estates. We joked about trying to impress people by telling them that you live in Beverly Hills Estates on Beverly Hills Drive and that you’re a really big deal. We didn’t linger long, though, or even get out of the car… but I suspect the homes on Whittier’s Beverly Hills Drive are mostly designed in the Cheesecake Factory Revival style.

The CW Harvey Home

So we turned back and then headed south driving along blocks of mostly empty curbs before finding ones we were allowed to store our car along with the rest of the commoners. We then walked back into the permit parking area from to see the CW Harvey Home. Harvey was a developer who owned the Hoover Hotel, which we would passed by later in our exploration. The mansion was built in 1888. I noticed that many residents of the neighborhood had a taste for statuary — everything from guardian lions to Halloween skeletons to yard gnomes and more… and there were houses decorated for Christmas, even though the Twelfth Day of Christmas passed two weeks ago. A good number of the homes have small signs stating when they were built. We next walked to the aforementioned Jonathan Bailey House, which was closed as well until further notice — probably connected to the ongoing COVID pandemic — although the sign didn’t provide a reason.

So, I’ll just shrink myself to squirrel size and just effortlessly squeeze through that tiny gap between the tree and the wall, right?

Strolling along Painter Avenue, we discovered the most asininely placed street trees I’ve ever encountered in all my years exploring. As a pedestrian and oxygen breather, I obviously appreciate street trees but these were planted so stupidly. Every few meters, the already narrow sidewalk (definitely not ADA compliant) was broken up by the presence of a mature ficus tree which was impossible to pass without hopping down the curve into the needlessly wide street. Were there proper sidewalks before that were removed to accommodate more cars? Did people’s yards expand to the street trees? There has to be a solution that could accommodate pedestrians and wheelchairs. Perhaps, I don’t know, they could build sidewalks in the curb lanes and give those trees a bit more room at the same time.

Close but no cigar — just build a new sidewalk and remove the diagonal parking.

WHITTIER COLLEGE

Whittier College campus

After leaving the historic district, we started walking toward Uptown but decided, first, to swing by Whittier College, unsure of what to expect. What we found was a surprisingly large campus — about 30 hectares. It was established in 1887 as Whittier Academy. In 1896, its name was changed to Whittier College. I love college and university campuses for their amenities, architecture, &c, and Whittier College has several amenities that appeal to me including the Bonnie Bell Wardman Library, the Whittier College Bookstore, the Ruth B. Shannon Center for the Performing Arts, and the Whittier College Pool.

UPTOWN WHITTIER

National Bank of Whittier Building — also known as Nixon Plaza

Next to Whittier College and the Whittier Historic District is Uptown Whittier, a charming, well-positioned, and walkable business district. We walked past the National Bank of Whittier Building, an attractive Beaux-Arts style mid-rise built in 1923 and designed by celebrated father-and-son architects John and Donald B. Parkinson. It once contained within it the first law office of disgraced president Richard M. Nixon. Across the street is a place called the Nixon Steakhouse, which has a decidedly unappetizing ring to it. Today, the bank building is home to the Whittier Brewing Company — which is more appealing to me –but it was closed. Around the corner is the Hoover Hotel, a handsome six-story midrise completed in 1930.

The Hoover Hotel
1932 Art Deco building

Across the street from the National Bank of Whittier Building is a striking Art Deco building from 1932 on Greenleaf Avenue. When we noticed that a stretch of Greenleaf Avenue had been reclaimed from cars for people we were compelled to walk along it, keeping an eye open for a spot to grab a bite and a drink. When we got to the First Christian Church, built in 1924 and designed by Robert Orr, we turned around.

Serenity Plaza is serene
First Christian Church

We decided to pop into a cozy bar called the 6740. It was a proper Southern California winter’s day with gray skies and showers and so I ordered an Anderson Valley Winter Solstice… and, as we were in Whittier, I followed it with a Whittier Brewing Co.’s Fifth Degree Polynomial Equation. Mike had a Brewyard Stay Puffy, in honor of Whittier’s oldest restaurant, Arturo’s Puffy Tacos.

Inside the 6740

It turns out that the pedestrian-friendly section of Greenleaf is now designated the Greenleaf Promenade. There have been efforts to reclaim it from cars for years but insufficient political will and, apparently, public support. All that it took to change minds was a deadly pandemic. Credited with saving several businesses located along it, the city council voted unanimously to make it permanent in 2021. Given its success, perhaps they should reclaim even more streets from cars. After all, the old city’s grid has an incredibly extensive network of long alleys that run between seemingly every street and would probably sufficiently accommodate all commercial vehicles.

WHITTIER VILLAGE CINEMA

Whittier Village Cinemas

After our drinks (and some fries), we headed toward Whittier’s Civic Center. We passed another striking Art Deco building — this time the Whittier Village Cinemas. It was designed by architect David S. Bushnell and it opened as Bushnell’s Wardman Theater on 15 March 1932 with a Vaudeville act followed by a screening of Lewis Milestone‘s All Quiet of the Western Front. By the late 1970s, it was part of the Pussycat Theatre chain of porn-houses. After sustaining damage in the 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake, it was reconstructed and reopened on 24 August 1990.

CIVIC CENTER

Whittier City Hall

Whittier became a charter city in 1955. That year, a new Civic Center complex was built and the City Council first convened in the new chambers on 8 March 1955. It was designed by William Henry Harrison, who, in 1957, became a fellow at the American Institute of Architects. Harrison also designed Whittier’s attractive Streamline Moderne Lou Henry Hoover School of Fine Arts, which Mike and I had passed on our way to Whittier College.

Lou Henry Hoover School of Fine Arts
Whittier Square

Across the street from the City Hall is another striking building — Whittier Square. Although only seven stories tall, when completed in 1963, it was the tallest building in Whittier. Decorated with a teal color normally reserved for laundry soap and with graced with a prominent external staircase, it wouldn’t appear out of place in an aging Japanese suburb. In Metro Los Angeles, however, where suburban NIMBYs gnash their teeth and hiss “Manahattanization” and “neighborhood character” at the sight of anything more than three stories tall, it stands out, literally, by towering over its single-story neighbors. Turn your head, though, and there is a second tower — the Minas Morgul to Whittier Square’s Orthanc — in the form of the eight-story DoubleTree by Hilton Whittier, completed in 1986.

LITERARY WHITTIER

Breeze Blocks on the Whittier Public Library

South of City Hall is the Whittier Public Library, another William H. Harrison design although its interior was obscured by both a lovely wall of breeze blocks and a less lovely temporary construction fence. It was closed for repairs and meanwhile, its collection has been relocated to the beautiful and historic Southern Pacific Railroad Depot, Whittier, not too far away. There’s also the Whittwood Branch Library, which opened on Santa Gertrudes Avenue in 1968 and has expanded its hours to pick up some of the slack. Whittier’s libraries’ roots stretch back to 17 April 1900, when the Whittier Public Library Board of Trustees held its first meeting in Landrum Smith‘s drugstore.

Southern Pacific Railroad’s Whittier Depot

KING RICHARD’S ANTIQUE VINTAGE CENTER

Inside the antique center

After leaving the Civic Center, my initial plan was to visit the Orin Jordan House, a Folk Victorian built in 1988 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. That would’ve meant walking about seventeen minutes out of the way, which were it our only other destination wouldn’t have meant that much. Mike needed to get back home by 18:00, though and had also expressed interest in a visit to King Richard’s Antique Vintage Center… and we’d already seen quite a few fine Victorians and so we skipped it and headed over to the huge former citrus packing house now packed with vintage items. It ceased to be used as a packing house in 1951 but it wasn’t until 1979 that it re-opened as an antique emporium. It is several stories tall and we kept descending deeper and deeper like I do in so many dreams and half expecting to find a reasonably priced sign advising us to abandon all hope next to some dusty fondue pitchforks.

Going down and getting warmer

ARTURO’S PUFFY TACOS

California’s Only… the Original Puffy Taco

After walking back to mike’s car, he drove for what felt like an eternity after all of that walking. Finally, we arrived at Arturo’s Puffy Taco, the most historic restaurant in Whittier. It felt like we were in a different city and until it was annexed in 1962, it sort of was — or, at least, it wasn’t part of Whittier. The vast area to the north was Whittier’s largest annexation, nearly doubling its size and adding 28,000 people to the city in 1961. But we weren’t there to recount the history of Whittier’s annexations but rather, to see for ourselves what a puffy taco is. Since I don’t have an animal-based diet, I ordered a burrito, leaving it to Mike to order two puffy tacos. The puffy taco is apparently a Tex-Mex concoction having likely been invented by Maria Rodriguez Lopez when she lightly fried a tortilla until it puffed up. Arturo Lopez and his puffy taco debuted in neighboring La Habra in 1977. I’m not sure when the Whittier location opened, however. Arturo died in 2015.

Mike’s puffy taco

Whittier’s next oldest restaurant, Lascari’s Italian Restaurant, is located not too far away. It opened in 1983 and, like Arturo’s, has roots in the Orange County suburb of La Habra, which is closer to it than is Uptown Whittier. It was in La Habra that John Lascari got his start at Mario’s Italian Delicatessen. There are at least two vegetarian restaurants I’d like to check out if back in the neighborhood: Modern Shaman Kitchen and Veggie Y Qué.

OTHER WHITTIER LANDMARKS & ORGANIZATIONS

After picking up our food, we headed back to Mideast Los Angeles via Whittier Boulevard, taking it all the way to East Los Angeles and then hopping on the Golden State Freeway. But before I end this piece I’d like to shout out a few Whittier organizations and resources: the Whittier Conservancy, the Whittier Community Theatre, the Whittier Historic Resources Commission, the Whittier Uptown Association, and Whittier Daily News.

If you’d like to see me explore any other Southern California communities, let me know which in the comments. Here is a classic music video from Whitterite singer, Martika.



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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.
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