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California Fool's Gold -- A Southeast Los Angeles Primer

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 28, 2009 06:52pm | Post a Comment
SELACO - THE SOUL OF SUBURBAN SPRAWL


Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Map of Southeast Los Angeles County


Introduction to 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.

Imperfect existing terms

The cities and neighborhoods north of the Harbor area, east of South Los Angeles, west of OC and south of East LA and the SGV are, in the official usage of the Los Country Board of Supervisors, referred to with the unwieldy and colorless moniker “Southeast Los Angeles County.” There are several names that actually apply to the area, but all are problematic for the same reasons -- they don’t correspond either entirely or solely to the area in question. The 562 area code covers much of the area but also parts of Long Beach, Orange County and South Los Angeles, The Gateway Cities is an even larger area, including not only the 562 area but also parts of East Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley and the South Bay. Given the historical importance of dairy farming in the area, Paramount, Bellflower, Cerritos, La Palma and Cypress were often collectively referred to as the Dairy Cities or Dairyland, but Cypress and La Palma are in Orange County, so that's out.

Support for Selaco

In order to promote pride and awareness of the area, I coined the term Selaco, roughly an acronym for SouthEast Los Angeles COunty. My thinking was that it would catch on in the way Benelux, WeHo and NoHo have, yet WeCo (for West Covina) sadly hasn’t, regardless of how often I say it. A little research proved, to my surprise, that (as with almost all my attempted neologisms) I was beaten to the punch and there was a small but real precedent for the term "Selaco" or variations already. For example there is SLACYD (Southeast Los Angeles Country Young Democrats), ARCSELAC (The Association for Retarded Citizens of Southeast Los Angeles County), SELACO WIB (The Southeast Los Angeles County Workforce Investment Board) and, most encouragingly, a school in the Selaco city of Downey called Selaco-Downey High. If saying “Selaco” makes you cringe, just keep repeating it until you’re numb. If Selaco had been in use a couple of years ago, the outwardly generic, ultimate suburb with the seedy underbelly would've probably become the title to David Lynch's last film instead of the misleading Inland Empire.


The character of Selaco

The area that makes up Selaco, 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 Selaco, along with South Los Angeles, made up the industrial core of the Southland. During and following World War II, areas of Selaco 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, Selaco 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

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."

 
 
Michelle Kwan, most famous as an ice-skater but also an occasional voice actor [Arthur (the cartoon, not the films about the lovable alcoholic), Mulan II and others], operates the East West Ice Palace in Artesia. In addition, the film Rising Shores was filmed in Little India... whoops, I mean the International Peoples' Commercial Consumer Zone of... whatever. Its most famous feature is the water tower atop an artesian well that was featured prominently in Freddy's Dead - The Final Nightmare.
 

Bell


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.

 
Bell Gardens

In keeping with standard Los Angeles County nicknaming practices, Bell Gardens is frequently referred to as “Bell Garbage" (get it?), although I would prefer "Smell Gardens," but that doesn't seem destined to be. Bell Gardens is also named after James Bell. The “gardens” of its name derives from the many Japanese who, early in Bell Gardens’ existence established vegetable gardens and rice fields in the fertile soil. Beginning in the 1930s, cheap homes were constructed, filled largely by defense plant workers. Bell Gardens is also home to the oldest home in Los Angeles County (Casa de Rancho San Antonio or the Henry Gage Mansion), begun in 1795 by Francisco Salvador Lugo and his son, Antonio María Lugo.
 
 

Bellflower

Unlike other Selaco 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.

 
 

Cerritos

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.

Commerce

Straight out of Commerce. In the northwest corner of Selaco, with East LA 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.