Restored and renovated Rancho Los Alamitos ready to return

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 17, 2012 05:13pm | Post a Comment

Members of the press were recently treated to a preview of the historic Rancho Los Alamitos, in Long Beach. The public re-opening will take place on June 10 although special events will afford interested parties an opportunity to enjoy the site before then. 

Rancho Los Alamitos is a deeply significant historic site – home to a 19th century homestead that today offers a 7.5 acre oasis in the middle of a densely-populated urban area -- and the ancestral birthplace of Los Angeles’s Tongva people. For most of its existence it belonged to the prominent Bixby family before it was donated to the City of Long Beach in 1968, when it was apparently converted into a corny tourist trap. In 1986, the Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation took over and this grand re-opening is the culmination of a quarter century’s worth of their restoration efforts.

Under Long Beach’s watch, the barn area buildings on the site were rearranged in a semi-circle, effectively turning the once-proud site into a Harbor Area answer to South Dakota’s 1800 Town. A “Wisteria Walk” was added. Grass was put in and visitors got to make candles. It may’ve all been good fun to the grade-schoolers who visited at the time but it probably wasn’t the ranch’s most dignified era. When the Rancho Los Alamitos Foundation took over and pursued a different approach, there were predictably grumblings. This is SoCal, after all, and Southern Californians are very serious about kitsch.

The restoration was a massive undertaking. I never saw the ranch before my arrival this on the spring day of the preview but, having worked on a ranch (OK, for two weeks), the current lay-out seems to make much more functional sense. One of the most impressive aspects is how inconspicuous the modernizations are. The structural upgrades are unobtrusive and the offices are underground; so too is the geothermal system that provides the heating and cooling. The site isn’t simply a museum piece but probably more hi-tech (and quieter) than most of its modern neighbors. It kind of reminds me of the illusion created the Melkotians for Captain Kirk and his landing party or, for you Battlenerds, the planet Equellus minus (hopefully) the Cylons.

This soft-handed attitued is extended the museum’s overall manner. Information isn’t conveyed via lengthy, explanatory texts written on placards mounted beneath shelved artifacts. Instead, they’ve employed a variety of less-didactic ways to educate visitors. A short documentary film, Rancho Los Alamitos: An island in time, is available for viewing in a small theater. The displays contain information drawn from over 130 oral histories.

Being something of an amateur cartographer, I was thrilled by the floor of the Rancho Center, which features a large, beautiful map that superimposes the modern freeways, shoreline and some communities’ locations over a map of the historic Spanish Ranchos, simply conveying to the viewer a sense of their relationships to one another and their connection. The walls are adorned by large murals designed by the famed and recently-deceased Dugald Stermer. The connection to past and present is an obvious theme and one embodied in the flesh by Toni Castillo, a docent who used to live on the site. With 160 volunteers and no mannequins, the Rancho is a living, breathing place and barely resembles Olvera Street (or the Alamo -- at least as depicted in Pee Wee’s Big Adventure).


Rancho Los Alamitos is named after the Fremont Cottonwoods which fed off the local spring at the time of its foundation. The Tongva established the village of Povuu'nga (also spelled Puvunga and meaning, approximately, “Place of the Crowd“) there sometime around 500 CE. At that time, most of the immediate area was a flat, fertile floodplain where the shifting mouths of the Los Angeles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana Rivers emptied into a shallow, briny marsh adjacent the San Pedro Bay. Rising slightly above the flats is Alamitos Mesa, on which the Rancho was later built, and subsequently renamed Bixby Hill. There, habitation was additionally aided by Puvunga Spring, which flowed continually until 1956. Additionally, Povuu'nga is also said to be where a legendary Tongva figure named Chinichnich decreed Tongva laws, rituals, and beliefs.

The Spanish first explored the area in the 1500s but didn’t conquer the Tongva until 1784. Alta California governor Pedro Fages granted Manuel Perez Nieto (a former sergeant in the conquering army) a huge land grant which was reduced in size to resolve a dispute with the Mission San Gabriel Arcángel. Nieto’s adobe was located in present day West Whittier-Los Nietos. After Nietos’s passing in 1804, the grant was subdivided. In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain. In 1834 the missions were secularized.

In 1844, the rancho was purchased by Massachusettsan Abel Stearns. Along with his wife, Arcadia Bandini, his ranch went on to provide much of the beef that fed new immigrants who arrived during the California Gold Rush of ’48, the year the land was conquered from the Mexicans by the US. Two years later, when California became a state, Rancho Los Alamitos was the biggest beef ranch in the country. Stearns’s bovine empire crumbled in the 1860s when a long and disastrous drought necessitated Stearns’ subletting of the land to other farmers. In the early 1880s, John W. Bixby (whose cousins Jotham and Llewellyn Bixby owned the adjacent Rancho Los Cerritos) was part of a group of buyers of the rancho.

The 1880s witnessed Southern California’s first major land boom and Bixby developed Alamitos Beach which was later absorbed by Long Beach. The land was worked by the Tongva, who remain to this day, as well as new arrivals from Europe (including Basque, Belgians, Portuguese, Swedes, and more) Mexico, Japan and China (until the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882). The land boom ended in 1888 and Bixby died suddenly, the same year, apparently of appendicitis. Rancho Los Alamitos was again divided. In the 1890s, Jotham Bixby convinced wealthy gold and silver mine-owner, railroad baron and all around loaded William Clark to build a sugar beet refinery on the Rancho Los Alamitos property. When the Long Beach Oil Field was tapped, so was a new source of revenue. Water and oil helped expand the Bixby’s wealth, if not acreage, and they built themselves a beautiful home.



In the Barns Area, the main area of restoration, there’s a book store and a new education center/project room inside the horse stable built by Fred Bixby in 1948, the year after a fire destroyed the old Big Red Barn (whose outline is marked by six California Pepper Trees). As part of the restoration, all of the post-1968 plantings have been removed and the historic plantings preserved. Formerly surrounding the home were small, tenant communities, organized around ethnicity and origins. Belgians, for example, mostly lived to the east and Japanese, on the other hand, worked to the south. Nowadays the site is surrounded by a gated community. At the time of my visit, all of the ranch animals were off-site but will be returned for the opening, bringing with them more sights, sounds and smells. In addition to the stallion barn, blacksmith’s shop, dairy barn, and feed shed, there’s also a new chicken house and duck pond.


The Ranch House typifies the site’s continual adaptation and repurposing as well as the past owners eclectic but particular tastes. What began as a small adobe was gradually and organically expanded into a larger home with an interesting layout and distinctive and charming air. In the adobe’s entryway, Japanese prints share space with a mirror in an Egyptian-inspired frame. In the what was once the parlor was later converted to the dimly-lit billiard room. A Frank Tenney Johnson vies with a Hardie Gramatky for attention and the floor is covered with Navajo rugs. Next to it is the music room, which has a much more feminine quality, where a Persian miniature faces reproductions of paintings by Mary Cassatt, Frederick Frieseke and Claude Monet (the originals were donated to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art in Exposition Park which later moved evolved into Midtown’s LACMA). The vibe throughout the home is both rough and refined.


The Gardens around the house extend the varied but sophisticated and specific vision of indigenous and immigrant tastes. Next to the house is a majestic Moreton Bay fig tree that was planted around 1888.

The oldest garden, The Old Garden, was planted in the late 19th century and redesigned in 1921 by Paul Howard.

The Geranium Walk
, was designed in 1922 by Pasadenan business and life partners Florence Yoch and Lucile Council, whose landscape gardening was famously featured in Gone with the wind.

The Cactus Garden
was designed with input of William Hertrich (who designed the Huntington Estate Gardens in San Marino) in 1924.

The Native Garden
was originally envisioned as an alpine garden but that, not surprisingly, proved unrealistic. In 1925, Paul Howard and Allen Chickering instead designed a garden focusing on California native plants. The Oleander Walk was designed in 1927 but the titular trees were felled by disease or weevils (I can't remember) and have since been replaced by more resiliant mulberry.


Brookline, Massachusetts’s prolific Olmstead Brothers landscape team was founded in 1898 and until 1980 famously undertook many preeminent projects throughout the nation. The Cypress Steps and Patio were designed by the duo in 1926 and inspired by a trip to Italy. The Friendly Garden was designed in 1927 and The Cutting Garden was added the following year.


And finally, their Jacaranda Walk was built on a former Tongva kitchen midden where ancient remnants of seashells still remain embedded in the earth.



On May 20, USC professor, historian and author of the California Dream book series joins Marc Pachter, interim director of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution and retired director of the National Portrait Gallery in a special preview of the Rancho Center with their program titled Rancho Los Alamitos: A View of America in California. As with everyday admission to the Rancho, all programs are free. However, they're limited to 150 people, whose reservations are taken on a first-come, first-serve basis. Please see the website’s calendar for it and all subsequent events.


Sounding one final note, music plays an important part in the feeling that the Rancho remains a vibrant, functioning space. Craig Torres, a Tongva, serves as a Native American Advisor as well as educator,  singer, educator and entertainer. And, if I recall correctly, he drives a truck rather than arrive in a ti’at.

On April 28, the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Enrique Arturo Diemeck, will perform Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian dances 5-7 and Symphony no.3, and Antonín Dvořák’s Concerto for violencello. Closing the program will be the debut performance of the first movement of Robert Cummings’s Suite for double string orchestra for Rancho Los Alamitos, a fitting end to the night and beginning of a new phase in the Rancho’s continued existence.


California Fool's Gold -- Exploring San Gabriel, A City with a Mission

Posted by Eric Brightwell, November 10, 2011 09:00am | Post a Comment


For this blog entry, I ventured to the city of San Gabriel. Accompanying me were veteran three traveling companions. Cheryl Anne, a designer, hadn't appeared since her Season 4, episode 10 debut, "Gardena - The South Bay's city of opportunity." Artist Chris Urias made his debut appearance and regular audiences are well acquainted with Club Underground's DJ Modernbrit, aka Tim Shimbles, who has appeared in numerous episodes, debuting back in Season 2, episode 4, "Morningside Circle" in which we first discovered South LA's Westside.

To vote for other Los Angeles County communities to be covered on the blog, vote here. To vote forLos Angeles neighborhoods, vote here. To vote vote for Orange County neighborhoods and communities, vote here.

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California Fool's Gold -- A South Bay primer

Posted by Eric Brightwell, July 26, 2011 07:15pm | Post a Comment

Although the nickname "The Bay" is often employed (rather self-centeredly, I might add) is often used by North Californians in reference to the San Francisco Bay, California actually has many bays, including Anchor Bay, Bodega Bay, Emerald Bay, Estero Bay, Granite Bay, Half Moon Bay, Meeks Bay, Morro Bay, Soda Bay, San Pedro Bay… you get the idea. And I'll admit, in Starship's "We Built this City," when the DJ says "the city by the bay, the city that rocks, the city that never sleeps," as a naive teenager in Tampa I thought they were celebrating Tampa Bay… the city that was built by Death Metal - God's honest truth.

       Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Map of LA County                 Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Map of the South Bay

OK, I'm getting sidetracked. LA's South Bay refers to the region bordering the Santa Monica Bay south of LA's Westside. The Harbor borders to the southeast and north of thought, along most of the South Bay's easter edge is the Westside of South Los Angeles. It's one of the most ethnically, economically and racially diverse regions in LA County. The population is roughly 40 % white (mostly Canadian, English, German, Irish and Persian), 27% Latino (mostly Mexican), 16% black and 14% Asian (mostly Filipino, Indian, Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese).

Historically the vast sweep of rolling hills (which get more rolling on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in the southern end) was home to the sea-faring Tongva, whose Tovangar homeland included the Bay area villages of 'Ongoova'nga, Kingkingqaranga, Toveemonga, Chowinga, Xarnah'nga, Ataavyanga, Kingkenga, Xoyuunga and Maasunnga… I may've spelled some of those incorrectly (the writing on the map is too small). After Europeans conquered the aborigines, the area was covered with fields of gold… barley. And people grazed sheep.

NTB: In a move that's bound to be more controversial than it should, I'm excluding some communities sometimes considered to be part of the South Bay. I'll be covering the land-locked Alondra Park, Del Aire, Gardena, Hawthorne, Inglewood and Lawndale in a future entry about South LA. They don't border the bay… to me they're South LA's West Side but feel free to disagree… just don't let it drive you crazy.

and now for the neighborhoods:



Much as NWA put Compton on the map, El Segundo reached global conscience when Tribe Called Quest rapped about losing his wallet there. The city was named after Chevron's second refinery, "El Segundo" (obviously). Today the 'Gundo's economy is still centered around petroleum-related industries and aviation. The beach is a popular place to watch planes coming and going from adjacent LAX. El Segundo's Dockweiler Beach is also one of the few area beaches on which you can enjoy a beach fire. It's all very Lost Boys - minus the sweaty sax guy. The population is 78% white (mostly German, Irish and Canadian), 10% Latino and 7% Asian (mostly Indian).


Hermosa Beach is one of the South Bay's three "Beach Cities." The Hermosa Beach pier, at the end of Pier Avenue, is one of the community's main and shopping, eating and partying areas. In the late 1970s punk bands Black Flag and Descendents formed there. In the 1980s, Pennywise followed. The population is 85% white (mostly German, Irish, Canadian and English), 7% Latino and 5% Asian.


Lomita is Spanish for "little knoll". It's home to the Lomita Railroad Museum, which was opened in 1966 by Irene Lewis. The population is 54% white (mostly German), 26% Latino (mostly Mexican), 12% Asian (mostly Korean) and 4% black.


George H. Peck owned a lot of the land that became part of the north section of Manhattan Beach. Supposedly, a coin flip decided the town's name. Around 1902, the beach suburb was named "Manhattan" after the developer's home town, Manhattan Beach, New York. Residents have informally divided the city into several distinct neighborhoods, including "The Village," "Sand Section," "Hill Section," "Tree Section," "Gas Lamp Section," Manhattan Heights," "East Manhattan Beach,"Liberty Village," "Poet's Section" (Shelley, Tennyson and Longfellow), and El Porto (North Manhattan). It's home of the wealthiest population of the beach cities. The populace are 86% white, 6% Asian and 5% Latino.


Palos Verdes Estates, on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, was master-planned by the noted American landscape architect and planner Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. One of the popular landmarks is La Venta Inn, built in 1923 and the first known building structure on the Palos Verdes Peninsula after the Tongva era. Today the population is 75% white (mostly English and German) and 17% Asian (mostly Taiwanese and Japanese).


Playa del Rey's people are 73% white (german, Irish, Persian, English), 10% Latino, 8% Asian, 4% black. Playa del Rey lies beneath the Del Rey Hills, also known as the Westchester Bluffs on a flood plain (until 1824, the mouth of the Los Angeles River) which slopes gradually uphill north to the Santa Monica Mountains. The rolling hills are the result of ancient, wind-blown, compacted sand duneswhich rise up to 125 feet above sea level, with one prominent, steep dune running parallel to the coast, from Playa del Rey, all the way south to Palos Verdes. The northern part was originally wetlands, but the natural flooding was halted by the concrete channel which contains Ballona Creek.


Rancho Palos Verdes is an affluent suburb of Los Angeles. Sitting atop the Palos Verdes Hills and bluffs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, it is known for expansive views of the Pacific Ocean. 63% white (English and German), 25% Asian (Korean and Japanese) and 6% Latino.


Redondo Beach is home of the the poorest average citizen of the three Beach Cities. The primary attractions include Municipal Pier and the sandy beach. The western terminus of the Metro Rail Green Line (the so-called "Train to nowhere") is in Redondo Beach. The population is 70% white (mostly German and Irish), 13% Latino (mostly Mexican) and 10% Asian (mostly Japanese).


Rolling Hills is home to the wealthiest and oldest neighborhood population in the South Bay. It's a gated community located on the Palos Verdes Peninsula. If you cruise down Vermont (one of the best drives in LA), it ends down there and gets dark at night. That's because the city maintains a ranch character with no traffic lights. There are also wide equestrian paths along streets. The population is 76% white (English and German), 14% Asian (Korean) and 5% Latino (Mexican).


Rolling Hills Estates is another bucolic and equine community on the Palos Verdes peninsula. The population is 70% white (mostly English and German), 20% Asian (mostly Japanese and Korean), 6% Latino.


Almost landlocked, T Town has a 1.5 mile long beach. The Del Amo Fashion Center, at 232,000 m², is one of the largest malls in the US. In the early 1900s, real estate developer Jared Sidney Torrance and other investors saw the value of creating a mixed industrial-residential community south of Los Angeles. They purchased part of an old Spanish land grant and hired landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to design a new planned community. Historically the El Nido neighborhood was home to many European immigrants, mainly Dutch, German, Greek, Italian and Portuguese people. They were soon joined by Mexican immigrants and today the population is 52% white (mostly German), 29% Asian (mostly Japanese and Korean) and 13% Latino.


Westchester is home to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Loyola Marymount University (LMU), and Otis College of Art and Design. It's located in the eastern part of the Del Rey Hills aka the Westchester Bluffs. The population is 52% white (mostly German and Irish), 17% black, 17% Latino (mostly Mexican) and 10% Asian (mostly Filipino). It's the hometown (neighborhood) of folk-rock cult band, The Roosters.

And so South Bay fans, to vote for any towns in the South Bay or any other Los Angeles County communities to be covered on the blog, vote here. To vote for Los Angeles neighborhoods, click here. To vote for Orange County neighborhoods, vote here. Yea South Bay!


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California Fool's Gold -- A San Gabriel Valley Primer

Posted by Eric Brightwell, April 24, 2011 06:33pm | Post a Comment

Invariably when one speaks or hears of "The Valley," the valley in question is the San Fernando (despite the fact that there are at least six major and loads of minor valleys in Los Angeles County). For the same reasons that I'm mildly annoyed when people refer to "THE City" or "THE Bay," the notion of "THE Valley" smacks of ignorance at best and unpleasant small-mindedness at worst. This blog entry is an introduction to the San Gabriel Valley, that great and amazing expanse of suburbs, boomburbs, exurbs and enthoburbs (any "suburb" portmanteaus I've missed?) with surprisingly significant history and variety of cultures beneath the seemingly uniform surface of bandage-colored strip malls and homes. That being said, at the time of writing, the San Fernando Valley page on Facebook has 25,519 fans whereas the San Gabriel Valley page has a mere ten.

Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Map of the San Gabriel Valley


The San Gabriel Valley is bordered by the the Verdugo Hills and San Rafael Hills to the northwest; the San Gabriel Mountains (and Angeles Forest region) to the north; The Pomona Valley and Inland Empire to the east; the Puente Hills and San Jose Hills and, on the other side, Orange County to the south; SELACO to the south west; and The Eastside and NELA to the west.

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California Fool's Gold -- Exploring Venice

Posted by Eric Brightwell, January 19, 2011 07:20pm | Post a Comment

Venice is a neighborhood in Los Angeles' Westside neighbored by Santa Monica to the north, Mar Vista to the east, Culver City and Del Rey to the southeast, Marina del Rey to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It's famous for its canals, Muscle Beach, Venice Beach and Ocean Front Walk  -- "the Boardwalk." To vote for other Los Angeles neighborhoods to be the subject of future blog entries, vote here. To vote for Los Angeles County communities, vote here. To vote for Orange County communities and neighborhoods, vote here


  Pendersleigh & Sons' Official Map of Venice

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