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Notes on the Geography of The Western United States: Los Angeles 3

A run south through Watts, Lakewood, Signal Hill, and Anaheim.

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Five miles south of downtown, rings of glass from old 7-Up bottles brighten one of the Watts Towers. The towers are made of steel rods caked with concrete in which glass, tile, pottery, and shells are embedded. They were built by Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant who bought a lot in Watts in 1921. He called this project Nuestra Pueblo and worked on it until 1954, when he moved north to Martinez, near San Francisco. He lived there until 1965 and never returned to the towers, which on departing he had deeded to a neighbor. The city of Los Angeles tried to demolish them in 1957, but citizen action saved them, and in 1978 they were deeded to the state.

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Across the street from the towers, a shotgun house of Rodia's vintage.

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Some owners don't bother with "for sale" signs.

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A few weeks after Rodia's death in 1965, riots broke out, triggered by the arrest of a drunk driver. Five days later, $200 million worth of white-owned commercial property had been destroyed by some 35,000 rioters. Thirty-four of them died. The climb back has been long and hard--and made especially hard by a culture of drugs and gangs. Public housing in Watts now resembles prison buildings. This one was just west of Thomas Starr Jordan High School. (How's that for a name from the past?)

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Fencing is formidable.

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Commercial investment lags.

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The biggest shopping center is rimmed with a fence and gates.

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It's the Martin Luther King Center, at the corner of Grandee and 103rd, and businesses target the customer on a budget.

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Watts also has apartments like these, off 103rd and Beach. Despite their heavy-duty security, they imply the existence of a community with hope.

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Watts has new houses, too, like these on Santa Ana Boulevard. They're proof that the community isn't completely sidelined. The minimal fencing is an especially good sign.

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Six or seven miles southeast of Watts is Lakewood, incorporated in 1954. This was a post-war venture of three builders who came from Long Beach and Norwalk. Their investment logic was simple: Douglas Aircraft Company had a huge Long Beach plant, and its workers needed housing. In 1949 the three builders borrowed heavily from the Prudential Life Insurance Company and spent $9 million on 3,500 ranch-land acres.

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By 1954, they had built 17,000 homes, although some were in adjoining Carson Park. This was an assembly-line operation, with houses knocked out at the astonishing rate of 500 every day.

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VA standards were met but there were also special provisions like underground wiring for street lights. Lakewood was ahead of its time in another way, too: law enforcement and street maintenance were contracted out.

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About 85% of the housing units in Lakewood are single-family homes, mostly with detached garages. Three-quarters are owner occupied, compared to 46% for Los Angeles County. These homes sold originally on contracts with monthly payments of $50. Today these same homes, with 1,000 square feet, are worth about $200,000.

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Lakewood Center in the 1950s was the biggest shopping center in the United States. Major tenants from the outset were Butler Brothers (from 1951) and the May Company (from 1952). Bullocks, Penney, and Montgomery Ward came later.

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The center's walkways were not enclosed until 1978, and they have been updated since then. Lakewood Center is still a valuable property--and the largest of the 47 owned by the Macerich Company of Santa Monica. Within a 5-mile radius there are 625,000 people with a median income of almost $60,000.

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Three miles to the south is Signal Hill. Oil was discovered here in 1922, and within a few years the hill was so covered with derricks that it became known as Porcupine Hill. The derricks are gone now, but 600 oil wells still operate. That's Long Beach in the distance.

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Despite the aroma of oil, this is valuable real estate, with terrific views. These new homes are part of Promontory at Signal Hill, a development where $700,000 buys about 3,000 square feet.

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Disneyland is 10 miles east of Signal Hill. Here, on the west side of the park, is the new Downtown Disney, opened in 2001 and cousin to a larger but similar development at Walt Disney World. It's a logical extension of a "shopping is entertainment" culture.

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Downtown Disney even has overtones of the New Urbanism, because above the shops are the expensive rooms of the Grand Californian Hotel. So much for the "quiet courtyards" of the hotel's promotional literature.

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That's the Disneyland Hotel in the background--a few hundred yards and a world away from this freshly rehabilitated apartment complex. Rents here are capped at $400-$500 a month.

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The apartments cover eight blocks of the Jeffrey-Lynne neighborhood, which until recently was gangs-and-drugs turf. Anaheim redeveloped it at a cost of $54 million. The name was changed to Hermosa Village. TV crews came for the dedication ceremonies in March, 2002, but it was a tough assignment, because except for a few planners everyone was speaking Spanish.


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