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On Location: Monterey Park

In the last three decades Monterey Park became known as the first city and suburb in America to have an Asian majority. Advertised in Asia as the "Chinese Beverly Hills," the city's unique social history has made it the subject of several books in the last two decades. What's less known is the city's long legacy of ethnic diversity on several fronts. The Chicano population has been significant in the city for over three generations. Dating back to Eisenhower, Monterey Park was called the "Mexican Beverly Hills," for upwardly-mobile Mexicans in East LA. Furthermore there have been historic enclaves of Japanese-American, Armenian and Jewish residents in the city from the postwar period. There's also a historical museum and fully functioning Observatory run by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society within city limits. I've met many remarkable people in Monterey Park over the years and their stories are the bedrock of this narrative. This week L.A. Letters explores the landscape, cultural history and evolution of Monterey Park.

Situated just east of City Terrace and north of Montebello and Unincorporated East Los Angeles, Monterey Park's first outstanding asset is the area's geographical placement. The core of the city lies just east of the 710 freeway and in between the 10 and 60 freeways. Three foothills form the city's shape. The central position puts it within straight line striking distance of Downtown Los Angeles, Pasadena, even Long Beach and the Inland Empire. Following the Tongva, aka Gabrielino Indians, long existence in the area, the land became a part of the outlying area of the San Gabriel Mission before becoming a part of the Spanish Land Grant that became the Don Antonio Maria Lugo Rancho in 1810.

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The area remained very agricultural all the way until the Second World War. Incorporated as Monterey Park in 1916, it was called Ramona Acres during the first years of the 20th Century. Just before the city was created, Alhambra and Pasadena wanted to turn Ramona Acres into a sewage dump, so local landowners quickly organized and came together to form the new city. The city's 100th Anniversary is in 2016.

Cascades Park ca.1930 | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

One of the most historic sites in Monterey Park is the Jardin El Encanto where the Chamber of Commerce now operates. This quintessential Spanish Colonial Revival structure was originally built in 1929 in tandem with Cascades Park immediately west when real estate developer Peter Snyder built the upscale Midwick View Estates in Monterey Park. Snyder created El Encanto and the Cascades to be the centerpiece of his new luxury enclave. Snyder wanted to turn Monterey Park into an Eastside Beverly Hills. Furthermore he planned to build an outdoor concert venue like the Greek Theater or a scaled down Hollywood Bowl in the ravine directly east of the park. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 sabotaged those grand plans, but the El Encanto and Cascades both still stand unscathed and as beautiful today as they were back in the Jazz Age.

Garvey Ranch Park on the eastside of Monterey Park is where you can find two very historical sites adjacent to each other. Richard Garvey was a 19th Century U.S. Army mail carrier that had passed through the area on his way into Los Angeles in 1879. Shortly after traveling through the local hills, Garvey purchased 4,000 acres of the former rancho lands and built his home where the park now stands. There's much more to Garvey's story and a historical museum on site has all the details. The adjacent Observatory was originally built for entertainment purposes by Garvey Jr. as a part of his home during the 1930s. More words on the Observatory in a moment.

2 boys on Garvey Ave ca. 1955 | Photo: Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Richard Garvey's name is on Monterey Park's major east-west thoroughfare because he had traveled the road as a mail carrier and in later years he owned the land that it passed through. Before the road was named Garvey it was called Coyote Pass and it was one of the only major roads into Los Angeles from the San Gabriel Valley generations before the freeway. Coyote Pass was named for the many coyotes in the hills. The leafy hills of City Terrace and Monterey Park had more than just coyotes. In the early days of lawless Los Angeles bandits and vigilantes lurked in the chaparral and carefully negotiated the undeveloped land between the Pueblo at Olvera Street and El Monte.

Potato Chip Queen Laura Scudder started her empire in Monterey Park with a service station that on the southwest corner of Garvey and Atlantic back in the 1920s when the land was almost completely undeveloped. A documentary on Scudder in the museum reveals that part of the reason she started her business was that people's cars kept breaking down on Garvey near their property. Her station was one of the first on the emerging artery. A plaque on the northeast corner of the intersection commemorates Scudder and her legacy on Monterey Park.

Eiji Asahara is a 70-year old Japanese-born Sushi Chef that has lived in Monterey Park since the early 1980s. Asahara worked for many years at Shinano's Japanese Restaurant on Atlantic. Dating back to 2005, Asahara began telling me different stories about his 30 plus years in Monterey Park. His customers from the generation before him had told him about the early days. He told me that on the border of Monterey Park and Montebello was an area called "Yokohama Village" that was a Japanese-American community dating back to the 1920s. Furthermore he said that this community had informally nicknamed the area, "Banzai Hills" when they first arrived. The name came from their enthusiasm regarding the lush, rolling foothills of the neighborhood.

The Observatory at Garvey Ranch Park is a fully functioning Observatory run by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society. The night I was there a few dozen astrophysicists, telescope builders and members of the Planetary Society were there stargazing as well as sharing stories and appetizers. Open to the public, they meet every Wednesday night at 7pm. Many of the members work at places like JPL and Cal Tech but there are also several friendly local enthusiasts that bring their kids to use the telescope.

There's a small dome on site. Obviously it's nowhere near the size of the Griffith Observatory but it is quite a remarkable resource for a humble suburban city. I met Robert Nolan, an expert telescope builder as he was fine tuning his latest creation. Next to him was his longtime friend, the astronomer Bob Alborzian. The Los Angeles Astronomical Society has been meeting there since 1987 and before them there was a Monterey Park Astronomical Society but its members all passed in the 1980s. The current group is going strong.

As noted before, the Monterey Park Historical Museum is next to the Observatory. A small part of Garvey's original home remains in the museum. On my way into the museum I met 73-year old Paul Perez. As a young engineer, Perez was a part of the team designing the Pomona Freeway in the early 1960s. Sent into the area by his colleagues to inspect and monitor the construction, he was instantly smitten by Monterey Park's rolling hills, open space and close proximity to Downtown L.A. Paul Perez is introduced by his friend Mike Eng during his acceptance of Monterey Park's 'People Who Make A Difference' Award | Photo: Courtesy of www.thecitizensvoice.net "I fell in love with Monterey Park," he tells me. Born in Texas, Perez moved to Los Angeles at 13 with his family. In 1964 he moved to Monterey Park from Echo Park and he's been there ever since. Perez loves Monterey Park so much that he convinced his parents to move there shortly after he did and they lived in the city until they passed well into their 90s just a few years ago.
Though Perez is of Portuguese descent, he's been a long time member of the Asian Pacific State Employees Association. He's been close to the Asian community for over 50 years. "They've accepted me as one of their own."

Over the years Perez grew so close with local Japanese and Chinese business partners that he eventually even served as the Treasurer and President of the organization for the Southern Chapter even though he is not officially of any Asian descent. Similar to the way venerated Hapa author Sesshu Foster from City Terrace is considered an honorary Chicano, Perez is respected in the Monterey Park Asian community as an honorary Asian. He tells me that he has eaten in almost every restaurant in Monterey Park, especially since he retired in the last decade. His years of expertise as a freeway engineer have also made him Monterey Park's longtime Traffic Commissioner.

Perez spends his time as a volunteer teaching citizenship and ESL at the Monterey Park Library and as a Docent with the Historical Society. He speaks enough Chinese, Japanese and Spanish, that he can help just about anybody. In 2009 Perez was honored by the city of Monterey Park for his Public Service. Jim Iwaki is a Japanese-American, the Treasurer of the Monterey Park Historical Society and has lived in the city as long as Perez. These two old friends epitomize the good vibes in the San Gabriel Valley that are often overlooked.

Perez is an affable man with love for all but he's also an ex-Marine that's never hesitated when it was time to take a stand. "Stand up and be counted," he says. During the 1980s when Monterey Park was transitioning into a Chinese majority city, there was a lot of racial tension and no shortage of public bickering and name calling. At the center of this was the city's former mayor, Barry Hatch. Hatch was a vocal critic of immigration and known for ranting in the local press about changes in the city. "Besides creating local divisiveness and unease, Hatch's frequent comments were played up in the media and became an embarrassment for the entire community," writes scholar Timothy Fong. Perez never subscribed to the antics of Hatch and the Nativist movement that came to rise. Perez tells me that a woman named Mary Louise Uranga has played an important role as a bridge builder and advocate for the city's diverse history.

Paul Perez also credits Judy Chu and Mike Eng as two politicians in Monterey Park that organized multiethnic coalitions and started to bring the city together in the 1990s. Following the political upheaval and racial tension in the city during the Reagan era, Monterey Park attracted national attention. The city has been the subject of several books in the last two decades. The most recent book was "The Opposite Field" written by longtime L.A. Times reporter Jesse Katz in 2009. Katz's memoir is about his years in Monterey Park as a baseball coach for his son's little league team.

La Loma Park: the setting for much of Jesse Katz's The Opposite Field | Photo: Courtesy of www.byjessekatz.com

Temple University Press published two books in the 1990s on Monterey Park: "The First Suburban Chinatown" by Timothy Fong in 1994 and "The Politics of Diversity" by John Horton in 1995. There is some overlap in the two books but both have enough unique content to justify their respective existence. Fong's book is focused on Monterey Park as it evolved into, "the first suburban Chinatown." Photo: Courtesy of Temple University PressHorton's book focuses on the transformation of Monterey Park's landscape into a 21st Century city. Horton writes, "The massive numerical increase in the regional Latino population, the decline in local Anglo domination, the expansion of Asian numerical and economic power led to a contradictory mix of nativist, nationalist, and multicultural responses."

A third academic book, "Ethnoburbs" devotes almost half of its pages to Monterey Park and uses the city as the archetype of the emerging ethnoburb across America. Luis Rodriguez spent much of his youth in adjacent South San Gabriel and writes about his years attending school in Monterey Park at Mark Keppel High School during the Vietnam era in his best-selling book, "Always Running." Influential historian and scholar Ronald Takaki has written about Monterey Park as well.

27-year old graduate student in History and Chinese-American Brian Sun grew up in Monterey Park and also went to Mark Keppel. Sun shares a few stories about coming of age in Monterey Park in the late 1990s, early 2000s. "Growing up in MPK and attending Mark Keppel High School was a very good experience. The area and school was probably half Asian and half Hispanic, with your other races making up a small percentage. Ethnic lines were invisible, if not non-existent. I would say half of my friends were Hispanics, my best friend was Hispanic, and I dated other races." Sun's observations echo many from his generation that have grown up in the San Gabriel Valley. He continues, "The Hispanics kids knew of Asian customs and food, Asian kids were just as aware. We would spend afternoons at each others houses and each of our parents and grandparents would become a significant figure in our lives."

Sun also debunks certain stereotypes, "I could not say that the nerds were exclusively Asians, because there were just as many Hispanics in the same category. There was no awkward over compensation to prove one is ethnically aware and tolerant of each other. In Monterey Park and at Mark Keppel, you wouldn't notice any of this because we were like a shuffled deck of cards - every group had an equal mix of kids." Brian Sun and his generation are the future of Monterey Park.

Entrance to East Los Angeles College, date unknown | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

Vincent Price Museum | Photo: waltarrrrr/Flickr/Creative Commons


Monterey Park is also home to East Los Angeles College and their stellar Vincent Price Art Museum (see my KCET architecture column from October 2012 for more on the museum). In 2011 the massive Atlantic Times Square opened on the north side of the city. Crowned with luxury condos over a promenade of restaurants and shops, it's definitely one of the biggest projects ever built in the city. Christopher Hawthorne recently described it in the Los Angeles Times: "It attempts to bring together the street-front energy of nearby Valley Boulevard in Alhambra, with its noodle shops and cacophony of signs in Chinese, and the upscale residential amenities and flashy lighting of Rick Caruso's Americana at Brand complex in Glendale." Hawthorne concludes his review by noting, "It is not a happy marriage." The saving grace of the complex for this writer is the Curry House and there are almost a dozen other eateries and a multiplex. All good food aside, Hawthorne is correct about the complex's architectural noise. For more info on the countless eateries in Monterey Park and Alhambra read Jonathan Gold or KCET Food writer Clarissa Wei.

There's much more to say about Monterey Park. The intersections of different cultures within the city make it a quintessential laboratory of the American urban future. Between the Observatory, Historical Museum, the Vincent Price Art Museum and countless eateries, there are many places to visit and enjoy. Monterey Park's city motto fits, "pride in the past, faith in the future." Undoubtedly there will be new stories to be told. Salute to Monterey Park and longtime local residents like Eiji Asahara, Paul Perez and Brian Sun, they are ambassadors and bridge builders in the topography of L.A. Letters.

Top Photo: Chinese New Year Parade with Miss Monterey Park, 1992 | Stephen Gold | Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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