Artesia: From Portuguese Dairy Farms to Little India

Pioneer Boulevard, Artesia | Photo: Fred Miller/Flickr/Creative Commons

In recent years the small city of Artesia has gained fame for the stretch of Pioneer Boulevard known as "Little India," the development of which has gradually occurred over the last four decades. Long before the neighborhood changed, Artesia was a small town with dairy farms and a stop along the Pacific Electric streetcar. This week L.A. Letters highlights the past, present and future of Artesia, one of the gateway cities on the southeastern border of Los Angeles County.

Artesia is only 1.62 square miles and surrounded by Cerritos on its eastern, southern and western sides, and Norwalk on the northern side. Artesia has been linked to Cerritos since when it was called Dairy Valley, one of the leading milk-producing regions in the country well into the 1960s. Long before Cerritos changed its name and began transforming into tract-houses, shopping malls, and the auto square, Dutch and Portuguese farmers had settled in Artesia in the early 20th Century, and a commercial stretch of businesses existed on Pioneer Boulevard in Artesia.

Though Artesia did not officially incorporate as a city until 1959, the village of Artesia was first settled in 1875 and remained agrarian for over 80 years. The name was originally chosen for the Artesian wells that naturally occurred in the area. The only link to the Artesian wells remaining is an archaic water tower just east of Pioneer, near 183rd. The area surrounding current-day Artesia and Cerritos was known just as Artesia for the first half of the 20th Century.

The Pacific Electric Red Car had a stop in Artesia, just south of present day Little India at Pioneer Boulevard near South Street. Former first lady Patricia Nixon grew up in Artesia in the 1920s and 1930s, though where her home was in what is now within Cerritos city limits. A statue of Patricia Nixon stands next to the City of Cerritos' Senior Citizen Center, on the site of her early home, and the elementary school I attended in Cerritos was named for her. There is an exhibit at the Cerritos Library honoring all of the First Ladies in American History.

Pat Nixon Park | Photo: City of Cerritos
Pat Nixon Park | Photo: City of Cerritos

Ironically, Artesia High School, on Del Amo and Norwalk Boulevard, is south of Artesia city limits and actually located in Lakewood. Built in 1954, the school was actually established before Cerritos even existed, and the name was chosen because Artesia was the closest city to the campus. Lakewood was incorporated just a few years before, and Cerritos was first incorporated in 1956 as Dairy Valley before the name was changed to Cerritos in the late 1960s. What's more is that Artesia High School students actually come from East Lakewood, the south side of Cerritos, and Hawaiian Gardens. Students that live in Artesia either attend Gahr High School or Cerritos High.

The mascot of Artesia High is the Pioneers, named for both Pioneer Boulevard and the early pioneers who first developed Artesia in the late 19th Century. Artesia High has become known in the last generation for winning five basketball state championships, and standout players like James Harden, the O'bannon brothers, Jason Kapono, and Tom Tolbert. I attended Artesia High and witnessed one of those state championships before I graduated in 1992. My mother told me that when she moved to Cerritos in 1971 there were still several dairy farms in the area, and on a rainy day the smell of cows traveled across the city. By the end of the 1970s, hundreds of tract homes and the big shopping mall were built in Cerritos, but in the first years she lived in the neighborhood she says Pioneer Boulevard was the only real commercial stretch and it was almost like living in the country. Now the traffic on Pioneer and along the nearby 605 and 91 Freeways is as bad as any place in Southern California.

Longtime resident and Founder of the Artesia Arts Council Veronica Bloomfield told me, "For being such a small city, Artesia has it all." She also told me about her grandfather Albert O'Little. He was the official city photographer for many years. A collection of his photos was assembled to create a pictorial history of Artesia over the last 50 years. The community center at Artesia Park, next to the library and across from the city hall, is named after him. Bloomfield's mother is the President of the Artesia Historical Society, which has a small museum located on Alburtis Street. There is also a small Historic Fire Museum adjacent to the Historical Society.

Remnants of the Portuguese community in the area can be found at the Artesia D.E.S., otherwise known as the Portuguese Hall. The D.E.S. stands for Divino Espírito Santo (Divine Holy Spirit). The organization was originally founded in 1927 and they remain active with events throughout the year. The Holy Family Catholic Church in Artesia has been affiliated with the Portuguese Hall dating back to this era. Veronica Bloomfield tells me that Holy Family once had Sunday services in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Now they have services in English, Spanish, and Tagalog. For many years Holy Family was the only Catholic Church for miles around serving Artesia, Cerritos, and Norwalk. Many of the members now come from the large Filipino population in Cerritos.

Artesia D.E.S. Portugese Hall | Photo: Artesia D.E.S.
Artesia D.E.S. Portugese Hall | Photo: Artesia D.E.S.

The transformation of Artesia into Little India gradually began in the early 1980s. By the late 1990s Artesia began to be famous throughout Los Angeles County for Little India, and many people began visiting Pioneer Boulevard. The only downside of the district's popularity locals now mention is that street parking is no longer free, and there are meters to pay like in Downtown Los Angeles or Los Feliz.

The core of Little India is along Pioneer Boulevard, from South Street to 183rd. There are some Indian businesses north of here as well, but this stretch also includes two Chinese supermarkets, several Chinese restaurants, a Korean Barbeque, and several other ethnic stores. There is also a small slice of Artesia north of the 91 Freeway bordering Norwalk, where much of the city's Latino population lives.

Similar to how Koreatown has many Korean businesses but not a majority of Korean residents, Artesia has many Indian businesses but they are not the majority of the population. It is more of a symbolic home. The demographics of Artesia are extremely diverse, including sizable Asian and Latino cohorts. There are many Indians living in nearby Cerritos, which is known for its outstanding academic schools like Whitney High School.

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Professor and founder of the Studio of Southern California History, Dr. Sharon Sekhon, says, "Artesia is a part of my family's history and has served as an important place for newer immigrants from India for nearly forty years -- and this is the Artesia I have known my entire life. Growing up in Fullerton, I regularly went there with my Uncle "Bill" Balwant and Aunti Surjit to purchase spices, rent videos, or window shop. Occasionally, like for a wedding or birthday, we went there to purchase 22k gold jewelry."

Over my lifetime I watched Pioneer Boulevard transform and slowly become what it is now. For many years my mom went to longtime area businesses like the Artesia Pharmacy and Artesia Bakery. Both of them no longer exist, but through the 1970s, '80s and '90s they were in business. The bakery lasted longer than the pharmacy, closing sometime in the early 2000s.

Sharon Sekhon also noted that over the last decade there was resistance by the city government to designate the Little India district with a sign or any special indicator. She recently told me, "Finally, last year Artesia put signage up to acknowledge its Indian population, alongside its other immigrant populations." This only makes sense because the immigrant population has added so much life to the city. Cerritos has long been known for its ethnic diversity and Artesia is equally diverse. Many of the homes in Artesia are older and smaller than the tract houses of Cerritos, but there are also a few streets in Artesia with houses that almost qualify as mansions, near 183rd and Roseton. In years past I had heard those homes were originally built by the heirs of the former dairy owners.

Pioneer Boulevard, Artesia | Photo: Fred Miller/Flickr/Creative Commons

Rhea Nandi Stewart moved near Little India in 1987 when she was 13. Originally her parents moved to Berkeley in 1972 from India just before she was born. After living her early school years in Berkeley where she attended a co-op school and learned a strong sense of social justice, the diversity of Artesia and Cerritos complemented her earlier upbringing. She says, "We moved to Cerritos and I have to admit it, it was the best thing that ever happened to my family. I started Jr. High at Haskell, kids from Cerritos and Artesia mainly made up the school." For many years her mother worked as real estate agent selling homes around Cerritos and Artesia. She reflects more on growing up in the area: "There was this amazing mix of cultures that seem to just melt into one another at that school and later at Gahr High School. Many of us were first generation kids of immigrant parents, others were children of parents that embraced the diversity."

Among the eateries in the area, Nandi Stewart tells me, "Indian restaurants like Ashoka Cuisine have the best buffet and meat dishes with Garlic Naan. Or Jai Bharat that has great snacks and vegetarian food like Dosa and Idli." Now at age 40, Nandi Stewart takes her daughter from her home in Long Beach "to Artesia Little India every Friday to NDM dance to learn Bollywood. I also experience getting my favorite childhood foods and sweets with my eight year old Anika. She sees me getting my eye brows threaded and shaped and sometimes we get henna together. Artesia helps me share my culture with my children that I otherwise could not do."

The future of Artesia looks bright for many reasons. The community library manager Barbara Nightingale told me via email about the Friends of the Artesia Library. She writes, "This past three years they have held a Garden Party Library Benefit raising about $12,000 for library programs and services every year! Also, did you know Artesia Library will be receiving a new library building? It is part of Supervisor Don Knabe's Operation Libraries project. [...] The new building will be approximately twice the size of the present building, and is a 10 million dollar project." In 2005, the Olympic medalist ice skater Michelle Kwan opened the East West Ice Palace, an ice skating rink in Artesia on Artesia Boulevard. It remains a popular destination.

Longtime local residents love Artesia for all these reasons and more. Nandi Stewart says, "My best girlfriends today, a strawberry blond with freckles, a Taiwanese with style that never has quit, one of the most beautiful and strong Korean women I have ever met, and a blond athletic bombshell that every boy wanted in high school, are literally the ones I met in those first months I moved to Southern California. I met my husband at 13 (he was our neighbor and we started dating at 16.) All of these reasons reflect the diversity and wonder of moving to an area like Artesia."

From its earliest roots as a village of dairy farms with a stop on the Pacific Electric streetcar to the cosmopolitan marketplace of Little India along Pioneer Boulevard, Artesia is a unique city with its own dynamic Southern California story. Nestled on the Los Angeles and Orange County border, Artesia is a magical city in the topography of LA Letters.

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