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Everyday Heroes of Florence-Firestone

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Photo courtesy of Jonathan P. Bell

Located directly north of Watts, Florence-Firestone in unincorporated Los Angeles County is one of the most historic neighborhoods in Southern California. This week L.A. Letters spotlights the history of Florence-Firestone and a cadre of its local residents and stakeholders who are working tirelessly to improve the community that they love so much.

The history of the area starts in the late 19th Century when the Southern Pacific and Pacific Electric railroads had stops along Florence and Graham streets. The district was originally called Florence-Graham, and it has always had a high density of housing because of the adjacent manufacturing core. In later years, the County rebranded it Florence-Firestone in reference to Florence Avenue and Firestone Boulevard, the two major east-west thoroughfares that bisect the community.

Located six miles south of Downtown Los Angeles, the neighborhood is 3.5 square miles and is surrounded by Huntington Park, South Gate and Los Angeles. It is often lumped in with South Central Los Angeles, but it is unincorporated Los Angeles County and not officially part of the City of Los Angeles, though it is directly north of Watts, which is an official city district. The boundaries zig zag a bit, but generally speaking the northern border is Slauson, the eastern border is Alameda, the western border is Central Avenue, and the southern boundary is Century and the neighborhood of Watts. Within the district is an eclectic mix of commercial, residential and industrial zoning. This can especially be seen on streets like Compton Avenue, where storefront churches are next door to small houses, family-run retail stores, and archaic industrial buildings.

Jonathan P. Bell is a Los Angeles County Urban Planner that has been very active in the Florence-Firestone community over the last decade. He tells me, "Up until now, there has been no published history of the Florence-Firestone area, but historians have written about everything else around it." Bell is correct with his assertion -- there has been plenty of history recorded about Watts, the Central Avenue Corridor, Huntington Park, and South Gate, all located nearby. Bell is deeply committed to improve Florence-Firestone and to share its untold story. He has worked closely with local residents and the county library in order to do this. The Boyle Heights-born, Montebello-raised Bell loves South Los Angeles as a whole, and takes his job very seriously as urban planner. He knows the area better than just about anyone.

Another fascinating point about the district, Bell tells me, is its zip codes. "California's zip codes run the ninety-thousands," he says. "Florence-Firestone's zip codes are 90001 and 90002. Origination points. The statewide zip codes BEGIN in Florence-Firestone. We cannot deny that history! Yet somehow historians have overlooked the Florence-Firestone community."

The population of Florence-Firestone has always been diverse, dating back to over a century ago. First, it was European settlers in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and then African Americans came in the early 20th Century, particularly because of the area's proximity to Central Avenue and Watts. Mexican immigrants soon joined the black population, and by the late 20th Century Latinos from Central and South America started arriving. Florence-Firestone has always served as an origination point for new arrivals to Southern California.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 1957 | Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs, Los Angeles Public Library
Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 1957 | Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs, Los Angeles Public Library

The massive Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company factory, formerly located on Central between Gage and Florence, was a key factor in the area's growing population during the early 20th Century. In its heyday over 2,500 employees worked there and operations ran 24 hours a day, seven days a week for many years. Goodyear even built a small residential tract for its employees early on. A portion of the area was dubbed the Wingfoot Industrial District, in honor of the Goodyear logo. The former Goodyear site is now operated by the United States Postal Service. It is a giant parcel of land that at one point in time even had enough space for a hangar for the earliest versions of the Goodyear Blimp.

Less than two miles southeast of the former Goodyear plant at Alameda and Firestone is the equally massive former plant for Firestone tires. Located in South Gate, this plant was located adjacent to Alameda during the days when the street was like a Berlin Wall in relationship to the restrictive housing covenants in place in Southern California from the early 20th Century. East of Alameda, into areas like South Gate and Huntington Park, were white neighborhoods considered off limits to people of color for much of the 20th Century until these covenants were declared unconstitutional in 1948.

Firestone Boulevard's name changes to Manchester a mile west of the former Firestone plant at Central Avenue when it enters the city of Los Angeles. These two large industrial hubs were not the only industrial sites in the area; there were dozens of other assembly plants and factories within a few mile radius. To this day, there are numerous auto dismantling shops and other small industrial sites on Alameda heading south into Watts.

The housing stock in Florence-Firestone has always been dense, and includes lots of bungalows, duplexes, triplexes, and occasional ranch houses and Victorians to accommodate the working man. Though many of the first residents were working-class whites, often from the South, there were many European immigrants and by the time of the Second World War, large numbers of African-Americans called the area home.

The story of the neighborhood's eventual decline is by now a familiar story that applies to not only South Los Angeles, but also to nearby cities like South Gate, Huntington Park, and other parts of the former manufacturing core, like Lynwood and Compton. The slow decline began with the closing of many of the local factories during the 1960s and '70s, and the slow disinvestment of the area following both the 1965 Watts Uprisings and the 1992 Rodney King Uprisings.

38-ply heavy duty tire in front of the Firestone plant, 1964 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
38-ply heavy duty tire in front of the Firestone plant, 1964 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

What's less known though, is that crime has gone down dramatically in Florence-Firestone over the last decade. The neighborhood has been making a quiet resurgence in recent years. The improvements can be directly attributed to a few groups of local residents, stakeholders, and county officials that have been working together.
For this reason the County of Los Angeles Public Library, in partnership with the Florence-Firestone Community Leaders organization and the Florence-Firestone/Walnut Park Chamber of Commerce, have banded together to create a community history website, called "Florence-Firestone: Stories of Everyday Heroes," that gathers videos, photos and narratives of these "everyday heroes," from Florence-Firestone. This site was the brainchild of Angel Nicolas, a longtime Los Angeles County Public librarian that slowly came to know the Florence-Firestone community and was very impressed with the activists he met. Nicolas has been working very hard over the last year collecting their stories.

On June 24 at the Florence-Firestone Service Center, a launch event was held for the website, and several of the community leaders were on hand to share their testimonies. The event was a spirited occasion with a palpable excitement in the air. The Service Center, located on Compton Avenue directly across the street from the historic first Sheriff's Station, was the perfect site to hold this gathering. In its lobby is a large mural, painted in 2010 by the late great South Los Angeles artist Willie Middlebrook, called "Short Stories," depicting the ethnic diversity of the past and present of Florence-Firestone. Middlebrook died in 2012 and this piece was one of his final works. He was well known for loving Los Angeles and doing his best to capture untold stories. He would have been very happy to hear about the "Everyday Heroes" project.

The newly launched site now features video interviews with eight individuals deeply engaged in improving the Florence-Firestone community. Their commitment to improve their neighborhood was truly inspiring. I attended the launch event, and spoke with a number of these leaders. Here are a few of their stories:

William Allen is a Vietnam veteran that grew up in Florence-Firestone during the 1950s, and ended up moving back to the neighborhood 40 years later after retiring from the military. When he moved back into the property his parents had owned, he was disappointed by how decrepit their old home, and the whole area, had become. His parents had rented out their property for many years, and in the course of his travels he had lost touch with his early stomping grounds.

In his video interview he spoke about how his best friend while growing up was a Mexican-American and that during his day, black and brown residents got along very well. When he returned to the neighborhood, there was more tension than he remembered. Shortly after he moved back into the house his parents had bought in 1954, there was a drive-by shooting next door, and then his home was robbed.

William Allen on his 5th birthday
William Allen on his 5th birthday  | Photo: Florence-Firestone Everyday Heroes

These events led him to visit the local Sheriff's station at Compton Avenue and Nadeau Street, and he was told about the Florence-Firestone Community Leaders organization. He's been a key member of the group from this day on. He now mentors young basketball players, and he remains a leader in the community. At the launch event for "Everyday Heroes," Allen briefly spoke before the crowd about his participation in the group and his deep love for Florence-Firestone.

Another local leader featured on the website and present at the launch is Paula Trejo. Trejo is the President of the Florence-Firestone Community Leaders, and like William Allen she also grew up in the neighborhood and then moved out, only to move back again years later. When she returned in 2004, she was inspired to join up with other local activists like William Allen. She has raised children in the area and is very committed to getting local citizens more services in their community.

Rick Aldridge is also featured on the website and is very active with the Florence-Firestone Community Leaders. He grew up in a politically active family in the area, attending Fremont High School and then went on to both UCLA and Cal State L.A. for his graduate studies. He has been involved in economic development for many years and ended up moving back to the area when his parents were getting older. Similar to Allen and Trejo, he had been away from the area for many years and when he returned, he decided to contribute to making it better. He now brings his many years of experience in the business world to help the local economy, as well as improve the schools, in Florence-Firestone.

The Florence-Firestone Community Leaders is a diverse group of residents from the area that includes homeowners, business leaders, and working class residents. They meet every second Wednesday of the month at Washington Park at 6:30 p.m. Above all, they are about community empowerment. Aldridge notes in his interview that they all get along very well and he hopes to transfer this camaraderie across the district. The area was once predominantly black, then by the early '90s, it was equally black and Latino; now it is over 85% percent Latino and about 15% black.

Oral history from Jonathan P. Bell is also featured on "Everyday Heroes," and he works closely with the County Library, the Florence-Firestone Community Leaders, and the Chamber of Commerce. Bell tells me, "Florence-Firestone is one of the best examples of a local community where different groups work together and peacefully coexist." Bell brings his knowledge of zoning codes and local history to the table and anything else they may need. Above all, he loves Florence-Firestone and wants to see the district flourish.

Another local stakeholder featured on the website and present at the launch event is Gloria Medina, the president of the Florence-Firestone Merchants Association. Medina is a strong advocate for women entrepreneurs and has done a lot to stimulate local business. She was awarded two certificates from the County at the event for her service to the community.

One local resident who was at the event is 87-year-old Joseph Jacob Titus, who is yet to be filmed for the website, but will be in the future. Titus is a Caucasian man that has lived his entire life in Florence-Firestone. His father was a contractor that built apartment houses on 59th, 62nd, 63rd, and 64th Street during the 1920s. Titus told me that though his father had been quite wealthy during the '20s, he died $30,000 in debt in 1933. Titus went to Edison Junior High and Fremont High School. He remains a walking encyclopedia of local history and he told me several anecdotes about his long life in Florence-Firestone.

Titus said that there were so many fires at Goodyear Tire Company in his youth that Goodyear had its own Fire Department. He also spoke about the high level of toxic chemicals that were in the area because of all the factories. He reminisced about the Pacific Electric Streetcar and told me, "The deaths we have had on the Blue Line are in the same places they were back in the days of the Red Car. History repeats itself." Titus also told me about the long-gone Gentry Theater that was at 66th and Compton Avenue, and about how one of the first Carl's Junior that ever opened was on Florence and Central. Titus has seen the neighborhood through all of its ups and downs. He told me that for a time over two decades ago there were "20 dope dealers 24 hours a day," standing outside on his street. He said that sometimes he would find drugs that dealers would hide in his mailbox. Following a drive-by shooting next to his house in 1993, the sheriffs slowly began to clean up his street. They made it a one-way road and now he tells me it is much safer.

Titus told me that he did not become involved in local community issues until the late 1980s, and it was the desperate nature of the times that pulled him in. He has collaborated with the Florence-Firestone Community Leaders and is well-known by the stakeholders as the District's elder statesman. In recent years, his sister Mary Rose Cortese has also moved back to the area and works closely with him around the community. On the night of the site launch, he was warmly greeted by other longtime residents like William Allen.

One more engaged local advocate I met was John Jones III, a field deputy from the 15th District that works for councilmember Joe Buscaino. Jones grew up in Florence-Firestone and now works in Watts for the City of Los Angeles. He told me he started as an activist in his teen years when he was involved with the preservation of Roosevelt Park. In 2008, Jones founded the Eastside Riders (ESR), a local bicycle club based in Watts and South Los Angeles. According to their website,"The purpose of the ESR is to prevent youth from joining gangs and/or taking drugs, but also engage youth who have a desire to enrich the community through recreational activities, specifically focusing on bicycle riding." The night I met Jones, he was also talking with Jonathan P. Bell about a series of proposed bike lanes that will connect from Florence-Firestone into Watts.

Photo: Jonathan P. Bell
Photo courtesy of Jonathan P. Bell

A few nights after the launch, I took a drive around Florence-Firestone with Jonathan P. Bell. He drove me down Slauson and showed me the old concrete platforms that remained on the street from when the Pacific Electric Streetcar was there. He drove me past a new pocket park on Gage, adjacent to the Blue Line Station. He also showed me where the first Sheriff's Station once was at Firestone Park near Nadeau and Compton Avenue. The building remains there but it is now the Sheriffs Youth Activity League, a place dedicated to helping local youth.

Bell drove me past the County Library on Florence near Miramonte, and told me that he wrote a thesis proposal on the history of the Florence and Graham branch libraries a few years ago. They are two of the oldest libraries in the County system, but have had very little history recorded about either one. Bell is also not a fan of the idea some have of calling South Los Angeles "SOLA." Similar to Teka-Lark Fleming and Skira Martinez, to him the area will always be South Central Los Angeles, and any new name erases the area's early history. Furthermore, he notes, "Sola in Spanish means lonely girl," and for Bell, the vibrant streets of Florence-Firestone are anything but lonely. He loves the bustling shops on Florence Avenue and the district's colorful murals. He also showed me a few beautiful old craftsman homes nestled within the fabric of the neighborhood.

The Office of Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas in the Second District has recently commissioned Cal Arts Provost Jeannene Przyblyski to do a history project on Florence-Firestone. Last year, they also commissioned writer and artist Rosten Woo to do a highly acclaimed project on the nearby area of Willowbrook that came out on Half Letter Press, who will also be publishing the project on Florence-Firestone.

Bell is excited to be taking over as the new incoming volunteer project manager for the Florence-Firestone "Everyday Heroes," project because the former project manager Angel Nicolas has now become the Community Library Manager in Lynwood. There are many more residents and community leaders narratives that Bell intends to film and record. Bell is the perfect man for this job because he's been working in the area for over a decade now and he's well acquainted with local residents and business owners.
Bell and other community leaders like William Allen, Paula Trejo, Rick Aldridge, Gloria Medina, Erica Ortega, Celica Quinones, and Arthur Jones are firmly committed to improving the conditions of Florence-Firestone. The area has come a long way over the last century and has dramatically improved in the last decade because of their efforts. Salute to these everyday heroes and to Florence-Firestone for being a historic and vibrant district in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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