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On Location: Alhambra

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This week L.A. Letters examines Alhambra, the gateway to the San Gabriel Valley. Nestled between Pasadena, South Pasadena, San Gabriel, San Marino, El Sereno, City Terrace and Monterey Park, Alhambra is one of the oldest suburbs in Los Angeles County, dating back to the arrival of the transcontinental railroad and the boom of the 1880s. Its placement between Monterey Park and Pasadena also reflects the current mix of Chinese, Latin, and old school Americana that come together to make the spirit of Alhambra.

The proximity to Pasadena and Monterey Park is an excellent starting point for discussing Alhambra. Just a few years younger than Pasadena, Alhambra was incorporated officially in 1903, though it began as an early boom town in the 1880s. Benjamin Wilson, aka Don Benito, is the father of Alhambra; his life story is another article in itself. A new biography on Wilson was recently published by Angel City Press. Atlantic Boulevard was also originally named Wilson Avenue after him.

Wilson's daughter Ruth named the city after reading the book "Tales of the Alhambra," by Washington Irving. This book of fanciful tales about The Alhambra in Spain fit within the spirit of the times. Like nearby Monterey Park, Spanish names make up many Alhambra streets. Streets like Granada, Ramona, Cordova, El Molino, Sierra Vista, and Hidalgo show how early Alhambra pioneers were tapping into the late 19th century Spanish fever that was used to sell Southern California. Don Benito's daughter Ruth Wilson was also the mother of General George Patton, who grew up in nearby San Marino.

As noted in the Monterey Park article a few weeks ago, before Monterey Park was incorporated in 1916, it was called "Ramona Acres." There is a section of homes in Alhambra, just north of Monterey Park called, Ramona Acres. Furthermore, adjacent to the 10 Freeway and near Garfield, there is a Ramona Avenue that runs through both Monterey Park and Alhambra. There are many more Spanish names in the area, and they were all named during the early boom years a century ago.

Alhambra Hotel on Main Street, 1890 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Alhambra and Monterey Park both sit just west of the San Gabriel Mission, and east of Downtown L.A. This central location placed them in prime position to capitalize on the massive interest of all things Spanish, following the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 book, "Ramona."

Jackson intended her book to be a polemic against the treatment of the California Indians cloaked in a love story, but it ended up becoming a powerful force for bringing people to Southern California, to discover more about the Mission era and old Spanish romance. Jackson died a year after its publication, and never lived to see the complete effect of her work. A few years earlier, before she came to California, she had written a nonfiction book called "A Century of Dishonor," about America's poor record of genocide and relocating the indigenous residents. Sentimental as she was, Jackson was an advocate and wanted to make a difference.

Ironically, her book became one of the biggest booster tools in the history of Southern California. More streets and schools are named for Ramona than just about any other in the region. Mary Pickford played "Ramona" in one of the first famous silent films in 1910. There are still Ramona pageants and plays at the San Gabriel Mission and across the basin. Alhambra was already developing before Jackson's book, but the future streets named for Ramona were dubbed around the 1890s and turn of the century, in an attempt to ride the coattails of Ramona fever.

The Spanish history of California was exaggerated to sell real estate. Following Jackson's book people began to arrive by the thousands, interested in visiting the missions and adobes as depicted in the novel. Historian William Deverell, in his book "Whitewashed Adobe," describes how suddenly the mistreatment of the Indians in the missions was reframed in a much more romantic light. Boosters began to mythologize the Spanish period. California historian, author, and activist, Carey McWilliams characterized the invented Spanish-American identity as a "fantasy heritage" in his seminal book, "North of Mexico."

The fantasy identity was disseminated in books and brochures by boosters like the Bureau of Immigration and the Santa Fe Railway, along with authors like Charles Fletcher Lummis. Cities like Alhambra and San Gabriel became magnets for enthusiasts, tourists, and eventually residents. Southern Pacific Railroad had a station at Garfield and Mission built in 1887, and this area became home to the first cluster of Alhambra residents. Mission Road connected the station to the nearby San Gabriel Mission a few miles east. Alhambra's close proximity to the mission and its own name connected with the Spanish mythology of California in a big way.

Following the boom of the 1880s Alhambra slowed down a bit, but in general the city's development mirrored the general boom of the entire region as the 20th Century began. Orange groves were subdivided into housing tracts. In 1902 the Pacific Electric built their interurban rail down Main Street, which became the hub for small businesses. The Victorian designed Alhambra Hotel, built on Main in the 1880s, was the first big destination in the city. Mission and Valley Boulevard were other early important streets.

Main Street in Alhambra, ca. 1920, with Public Library visible on the left | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Alhambra and Monterey Park are, for the most part, divided by the 10 freeway, with the exception of one part of western Alhambra. This section extends south of the 10, and was once home to a large golf course called the Midwick Country Club. Built in 1912, it was considered one of the finest country clubs in Southern California. The club was gone by the Second World War, but for a period it attracted Hollywood stars and local luminaries. The only thing left of the country club is Granada Park, with its large hillside grass. The rest of the area is now homes, though the mansions that once stood on Fremont Avenue, just west of the Midwick Country Club, have all but vanished. Phil Specter's infamous castle is just north of the 10 freeway in Alhambra, and a big monumental arch at the corner of Valley and Fremont says "Alhambra" on it.

Fifty-three year old Karen LeBrun is a lifelong Alhambra resident. She tells me, "the original name for Main Street was Boabdil, which also came from the book about The Alhambra. People found the name too unusual, and so it was changed to Main Street." Main Street flourished in its original form until the 1970s. LeBrun remembers, "Downtown Alhambra was the place to shop, with Woolworth, JC Penney, Leibergs, Simms, Downers, Max West sporting goods, Winchell's donuts, and many other mom and pop shops."

LeBrun shares a few of her memories, "I remember that Main Street was the hub of Alhambra when I was a kid. The 'Hi Neighbor' parade drew a huge crowd every year. The original library, a Greek revival designed by Frederick L. Roehrig, "The Millionaire's Architect," was located on Main Street. I thought, even as a little kid, it was beautiful! I remember it had a fish pond on the east side of the building." This library was torn down in 1988 because of damage from the Whittier Narrows earthquake the previous year. There are still many craftsman homes from the early period of the city, but not as many as there once were. LeBrun tells me, "Unfortunately, many that were in areas zoned for multiple dwellings were torn down in the 70s and 80s, and replaced with condominiums. Since that time there has been a Historical Preservation Committee created to prevent further loss of these beautiful homes."

In addition to the craftsman homes and the library, LeBrun remembers, "My high school, Ramona Convent, was an architecturally beautiful building that unfortunately had to be torn down due to earthquake damage. A portion of the school along Marengo Avenue was sold, and condos built the year after I graduated in 1978. When I was there this land contained stables and horses owned by some of the students."

LeBrun's Alhambra roots run deep. Her parents both grew up in Alhambra, across the street from each other during the 1950s. "My dad drove a 'chop top' car and he told me they used to race their cars where the 10 freeway ended at Rosemead Boulevard," she says. "He and my mom both went to Mission High School back when it was coed. My dad worked at Leo's Ice cream on Main Street, a very popular hang out in the 1950s." She adds, "My husband also grew up in Alhambra and he remembers riding his bike with his friends everywhere. From Alhambra to Millard Canyon, Eaton Canyon, the Rose Bowl and Puddingstone Dam."

Main Street in Alhambra looking east, 1971 | Security Pacific National Bank Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Woolworths on Main Street in Alhambra, 1986 | whyaduck/Flickr/Creative Commons

Long-time Alhambra Historical Society board member Rose Marie Markus tells me that Norman Rockwell briefly lived in Alhambra for a time. A short street called Champion Place, on the eastside of Alhambra, was a well-known colony for artists during the 1920s and 30s. Rockwell associated with these artists, though he lived a few blocks north from that street, near Alhambra Road. Accounts of his time in Alhambra report that he completed several major works during his stay in the city.

There are a few traces of old Alhambra, like Fosselmans Ice Cream on Main Street, one of the oldest ice cream parlors in America. Huell Howser was there once, and it still feels like Norman Rockwell in their storied space. Year after year Fosselmans appears in hip magazines' "Best of" lists for being the best ice cream in California. Located where all the auto dealerships are, Fosselmans is in the pantheon of iconic Southern California venues like Pinks, Musso & Franks, the Donut Man, etc. They have been established since 1919 -- Fosselman's is mythical and rightfully so.

A few other old school iconic eateries remain, like Twoheys and The Hat. Twoheys is in north Alhambra, and known for their burgers. The Hat is on Valley and Garfield, and known for their pastrami. There are also venues like Noodle World on Valley Boulevard that is in a former Bob's Big Boy. Valley Boulevard is a huge street with dozens of Chinese eateries, Vietnamese eateries, and local Mexican favorites like Pepe's Tacos.

Valley Boulevard is a major road just directly north of the 10 freeway. It was a highway in its own right before the freeway system was built. Another historical item to note is the former Alhambra Airport. Located along Valley near New Boulevard from 1929 until 1946, the Alhambra Airport was an important hub for planes in the San Gabriel Valley.

In the last two decades the city has done a lot of redevelopment. As noted before, a Preservation Society has come to rise after many old structures were lost. Award-winning author Sesshu Foster is a longtime Alhambra resident. He is not a fan of the redevelopment. He says, "While the city of Alhambra is content to declare mom and pop businesses a source of 'blight,' immediately adjacent to the downtown intersection of Garfield and Main streets is the dead mini-mall that used to house Mervyn's Department store and a half dozen other stores, like Payless Shoes, but Alhambra has left that large property sit empty for years. All along Main Street, however, it has razed mom and pop businesses, some, like D'arcy's Coachworks, going back to 1956, in order to build ugly instantly tenement-like condo complexes."

In 1988, the adjacent city of Monterey Park passed an English-Only law for its street signs that prompted hundreds of Chinese businesses to move to Alhambra. Many historians say the Chinese businesses were already in Alhambra or on their way, but in any event Alhambra slowly started to catch up to Monterey Park with Chinese residents and establishments. Valley Boulevard is the hub of Chinese Alhambra, with Dim Sum eateries, bakeries, markets, retail establishments. In the last several years, Vietnamese immigration has been increasing in the area also.

Twohey's, established 1943 | liloh/Flickr/Creative Commons

Alex Phuong is a 21 year old Junior at Cal State L.A. and a long-time Alhambra resident. Phuong shares his memories: "I grew up in Alhambra for practically all of my life. As a child, I went to Ramona Elementary School. After completing eighth grade, I spent the next four years at Alhambra High School. This town might not be as glamorous as a European palace, but it still holds a special place in my heart."

Twenty year old Lucas Benitez grew up around Alhambra. He shares, "I loved hanging out on Main Street. Some of my first memories on Main Street were at the diner before it was remodeled." The 1950s style eatery was a family tradition for Benitez. "My parents would always take me there as a child. We called it the 'Elvis Diner.' We used to sit in the corner next to the Elvis and Beatles records displayed on the wall, and they would talk to me about their favorite songs growing up in the '50s and '60s."

I was on Main Street in Alhambra recently at a crowded Korean BBQ. The multicultural crowd of mostly young Alhambra residents waited patiently for an all-you-can-eat feast. The street outside was bustling, though I did see a few empty storefronts. I can see how Main Street was once truly like a Norman Rockwell painting, like Karen LeBrun shares. The infrastructure of Alhambra is there. Though it is easier said than done, here's to intelligent development -- the bones are there and the people are waiting. New movie theaters were built on Main Street in the last decade, but the street remains in transition. The future is bright though, because Main in Alhambra is a walkable district.

Driving around Alhambra, seeing the many well-cared-for craftsman homes, as well as Spanish Colonial homes, it is easy to see how Norman Rockwell spent some time in the area. Furthermore, red tile roofs and streets like Ramona honor the Spanish past. A drive on Valley Boulevard reveals 21st Century Pacific Rim culture, in all its grandeur of Hong King Cafes and Chinese markets. Alhambra retains its all of these qualities, while still being a very progressive multicultural city. Alhambra, like its neighbor Monterey Park, has an epic history and exciting present. Here's to the citizens of Alhambra, its history and bright future. Long-time residents like Karen LeBrun, Lucas Benitez, Alex Phuong and Sesshu Foster care deeply about their city. Salute to Alhambra and these residents for their important position in the geography of L.A. Letters.

Top: Statue of Benjamin "Don Benito" Wilson at the corner of Main and Garfield in Alhambra. Photo: Slices of Light/Flickr/Creative Commons.

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