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On Location: Cerritos

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Heritage Park in Cerritos | Photo: Adam Koford/Flickr/Creative Commons

Cerritos is known around Southern California for the Auto Square, an award-winning library, the Center for the Performing Arts Center and an airplane crash in the 1980s, but this gateway city is rich with ethnic diversity, a great archipelago of parks, youth sports and Hip Hop history. This week L.A. Letters examines Cerritos and explores the unique legacy of this gem of a city nestled in the southeast corner of Los Angeles County. This essay will cover a wide range of facets of Cerritos from its early history, rapid growth to its importance in the Hip Hop landscape of Southern California. I know the city particularly well because I was born in Cerritos in 1974 and lived there until 1992.

Before going into the rise of Cerritos and its development, an important place to begin is the strategic geographic position of the city. Some writers have made the mistake of saying that Cerritos is in Orange County, but it is actually located in the southeastern quadrant of Los Angeles County on the border adjacent to Orange County. Neighboring cities like La Palma and Cypress are in Orange County, but Cerritos is not. The city's shape resembles a U, is just under 9 square miles and the population hovers around 50,000 residents.

Early Development

The San Gabriel River is the western border for most of Cerritos. There is a small segment west of the river in the north central part of the city, but the river acts as the border for most of the western boundary. The 605 Freeway runs adjacent to the river and it also acts as western border for much of the city. This is part of why the 605 Freeway is called the San Gabriel River freeway. In addition to the 605, the 91 Freeway runs along the northern side. These two superhighways were both constructed in 1963-64 and were very influential in the city's rapid growth. The two expressways meet in the northwestern area of the city, just west of Gahr High School and north of the Los Cerritos Mall. The northeastern part of Cerritos, which is more of an industrial area, is just south of Interstate 5 next to Norwalk. Cerritos is situated equidistant from Downtown Los Angeles, Long Beach and the center of Orange County. For this reason, the hub of cities around Cerritos are called the Gateway Cities because they are on the border of the two counties and are very much in the middle of the Southern California Metropolitan region.

Another asset of the city along with its central geographic placement is the area's great ethnic diversity. Cerritos is known for its sizeable Filipino, Korean, Indian, Chinese and Taiwanese populations. Together these groups make Cerritos the third most Asian area in Southern California, the only two areas with a higher percentage are Chinatown and Monterey Park.

Cerritos was originally incorporated as a city in 1956 under the name of Dairy Valley. As I have noted in a previous article about Artesia, the surrounding area was one of the largest milk-producing regions in North America for much of the 20th Century. Dairy Valley did not change its name to Cerritos until 1967. The name was taken from the Rancho Los Cerritos which had formerly been in Long Beach and nearby Cerritos College, which is actually in Norwalk.

My parents moved to Cerritos in 1971 after living in Long Beach through most of the 1960s. My mom grew up in Los Angeles and my dad grew up in Inglewood. After living in Long Beach for their first few years together, they bought a home in Cerritos near 195th Street in the summer of 1971. My dad told me he remembers driving on the 605 Freeway in the late 1960s and it was like driving through the country. He can clearly recall seeing undeveloped farmland on both sides of the freeway for several miles stretching from Del Amo to Alondra. This stretch is now populated with hundreds of homes and the Los Cerritos Mall and Auto Square. The home they purchased was built in 1969-70 and my mom still lives there to this day.

In the years between 1970 and 1972, Cerritos was one of the fastest growing cities in America. In the first decade and a half of its existence, the city had more cows than people. Many of the dairies were sold in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the land was quickly replaced with tract housing. Many of the dairy farmers had held out until the late 1960s and early 1970s to sell their land. Now in 2015, on the corner of Studebaker and 166th in the northwestern corner of the city, just south of Cerritos College, remains a lone strawberry field, the last remaining link to the city's agrarian past.

Heritage Park in Cerritos, 1989 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Heritage Park in Cerritos, 1989 | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Parks and Recreation

Cerritos is also remarkable for its parks and immaculate landscaping. It has been named a Tree City USA by the National Arbor Day Foundation, the National Association of State Foresters and the USDA Forest Service every year since 1998. They award this honor to select cities throughout the country for outstanding community forestry programs and their commitment to their urban forest -Cerritos has 28 parks.

One of the most memorable aspects of my childhood was playing youth sports in the many parks around Cerritos. When the city was first being developed through the 1970s, most of the new housing tracts would include a new elementary school and small local park. Three blocks from my mom's house is a place called Jacob Park. 28 parks and recreation facilities are in Cerritos, the largest are Cerritos County Regional Park, Cerritos Park East, Heritage Park and Liberty Park. I played baseball, basketball and football in youth sports leagues in all of these parks throughout the 1980s. I also spent years riding my bicycle through them as well.

In the time just before the 1984 Olympics, Cerritos built a deluxe indoor swimming pool at Cerritos Park East. My family and I swam there often during the 1980s. The pool remains as grand as ever though it's now been open over three decades.

41-year old Victor Castelo knows these parks very well. Castelo has lived almost his entire life in Cerritos. He's worked for the city since 1999. He recently told me, "Working for the Parks, Senior Center, and now Library has been an amazing experience. I've been an important part of kids' lives. I've seen those kids grow up into adults and give back to the community. It's been one of the best parts of my life so far."

Another notable park is located just west of City Hall and the Millennium Library. In 2006, the city of Cerritos created a sculpture garden to memorialize the victims of an airplane crash that took place in 1986. An Aeromexico DC-9 passenger plane collided with a small private airplane over Cerritos and the resulting crash killed 82 people, included 15 on the ground. I heard the airplane as it was falling out of the sky, though the crash happened about a mile and a half east of my house. My dad and two friends of mine drove over to the site and saw the fire off in the distance.

Public art sculptures at Cerritos Library | Photo: Michael Huang/Flickr/Creative Commons

The Melting Pot of Cerritos

In the midst of my childhood in the 1980s, teachers at my elementary school Patricia Nixon, now called the Nixon Academy would often lead class discussions on the city's ethnic diversity. My classmates and I had grown up in the melting pot of Cerritos and had never known anything else. When I was at Artesia High School in 1990, Cerritos was declared one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation that year by the United States Census.

34-year old Jean Ho is an award-winning writer that grew up in Cerritos. She tells me, "I think growing up in Cerritos is a very particular sort of middle-class Asian American experience. I'm a second-generation Taiwanese American; my family moved to the states in the 80s. Many of my friends in Cerritos were also from immigrant families. I never felt like my family's experience was out of place or weird, amongst my friends. Cerritos is a tiny city but it's always been a very ethnically diverse, so growing up I had friends from all kinds of different backgrounds. I didn't realize back then that that was anything special or different."

In the midst of the Cerritos's great ethnic diversity, there is also a powerful sense of community. Kevinjohn Tandoc, better known as DJ KJ Butta from the Cerritos All Stars DJ crew tells me, "I moved to Cerritos in 1978 and the best part is that at an early age, I learned about community. Each block had a group of kids that would be in the streets playing tag football, riding bikes, skateboarding, dancing, etc. My parents had me involved in so many activities at the age of 10. Swimming lessons at Cerritos Park East, basketball in the fall and soccer in the summer all through the Parks programs, and tennis lessons at Liberty Park. Highlights were going to Skate Depot or playing video games at Time Out at the Cerritos Mall."

Nazareth Nirza, better known as DJ Rhettmatic from the world famous DJ crew, the Beat Junkies also grew up in Cerritos. His family moved to Cerritos in 1971. He recently told me his family was, "One of the few first Filipino families that moved to Cerritos. The Filipino community in Cerritos has been very influential in the Southern California Hip Hop scene, especially the mobile DJ crews that emerged from the neighborhood. The Beat Junkies are the most famous of these crews and their rise to prominence is an epic story in its own right.

DJ KJ Butta shares, "My favorite part of growing up in Cerritos in the early 80's was being able to play freely with the neighborhood kids in the street and in the various parks. It was also the city that introduced me to the elements of Hip-Hop at such a young age. I remember practicing backspins on the basketball court at Shadow Park by laying down some linoleum or cardboard at the age of 9. By the time I was in junior high and early high school, I would be doodling block letters trying to imitate the NASA (No Art Survives After) crew, wore Public Image clothing and practiced the latest dance moves like the Running Man and Roger Rabbit." KJ Butta grew up watching older DJ's like Rhettmatic and the rest of the Beat Junkies.

Rhettmatic and DJ KJ Butta grew up in the Cerritos mobile DJ scene as it came to international prominence. The legacy of groups like the Beat Junkies, Cerritos All Stars and the now defunct record store, Stacks Vinyl is so extensive, that next week's column will explicate the storied legacy of Hip Hop in Cerritos. The Hip Hop community became so prominent that even the current Mayor of Cerritos, Mark Pulido, was a part of it. Rhettmatic told me, "I grew up with Mark from around the way, we are the same age and we're both Filipino Americans," he says. "He went to Whitney High School, and I went to Cerritos High, and we were from different crews competing against each other. As we got older, we both took different routes in life, but what connected us together and made us become friends to this very day, was Hip Hop."

The Los Cerritos Mall, Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and the Millennium Library

As noted in the beginning of this essay, the founders of Cerritos made many wise decisions in the city's early history. One of the first was the construction of the Los Cerritos Mall in 1971. Two of my first jobs were there in the early 1990s. Most longtime residents of Cerritos have their share of stories about the mall. Jean Ho recalls, "In high school, my friends and I hung out at the Cerritos Mall a lot. The first job I ever had was at Foot Action. Many of the stores we shopped at are no longer there...Judy's, Miller's Outpost, Spencer's Gifts. In high school, if you really liked someone, you'd get them something engraved from Things Remembered."

In the last decade, the mall has been expanded and renovated. The mall holds an annual Festival of Friendship to honor the city's cultural diversity. It continues to be a hub for shoppers in Southeastern Los Angeles County. The sales tax revenue from the mall has helped the city have enough financial resources to do other projects like the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and the Millennium Library.

Los Cerritos Mall | Photo: Ralph Morris Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Los Cerritos Mall | Photo: Ralph Morris Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Another one of the city's smart decisions was building the Auto Square. 29 auto dealerships stretch along Studebaker Road between South Street and 183rd. The revenue from the Auto Square coupled with the mall has made the city government quite wealthy even if the residents are mostly middle class. This revenue has allowed the city to create facilities like the Cerritos Towne Center, the location of the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. Constructed in 1993, the Center for the Performing Arts opened its doors with Frank Sinatra on stage for it first three nights. 41-year old Dave Park has lived most of his life in Cerritos. He says, "I remember the dirt field by Whitney High School and large vacant land where the current Cerritos Center for Performing Arts is." The center has six different seating configurations and can seat over 1700 guests for music, comedy and jazz performances. It hosts dozens of shows every year.
Directly across the street from the Center of the Performing Arts is the Cerritos Millennium Library. The original library was built in 1973 on the same site and was much smaller. A first renovation doubled the library's size in the mid-1980s and by 2002, the library was expanded for a second time to become the Cerritos Millennium Library. The site was the first structure in the United States to feature an exterior with titanium panels; the architects that built it were influenced by Frank Gehry's design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Their design was finished in 2002, a year before the Disney Concert Hall. The library has three floors of themed spaces, cutting edge technology and world class amenities throughout. It has won numerous awards and along with the Center for the Performing Arts, it is one of the city's crown jewels.

The Schools in Cerritos

A final note also needs to be said about the city's schools. Whitney High School is a magnet school that students have to take an entrance exam to attend. It consistently ranks in the Top 50 schools in America. Cerritos High School has been a Soccer powerhouse with three of its former players being former members of the U.S. National Soccer team: Marcelo Balboa, Jorge Saucedo and Eddie Lewis. I attended UCLA with Eddie Lewis from 1992 to 1995. Jorge Saucedo is now the head coach of the UCLA Soccer team.

Though most schools were built in the 1970s, one exception is Carmenita Middle School that was originally built in 1930 and features an art deco façade that still stands on the corner of Carmenita and 166th. This poured concrete art deco façade is one of the oldest structures in Cerritos and looks much more like something you would find in inner-city Los Angeles or Downtown Long Beach.

Cerritos College is also an award winning junior college. Though it is located in Norwalk, it sits adjacent to the northern border of Cerritos and serves Cerritos and neighboring cities like Artesia, Lakewood, Bellflower and Norwalk. One of its students Melina Ahmadpour told me, "I came from a University out in Vegas, and I noticed that the teachers at Cerritos, both young and old REALLY care about the success of their students. Though it is a very crowded school, the staff does their best to be accommodating and helpful." Cerritos College has also been recently upgraded with several new buildings and has a great record for transferring students to local four year schools.

Conclusion: From Fedco to Skate Depot to the 21st Century

Cerritos continues to evolve. Jean Ho says, "There seems to be a lot of new businesses that have been developed in Cerritos recently, lots of new restaurants, especially. I still remember the Cerritos of my childhood: shopping at Fedco with my mom, 25-cent ice cream cones at Thrifty, birthday parties at Skate Depot, watching the July 4th fireworks at Cerritos Park East. The changes are fine. I miss Skate Depot, though!" Opened in 1980, Skate Depot was forced to close in summer 2014 because the new owners of the business plaza where Skate Depot was located would not renew the lease, even though the site had remained very popular for almost 35 years. Similar to KJ Butta and Jean Ho, I also had birthday parties at Skate Depot.

Victor Castelo says, "Cerritos has grown immensely over the past 20 years. It's no longer just the mall and auto square. It's the Performing Arts Center, the Towne Center, the Millennium Library, the parks, and now it's an upscale mall." All of these developments, combined with the ethnic diversity and Hip Hop history make Cerritos the phenomenal city that it is. As noted before, next week I will examine the legacy of Hip Hop and its place in the city's history.

Forty year-old Eric Wakimura has lived his whole life in Cerritos. He recently told me, "Growing up in Cerritos helped me to grow as person with an open mind and a compassionate heart for ALL in need." As the many other voices throughout the essay attest to, similar sentiments are voiced by many other long-term residents. Salute to Cerritos for being a groundbreaking location in the landscape of L.A. Letters.

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