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On Location: La Puente

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The Donut Hole in La Puente | Photo: Paul Narvaez/Flickr/Creative Commons

Nestled between the City of Industry, Covina and West Covina is the small city of La Puente. Similar to much of the surrounding San Gabriel Valley, La Puente is a multicultural city with an agrarian history. This week L.A. Letters spotlights both the city's history and the new generation of game-changers invested in the city's revitalization.

Like so many cities in California, La Puente's name dates to the Spanish era. Before the Spanish built the San Gabriel Mission in 1774, there was a longstanding Native American village in the La Puente area called Awingna. In the years following the establishment of the Mission, eventually Rancho La Puente was demarcated as a mission outpost and ranch in the early 19th Century. Translated into English, La Puente means the bridge.

In 1842 Rancho La Puente was granted to John Rowland and William Workman. The Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum located nearby in the City of Industry dates back to that era. The museum on site is open to the public and the last California Governor of the Mexican era, Pio Pico is buried in the cemetery there.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and now professor Victor Valle explicates early La Puente history within his 2009 narrative from Rutgers University Press, "City of Industry." Originating from an investigative series of articles he wrote for the Los Angeles Times, the book details three generations of corruption and power relations in the adjacent City of Industry as well as background history on nearby cities like La Puente and El Monte.

Photo courtesy of Ruben Hoyos
Photo courtesy of Ruben Hoyos

La Puente is a Good Hometown

Aside from his college years at USC, 43-year-old Eric Chow has lived in La Puente from the time he was 7 years old. He says, "La Puente is a mostly Latino working and middle class neighborhood that has seen more Asian families settling in over the years. When I was a kid, I felt like the only Asian or Chinese kid in town, but our street eventually saw Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese residents move in and live there for decades." Chow knows the inside scoop and history of his town well. The pulse of the city he notes is in Old Town La Puente, the small downtown district centered primarily on Main Street. Chow also knows the forgotten stories also. He recently told me, "Ironically, the Industry Hills Resort is a famous golf resort that once had well regarded swim and tennis programs and was the classy destination that was built on top of a landfill."

Chow says he has always felt at home in La Puente and that he spent a lot of time at the local La Puente Library where his mom worked for several years. He jokes, "Everyone that I meet in L.A. that once grew up in La Puente is usually amazed that a Chinese American guy also grew up there in the 80s. There's a bond that I feel we think La Puente was a good hometown that is under-appreciated." He also says Bridgetown is a nickname many longtime locals use for La Puente and that there is a car club of the same name.

Chow has a wealth of knowledge on La Puente restaurants and retail outlets also. Aside from mentioning classic sites like the Donut Hole, he also names, "GQ Cuts: the trendiest hair salon for fashionable teens and adults. Owner Gabriel Quinones is the stylist for LMFAO who gets flown out when the band's on tour. He leads a group of stylists who are flamboyantly out and seem to get along well with the football players, jocks, and party kids from La Puente." Some of Chow's favorite local eateries include the Kim Tar Chinese Restaurant, the Pho Hoa Vietnamese Restaurants, the Colonia Taco Lounge, L.A. Indiana and the Cortez Brothers. Chow also told me that a Basque community has longstanding roots in La Puente and that for several decades one of the nicest restaurants in town, Le Chalet Basque was a focal point for the Basque population in the city. They are no longer open and the MVP Lounge, a Taiwanese Karaoke for Chinese businessmen now stands there.

Downtown La Puente, ca. 1930s | Photo courtesy of Ruben Marin
Downtown La Puente, ca. 1930s | Photo courtesy of Ruben Marin

The Star Theater

Ruben Marin is a 32-year-old La Puente native that earned his Masters in Urban Planning at NYU in 2012. Following his graduate work he decided to come back and lend his skills and intellect to revitalizing his hometown. He's been freelance writing on local issues, especially the fate of the Star Theater on First and Glendora. Located on the diagonal corner from the La Puente Valley Women's Club, the Star Theater on First and Glendora is a mid-sized movie palace built in the Quonset Hut style by the celebrated architect, S. Charles Lee. Lee is best known for the Los Angeles movie palace on Broadway and dozens of other extravagant movie theaters he designed in the 1930s and 40s. The theater has been threatened with demolition. Marin has written a series of articles to raise awareness about the theater. Recently Marin wrote, "Let's take a moment to reflect the importance the theater has in bridging the past, present, and the future of La Puente."

Another activist concerned with saving the theater is Sal Gomez. After growing up in East L.A. and in the San Fernando Valley, Gomez has been a resident of La Puente since 1993. Gomez is a rock photographer and historic preservation activist that helped establish the "Save the Pickford Fairbanks Studios" cause in West Hollywood. As a longtime admirer of the architect S. Charles Lee and movie palaces in general, he says "The Star Theater has always been on my radar since I moved here. Its architecture reminded me of a long demolished theater in Montebello, The Garmar Theater on Whittier Blvd. When I found out it was designed by the same architect I became even more intrigued."

Gomez has "seen the theater close their doors and reopen over the years. Then after many years being shuttered the first rumors about the possible demolition began to sweep through the town. Then an information board was erected in the old theater parking lot displaying a diagram of the planned new mixed use building intended to replace The Star. Then earlier this year came more information that once again The Star was being threatened by redevelopment."

Activists like Ruben Marin and Gomez have a vision for the Star. Gomez says, "The Theater itself was designed in such a way that it would take dynamite to destroy it. It was built like a tank. It was built to last for decades and longer if it was properly taken care of by people who can appreciate the history and its necessity to this community. It is connected to the growth of this town. It has become an icon. And with the proper planning and execution The Star could once again be a central hub of this downtown area. A community art center, mixed use facility. People in this town could once again say...see you at The Star!" Their efforts remain in progress and they have recently garnered the support of influential organizations like the L.A. Conservancy.

The Star Theater on Main Street, La Puente | Wikimedia Commons
The Star Theater on Main Street, La Puente | Wikimedia Commons, by klxadm

The La Puente Art Walk

The La Puente Art Walk was started at the end of 2011 and it has mobilized the younger generation of creative folks living in the city. Christopher Luke Trevilla, Anabel Bello and Kimberly Cobian started the La Puente Art Walk as a project of the Nuvein Foundation. One of the key players in the La Puente Art Walk since its inception is the musician, artist and writer Chris Penalber, otherwise known by his artist name Cakeshop. Penalber was born in Boyle Heights, grew up in City Terrace and has now called La Puente home for 16 years. Dating back to the late 90s, Penalber has been throwing do-it-yourself themed art shows in places like Boyle Heights and across the Eastside. His involvement in the La Puente Art Walk began with a case of serendipity.

It started on a brisk February afternoon in 2012 in the La Puente Library. Penalber remembers, "I was without internet and had to utilize the libraries free wifi and computers when I was interrupted by Christopher Luke Trevilla tapping on a live mike within the library, proclaiming that the first ever La Puente Art Walk was upon us."

Though Penalber had been living in La Puente over a decade at the time and had been involved in the L.A. art scene for years, he had yet to be involved in any cultural event in La Puente, he always drove to Boyle Heights or Downtown L.A. to organize his shows or check out a gallery. Trevilla's words were music to his ears and they became fast friends. The advent of the new Art Walk energized him and he began organizing events each time and recruiting artists from around the San Gabriel Valley. Penalber notes, "The beauty of this city is hidden behind bedroom doors, garage doors, front yards, backyards and parks."

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Initially, he says, "a coffee shop acted as the natural focus of the Art Walk, but then there a couple of storefronts that were also used." The first show came and went but soon "he was approached by another fellow artist who was 'living' inside one of the storefronts running itself as a gallery/studio and this was the Arte Cabalturo Studios, or as several La Puente natives knew it, 'the drum bizarre' place." From there he met Art Lopez, the proprietor, curator and mastermind behind Arte Cabalturo studios.

Penalber began collaborating with Lopez for each Art Walk, one of their first events was a Batman related art show. Shortly after this he also helped organize a large poetry and art event with Christopher Luke Trevilla. Following the building momentum he had established over several months in 2012, many of the younger artists around La Puente less experienced than Penalber became inspired and started participating more. "From there," he says, "it was a train that was barreling down the tracks at a good clip." Other key figures in the burgeoning Art Walk along with Penalber have been Melissa Lyndell, Bryan Coreas and Omar Alcocer.

Though his friend Art Lopez had to close his gallery after several months, Penalber then began to work with another space called the RIT Gallery where he curated an art show and booked several local bands. The timing coincided with International Woman's Month and he decided to call the show, "Blood Lust." It was an all-female arts and music festival with art inspired by heartbreak. Reminiscing he says, "That event was the biggest thing to happen to La Puente in years! The amount of talented women artists, voices, musicians and performers was simply stellar and from every region including Portland, Arizona, Texas and New York. It was a huge success for everyone involved. From there on I continued to curate an event every Art Walk as well as several arts and music related events." Entering the Fall of 2014, they show no signs of slowing down.

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La Puente Artwalk | Photo: La Puente Artwalk Facebook

Youth Sports in La Puente

Educator and poet, Cory Cofer, otherwise known as Besskepp has lived in La Puente for 12 years and taught at Nogales High School for 8 years. Though he is now teaching in nearby West Covina he remains closely tied to La Puente and still leads the Nogales High School Poetry Club. Over the last 6 years several of his poets have won poetry contests and one student in particular got a full ride scholarship for college because of her writing and recitation skills. Cofer loves La Puente. He tells me about the annual Independence Day event, "Where it seems like the entire city shows up at La Puente Park to watch the fireworks."

He also mentions, "The annual parades, high school homecoming games, and youth sporting events. Every evening at La Puente Park, or many other parks in La Puente, you can witness parents out supporting their children participating in organized baseball, football, soccer or basketball leagues." His son grew up playing several sports in La Puente, even winning several awards and tournaments.

Cofer is thankful for people like a man he calls Coach Art, a La Puente native that has been coaching in the La Puente Little League for over 30 years. Cofer says, "He inspired my son, in many ways. I didn't realize how much until recently when we were driving down a street in La Puente and my son spotted Coach Art in a front yard hanging out with a couple of family members. He begged me to turn around so he can go say hi to Coach Art. When we left, he credited Coach Art for giving him confidence in not only baseball, but in life, and said that he was the best coach he has ever had."

Cofer also told me another inspiring story about the soccer team his son played on in La Puente. It began in 2010 when Coach Rigo Hernandez created an all-star team with a group of 7 and 8 year old boys who played on various teams throughout the La Puente League. Cofer says, "He named the team 'La Puente Dreams.' Luckily, my son was asked to join the team as a defender." After the team won many local tournaments, a prominent local soccer club in the San Gabriel Valley called the FC Golden State Soccer Club asked the team to become part of the club and enter the league as an under 9 team. Cofer says, "It was different. The rules were strict. There were snack bars opposed to baby strollers carrying potato chips. There was shade, and nice fields, by the ocean. There were even fields where you can see the ocean from the fields. Parents were asked to drive far, take kids to training in Temple City twice a week, and buy expensive uniforms and warm ups."

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Sooner than later the La Puente Dreams team began winning game after game even against teams that had won multiple state cups and had much more financial support. Cofer shares, "The boys came to play. Ripping through the league playing their La Puente style of play...physical, direct and fast. They eventually won the League Cup and went on to the State tournament." Their success continued into the semi-finals where, "they played Barcelona Academy with whom many predicted they would lose to. La Puente Dreams, now called FC Golden State beat them 4-0."

After this victory they kept the streak alive in the finals versus Chivas Academy, the academy team of the professional Los Angeles Chivas team, a team that includes many of the sons from the professional players' team. Cofer says, "The boys from La Puente, scored first, 2nd, and third. Chivas put on a push, by scoring 2 goals in the second half and almost tying the game with a free kick. In the end, the little 7 and 8 year olds from La Puente, were the California President's Division State Champs! Who would have thought? La Puente Dreams, turned FC Golden State, turned California State Cup Champs!" His son continues to play in La Puente and has already won several trophies because of the great local sports programs.

Between the vibrant youth sports programs, burgeoning art walk and efforts to revitalize the Star Theater, La Puente is a city on the rise. Though the city recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, a dynamic new energy is emerging in the community. The combination of celebrating the city's storied history along with these new forces cultivating the next generation of residents bodes well for the future of La Puente. For all these reasons and more, La Puente is a sacred landscape in the geography of L.A. Letters.

Fireworks at La Puente Park
Fireworks at La Puente Park

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