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Torrance: From Agriculture and Industry to International City

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The history of Torrance is one of the most compelling narratives of any city in Southern California. What started as a small, all-American agricultural and industrial town has become a cosmopolitan and diverse city that is both international and local simultaneously. This week L.A. Letters spotlights Torrance in all of its complexity.

The roots of Torrance, like so many Southern California cities following the original settlements built by the indigenous native American peoples, begins with the Spanish and Mexican eras of California history. The area that is now Torrance was originally a part of Rancho San Pedro near the end of the 18th Century, and about six decades later, divided further into Rancho de los Palos Verdes. Two of the early dominant families in this period were the Dominguez and the Sepulveda. Both families remained prominent in local politics for several generations, even into the 20th Century. Shortly after 1900, Torrance started to take the shape it has today under the vision of the real estate developer, Jared Sidney Torrance.

Torrance formed the town in 1912, but it was not formally incorporated until 1921. One of the smartest moves he made was to hire the esteemed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to plan the community. Olmsted, of course, is known as one of the primary visionaries of the Garden City philosophy and much of his plan remains in place. In the history of urban planning, Torrance has been heralded for its excellent mix of residential, commercial, and industrial zones. A number of neighborhoods still have greenbelts, like El Prado Park, just south of Old Town Torrance. In total, the city has 30 parks and over 90,000 trees. The original footprint created by Olmsted set the city up for the illustrious destiny it has embodied.

Torrance is one of the larger suburbs in Los Angeles County, both geographically and in population. The city is over 20 square miles and has over 145,000 residents. In 1956, it was declared in "All-American City," and this status is further bolstered by the fact that Torrance is the birthplace of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO).

Pacific Electric Depot in Old Torrance, ca.1937 | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library
Pacific Electric Depot in Old Torrance, ca.1937 | Photo: Los Angeles Public Library

Old Town Torrance

Old Town Torrance is now considered a historic district, and many of its streets celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2012. A number of the early residential and civic buildings were designed by the celebrated architect Irving Gill. Gill was a master of combining Spanish Colonial Revival architecture with elements of Modernism. His iconic style was consistent with the city's Spanish roots.

The Pacific Electric Railroad Bridge, also known as the El Prado Bridge, was designed by Gill in 1913 and it remains standing over Torrance Boulevard, just east of Old Town Torrance and west of Western Boulevard. It is listed with the California Office of Historic Preservation, and a large celebration in 2013 commemorated its 100th anniversary. It remains one of the most iconic structures in the city.

Torrance was an important hub for the Pacific Electric Streetcar system. A large steel mill established early in the city was once just north of the bridge. The proximity of the port in nearby San Pedro made Torrance a convenient location for farming and factories and the Pacific Electric connected everything. The Red Cars were also repaired in Torrance, further reinforcing the city's central role in Southern California industry.

Early engines of the Torrance economy included not just industry but agriculture and oil. Torrance, like Long Beach and Baldwin Hills, was heavily dotted with oil derricks for much of the first half of the 20th Century. Though the oil wells are no longer as prominent as they once were, the ExxonMobil Refinery remains in the northern end of the city and can be seen from the 405 Freeway. In the years after the Second World War, Torrance became an important site for Southern California's Aerospace Industry.

The Torrance Historical Society and Museum on Post Avenue in Old Town Torrance has a wealth of information on this early history. Housed in an art deco structure built in 1936, the Torrance Historical Society's home was originally the Post Avenue Library. While I was there I briefly spoke with Councilman Kurt Weideman, who previously was the 22nd president of the historical society. Founded in 1973, the Torrance Historical Society not only has a plethora of old photos, maps, and memorabilia, they also occasionally give tours of historic Torrance homes. They also have a number of items related to the Torrance Airport and the great influence the aerospace industry has had on the city.

Aarchitect Sheri Yonamine Yama went to high school in Torrance and spent much of her adolescence in the area. "One of the architectural landmarks of Torrance would be the main building at Torrance High School," she writes. "It is a beautiful Mediterranean Revival structure with Classical and Spanish Colonial influences designed by architect Robert Allen Farrell. It is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, and has in fact been featured in numerous TV shows including 'Beverly Hills 90210' and 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' and other notable movies." For Yama though, it is not the architecture of Torrance High that comes to her mind when she thinks of the city. "It is the place where wonderful memories were created that fostered lasting friendships and it will always and forever feel like I'm coming back home."

Old Torrance storefront | Bruce Evans/Flickr/Creative Commons

Japanese-Americans in Torrance

The hometown ambience noted by Yama is cited again and again by longtime Torrance residents. Torrance has been famous for its large population of Japanese-American residents, which can be attributed to many reasons. Dating back to before the Second World War, dozens of Japanese-American farmers owned nurseries in the South Bay. Many were located in adjacent Gardena. Following the war, there were several Japanese-American nurseries in North Torrance.

For over the last 50 years, Torrance has had many Japanese-born residents in addition to the the sizable Japanese-American population. For over three decades, Toyota's North American headquarters were located in Torrance, until 2013 when they moved their operations to Texas. Honda still has is headquarters in Torrance, and there are a number of other Japanese companies in the area. As any foodie knows, this constant flux of Japanese businesses and residents help to keep Torrance and Gardena as two of the best places in Southern California to find Japanese food.

Traci Kato-Kiriyama went to Torrance High and her parents founded the Japanese-American Historical Society in 1983. She told me that her childhood in Torrance helped cement her Japanese-American identity. "From an early age, they took me often to community meetings, conferences, theatre -- big and small, independent film screenings by Asian and Asian American filmmakers," she remembers. "They had me helping them in organizing buses to Manzanar when I was a young teen."

Kato-Kiriyama now lives in nearby Gardena and her mom remains in Torrance. She often writes and gets coffee at the Coffee Bean on 182nd and Crenshaw. The significance of the location is that it is 100 yards west of where her grandfathers' nursery once stood. In 1957 his nursery was taken from him by eminent domain so that an off-ramp could be built for the emerging 405 Freeway. Her grandfather had owned a number of nurseries from Inglewood, Gardena, and in north Torrance. He was also interned in the Japanese-American concentration camps during the Second World War. Kato-Kiriyama's family history on both sides led to not only her parents both becoming educators, but her own career as a writer and activist. After her college years, she devoted herself to the Asian-American art scene in Little Tokyo and has become a central figure, in much the same way that her parents were.

As much as she loved growing up in Torrance, there were turbulent times during her youth in the 1980s as well. She explains: "It helped me relate my sense of self within a larger context of Japanese-American and later Asian American and other people of color and other struggles -- and this was incredibly helpful while growing up in the '80s when classmates were showing me the anti-Japanese 'Buy American' stickers their parents bought for them. Being called a number of racial slurs was a consistent experience when going out with friends in the area on weekends. So, there was a constant sense of wanting to 'get out.'"

At the same time, she notes that her cousins, aunties, and uncles are mostly still there. "I have fond memories of the privilege we had to roam the streets together and stay at each other's homes while our folks were bowling or playing poker." Torrance has always been a memory of mixed feelings for Kato-Kiriyama.

Japanese restaurants in Torrance | Photo: schlymay/Flickr/Creative Commons

Similar sentiments are expressed by Kikuo Nishi, a Japanese-American from Torrance also known as the hip-hop artist Key Kool. As I noted in the article about Cerritos and its hip-hop history, Key Kool along with Rhettmatic together produced the first Asian-American hip-hop album in 1995.

Nishi's grandparents, like Kato-Kiriyama's, were also in the internment camps. Nishi even composed an extended poetic meditation on their experience in the camps for a final project he completed during his college years at UCLA. He explains, "I remember speaking with my grandfather (my dad's dad), asking him what he thought about me rapping. He told me that everyone said he was crazy for wanting to start a new life in the U.S. as a 16 year old with only a few hundred dollars to his name. He told me that if it's what makes me happy I should pursue it. My grandfather ended up becoming a multi-millionaire by 37, to have it all taken away when he was put in the internment camps. When I asked him about how he felt, he replied, 'what does that matter to me now as I'm dying, all that matters is that you're here comforting me, my grandson, and my family, loves and cares for me."

"It was this resilience, and ability to bounce back from adversity that helped the Isseis and Niseis, and gave our generation the opportunity to pursue our endeavors and to express what we was directly and inadvertently suppressed by our grandparents and parents," Nishi says. "Being a Japanese American child was very comfortable in Torrance. My elementary school had Japan Day and I recall having udon for lunch in Kindergarten, and every kid got to learn to write their name in katakana on a mini-scroll. It seemed all very normal to me at the time, not realizing how it gave me underlying comfort and confidence in my development. I also felt very American when friends of mine, who were children of Japanese company men, were very culturally different and made me realize that my Japanese speaking skills were not so good."

Hip-Hop History in Torrance

Nishi often gives credit to his youth in Torrance as one of the key factors he became a hip-hop artist. "Torrance helped me realize and shape the fact that I was amphibious. I was Japanese, and American. I was smart in school, and on the streets. I was a student-athlete, and a b-boy. I had friends from every circle, and spoke all of their languages." Nishi tells me he was friends with everyone, whether they were thugs or AP students. His popularity led to him being hired to DJ parties all over Torrance and the South Bay. "Growing up in North Torrance gave me an opportunity to go to good schools, become an artist, play sports, and have exposure to the streets, allowing me to be humbled, learn to make good choices, and be smart both academically and street-wise."

Nishi would often hang out at the Del Amo Mall in middle school. "We would take the bus there, go to the arcade to (try and) meet girls. I can recall getting into a heated b-boy battle at the bus stop, which had a covered area with a slick concrete floor." Similar to Cerritos, the unlikely Torrance actually has played a major role in Southern California hip-hop history. Nishi told me that the Roadium Swap Meet in North Torrance is where a Japanese-American named Steve Yano had a record store. "Every weekend, my friend Glen Tagami and I would go hang out with Steve Yano at his record store at the Roadium Swap Meet," Nishi says.

Yano was known for having one of the best record collections in Southern California, and also for carrying underground mixtapes. "Yano ended up introducing Eazy E to Dr. Dre, which formed into N.W.A. and the rest was history," Nishi notes. "Steve would proudly tell us of every happening of NWA, and we witnessed first-hand the start and explosion of indie record entrepreneurs, which was influential on our beginnings of Up Above Records in 1995. We would buy mixtapes by Dr. Dre, and as aspiring DJs, we were super excited to meet him as he was producer and DJ of the World Class Wreckin Cru and DJing on the original 1580 KDAY." In addition to this, N.W.A.'s debut album "Straight Outta Compton" was mixed at Audio Achievements in Torrance.

Del Amo Mall in Torrance | Photo: Leroy/Flickr/Creative Commons

Diversity in Torrance

Nishi attended North High School in Torrance. "The jocks, skaters, b-boys, surfers, gangsters, punk rockers and AP students would all show up at the same parties and get along fine. Most students that went to school actually cared, and so while there were some gang presence, it was overall quelled, and regulated especially by my Samoan buddies that came to our school to play football." The comedian and activist Jenny Yang also attended North High. She says, "Growing up in Torrance around a diverse school community of Asian Americans, Latinos, and African Americans really nurtured my leadership growth and identity. I was around a critical mass of diverse Asian Americans who were well rounded. I was able to participate in student government and grow through the student activities. I did not learn about Asian American stereotypes until I left Torrance and attended college."

Yang was recently listed by the L.A. Weekly as one of "L.A.'s Most Fascinating Characters," for 2015. Much of her humor is about the role of Asian-Americans in contemporary society. Growing up as a Taiwanese-American in Torrance, she was very involved in school and eventually became ASB President in student council. "I was a little overachiever," she notes. The Chinese/Taiwanese families in Torrance were a small circle of more recent immigrant families. They had a lot of potlucks and mahjong playing among the adults. Her family was one of the more "Americanized" families from Taiwan.

Yang reflects on how Torrance shaped her identity. "I honestly felt like a minority within a minority growing up in North Torrance. We didn't have as many Chinese/Taiwanese folks like me, so I definitely learned a lot from my Korean and Japanese American friends about their cultures and communities." She learned how to make spam musubi from her Japanese-American friends and she always enjoyed eating Kings Hawaiian paradise cake at her family and friends birthday parties. Traci Kato-Kiriyama tells me that the Korean population is now the fastest growing group in the area.

V. Lazora Zamora is a Professor at Harbor College and has lived in Torrance for the last decade. He says, "When my family and I first moved to L.A., we searched everywhere for a community that had decent schools and we found a few, but none of the districts had the diversity that we found in the Torrance school system. It's what brought us to this community. Over time, I've come to admire the peaceful living of the community and how well people from so many cultures come together to call a place home." Zamora notes that the only neighborhood he has seem with as much diversity as Torrance was Chicago's Riverside community near Northeastern Illinois University. "Torrance has access to so many different places and services that I've never considered it a "sleepy" community," Zamora says. "People are laid back here and you don't get the weird "locals rule" vibe that tends to run deep in many other L.A. communities."

Torrance Art Museum | Photo: Torrance Art Museum Facebook

The Arts in Torrance

In addition to its great diversity, Torrance also has its own art museum. Located on Civic Center Drive, just north of Torrance Boulevard, Torrance Art Museum has rotating exhibits and has had several prominent shows over the years. All of their events are free to the public. They have been an important mecca for arts in the South Bay for some time now.

P.M. Sounds is a record store in Old Town Torrance owned by Erving Johnson, a well-respected record collector and one of the biggest experts on vinyl records in Southern California. Over the years hundreds of collectors and hip-hop producers, like the Leimert Park poet Kamau Daaood, Peanut Butter Wolf from Stones Throw Records, and Thes One from People Under the Stairs, have shopped in his store. Johnson loves records and knows them better than most.

Another emerging trend to recently come to rise in Torrance is the local brewery scene. V. Zamora tells me, "We've had six open up in the last couple of years and I think people are starting to take note of them. They're all located in industrial parks so you really have to seek them out, which gives them a speak-easy feel, and the beer in all of the breweries is outstanding. I think between that and some of the development in Old Torrance, we are bound to see the birth of an art scene. It's inevitable!"

Similar to Monterey Park and Alhambra, Torrance is a Los Angeles suburb with great history and a bright future. Each of these cities transitioned from being All-American municipalities into multicultural international cities. In many ways, places like Torrance epitomize the transition and development that has occurred in Southern California over the last century. Salute to Torrance for being a groundbreaking city in the geography of L.A. Letters.

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