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El Sereno's Happy Valley Begins to Get Skittish

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Residents of El Sereno take respite and inspiration in Elephant and Ascot Hills, which they have defended from development. Photo by Iris DeAnda

Iris DeAnda, a lifelong El Sereno resident and poet, lives in the northwestern area of El Sereno near an undeveloped open space known as Elephant Hill. “I have been hiking those hills since I was a little girl. For years, I've had dreams about there being a lake in the hills surrounding my home and it's been a place for creating personal ceremony. These hills are important for the wildlife in our area such as coyotes and owls.” 

When DeAnda and other longtime residents heard that developers were planning on building condos on those same hills, they fought to keep the hills as open space. Finally, it was the vision that she’d had in her dreams that saved the hills. “One of the last EIR (Environmental Impact Report), found that there is water under these hills so they are not safe for major construction which was a huge advantage for those of us who want to maintain the hills intact,” she says. Now protected greenspace of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, El Sereno residents can continue to enjoy the hills that have remained largely untouched.

And although El Sereno is still a largely overlooked and unknown part of Los Angeles, its residents have recently witnessed unsettling change, early signs of gentrification that have already ravaged other eastside communities. In spite of its relatively low profile, El Sereno has recently dealth with its gentrification issues and also stands at a crossroads with its remaining open space in the western quadrant of the district. The battles taking place in El Sereno right now regarding its uncut nature and looming gentrification, combined with its storied history, make it one of the most dynamic pockets of 2016 Los Angeles.   

Place of Serenity

El Sereno is aptly named because it is a quiet neighborhood that only longtime Angelenos even know exists. Located in the easternmost district in the City of Los Angeles and immediately north of much more famous eastside areas like City Terrace and Boyle Heights, El Sereno is somewhat similar to City Terrace with its many houses cascading chaparral hillsides.  

The hilly topography of the neighborhood is rimmed by major arteries like Huntington Drive, Eastern, Valley Boulevard and Alhambra Avenue/Mission Road. Similar to many other districts across Los Angeles, El Sereno has sub-districts like Hillside Village, University Hills and an area called Rose Hill that bridges El Sereno, Lincoln Heights, Montecito Heights and South Pasadena. California State University at Los Angeles is actually located in El Sereno on the southeastern edge of the district adjacent to City Terrace, Alhambra, and the 10 and 710 freeways.

The combination of hills and distinct sub-communities gives El Sereno a unique identity unlike any other pocket of Los Angeles. The Cal State LA English lecturer Benito Solis grew up just east of El Sereno in Alhambra and lived in El Sereno for much of his 20s. He tells me, “For as long as I can remember, El Sereno has been a complicated place frozen in time, a bucolic expanse sporadically littered with incongruent but charming homes rendered inconspicuous by hillside foliage and treetop canopies.”

A Brief History

El Sereno recently celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2015, making El Sereno one of the oldest and most historic communities in Los Angeles. Indeed it is so historic that the thoroughfare of Mission Road which becomes Alhambra Avenue in El Sereno is the exact path that the original Spanish pobladores walked 11 miles west along from the San Gabriel Mission to establish the original pueblo of Los Angeles in 1781, according to the El Sereno Historical Society. El Sereno lies directly along the road that the first 44 Spanish Franciscans walked on when they established the Los Angeles pueblo in the late 18th Century. Furthermore, they would continue to take this path consistently for the next 9 years to get to church at the San Gabriel Mission. Eventually a church was built in the Los Angeles pueblo in the early 1790s, but the road that is now Mission Road/Alhambra Avenue has been a key thoroughfare for over 235 years. Travelling on it today, it is easy to see that it was chosen as a main artery for its mostly flat terrain and because bisects the local foothills surrounding it on both sides.

Before the Spanish claimed local land in the 1770s,  El Sereno was the Tongva village of Otsunga according to the El Sereno Historical Society. “With the Spanish takeover it became part of the San Gabriel Mission land. With Mexican rule, the ownership went to Juan Ballesteros, who named his land Rancho Rosa de Castilla. Under Yankee rule, farmers grew hay and barley and raised dairy cows, pigs and sheep. The construction of the Santa Fe, Southern Pacific and Pacific Electric railways brought urban development centering on Huntington Drive where it remains today,” states the Historical Society. A plaque at California State University at Los Angeles honors Rancho Rosa de Castilla and notes that the site is where one of the 36 original adobes was built in California in 1776. Considering this history predates the founding of Los Angeles in 1781, the El Sereno Historical Society is indeed correct to note that development in El Sereno is among the oldest areas in Southern California.

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Flock of sheep with houses in background, Los Angeles County, about 1880, Photo taken on the Rancho Rosa de Castillo, approximately where El Sereno, Los Angeles, is today. Photo from El Sereno Historical Society.

Home Off the Grid

As many El Sereno residents and urban hikers know, Ascot Hills Park is one of the best places to hike on the Eastside and characterizes its bucolic landscape. Located just west of Wilson High School the land was once the New Ascot Speedway during the 1920s and 1930s. Once the speedway closed, the land was occupied by the Department of Water and Power for many years. It was only converted to a hiking trail and park in the last few years. The popular park now hosts an annual kite festival at Ascot Hills Park. Panoramic views of Southern California and the city stretch in all directions. Off to the east, pointed steel antennas on Mt. Wilson, snow-capped Mt. Baldy, as well the two tallest mountains in Southern California, San Gorgonio and San Jacinto can be seen poking their tall peaks up through the deep horizon.

“El Sereno is where the country meets the city,” says poet and educator Steve Abee. Abee has lived in El Sereno for 13 years now. “There are many hillside streets in El Sereno where you can tell the first residents had bought the lot before there was infrastructure,” he observes. Abee’s wife Catherine Uribe-Abee operates a Healing Arts Center in the neighborhood with Iris DeAnda on Huntington Drive called, “Here & Now.” Their two daughters Penelope and Maya have been involved in local anti-gentrification efforts as well. The issue is especially close to their heart because their family has spent many hours together hiking the district’s hills.

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Many El Sereno residents have a close relationship to their hills, which offer them unique perspectives of Los Angeles. Photo by long-time El Sereno resident and artist Penelope Uribe-Abee

Aside from the few early houses built in the first part of the 20th Century, much of El Sereno remained open space and even agricultural until the Second World War. The most historic part of El Sereno is the Berkshire Tract in the northeastern quadrant of El Sereno. Adjacent to South Pasadena and Alhambra, the Craftsman, Bungalow, American Colonial Revival and Spanish Colonial Revival homes in the few block stretch remain very well-preserved and look almost identical to the homes found in Pasadena and South Pasadena. Councilmember Jose Huizar is proposing to make the area a Historic Preservation Overlay Zone.

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El Sereno residents have become increasingly active, including in efforts to keep the 710 freeway from being built through their community. Photo courtesy of El Sereno Against Gentrificaton Facebook. 

Josephine Chavez, a local homeowner that has called El Sereno home for over 61 years, settled in the area in 1955 with her husband after he got out of the military. She remembers her neighbors at the time were mostly Italian and Jewish. They loved the neighborhood so much that they bought a home a few blocks from their first apartment five years later. The Spanish Colonial style home she has lived in since 1960 was built in 1924. Chavez raised her children there and continues to love it today as much as she did when she first moved in. Chavez loves her home so much that even after her daughter became a school principal and asked her parents to sell the house and move to a more perceived “fashionable” area, they declined because they loved their home and El Sereno too much to leave.

“El Sereno has an inherit wisdom in its earth and legacy to be reborn, and reborn again,” exclaims the longtime Eastside resident, activist and filmmaker Tomas Benitez. “There are some beautiful homes up there still, with magnificent views of the city from the East, but you have to know the streets. They are not on a grid. They are winding odd roads and you can get lost driving around the hills. I have done so many times even when I was a kid cruising the area looking for a girlfriend or a party. Round drive, and Circle Drive were the hugely well-known popular make out places and I am certain a generation of new residents was started along those beautifully isolated drives with big trees to hide under.”

Wilson High School is very important in El Sereno lore. Originally located on Eastern, the building that was originally Wilson High School is now El Sereno Middle School. A new campus for Wilson High School was built on a hill in El Sereno in 1970 and it was designed by the fabled Los Angeles architect, Paul Williams. The author Sesshu Foster and the great Chicano artist Willie Herron went to Wilson.

Benitez remembers attending Wilson during the heyday of their athletic success. “Wilson had a football dynasty that started in the late sixties and lasted through the seventies. The Might Mules earned three consecutive city championships in the mid-1970’s and featured a number of players that went on to successful college careers. The level of boosterism at that time was high,” Benitez remembers. “In 1970 they won the city championship in varsity baseball and featured several players who went on to pro careers. Wilson also had great success in track and field and had a couple of tennis singles champs during the same era, thus, the school was indelible to the pride and identity of the community,” recalls Benitez. His connection to El Sereno continues to this day because his son, Lucas Benitez lives in El Sereno and is a senior at Cal State LA.

Julio Torres is a lifelong El Sereno resident, a graduate of Wilson High School and the field deputy of councilmember Jose Huizar. Torres’s office on Huntington Drive, just east of Eastern is in the heart of El Sereno. Long before Torres had an official job with the city and Huizar, he was already very active in the community leading clean-up efforts, hosting fundraisers and working with neighborhood groups like the El Sereno Senior Center. Torres is the publisher of the local community magazine, “Our Town El Sereno,” and he has had longstanding ties with local institutions like the All Saints Church and El Aguila Bakery.

For many years now, Julio Torres has spent many weekend mornings with a few friends driving around in a truck picking up discarded couches and cleaning the local streets and alleys of dumped items like mattresses and old furniture. Torres’s efforts to improve the area are how he got his job with Huizar. Huizar ran into Torres at so many community functions that he decided to hire him. It’s proven to be a wise decision because Torres was awarded the “Unsung Hero Award, Field Deputy of the Year,” by the City of Los Angeles in 2013. “I enjoy living in this community and I really enjoy going to work every day as a Field Deputy here because I feel like I'm giving back to El Sereno and making it better for the next 100 years,” he boasts. .

El Sereno Against Gentrification

But despite its tranquil disposition, El Sereno is beginning to shift, especially in the Alhambra Road corridor. Local residents like Iris DeAnda are wary of the changes. “I am opposed to gentrification and its neglect on current stakeholders in the area. I recognize the necessity for change and growth in our communities but I think this has to be driven by the residents themselves and not outsiders coming in to "beautify" our streets,” DeAnda says. “We have a rich history in El Sereno, of artists and business owners, which contribute to a vibrant neighborhood. We have generations of working class families and cultural traditions in our town. We have the best intentions for our community and it is up to the current stakeholders to keep El Sereno hipster free.”

DeAnda’s thoughts are echoed by many other locals. “The rolling hills that surround El Sereno, which remained undeveloped for generations, are now being manicured, leveled, and primed for the ejaculation of new properties,” says Benito Solis. “New streets will emerge, and my hope is that the architects will emulate the local aesthetic to some extent. I’m sure we will see many stained and varnished fences. I notice more disconcerting changes in South El Sereno and University Hills, which “flippers” have begun referring to as “El Sereno Hills,” betraying their lack of taste and cultural literacy through their gross irreverence for local histories.”

For this reason a group called “El Sereno Against Gentrification,” has emerged in the last few years. “When you have to form a group against anything you know it's already a problem,” says DeAnda.

Benito Solis offers a sobering perspective on the area’s evolution. “On any Sunday, drive through South El Sereno and you will observe two Ferraris and a Ford GT 500 cruising Alhambra Avenue,” Solis says. “I don’t know whose cars these are. New residents? Realtors?” Solis does not mind some new residents or cultural diversity; he just abhors the land grab spirit that is oblivious, greedy and disrespectful. “It’s the gold-rush mentality I cannot stand,” he says, “practiced covertly by corporate land raiders and poorly emulated by sad hacks blatantly looking to strike it rich.”

Similar to DeAnda and others, Solis does not want the close knit community of El Sereno to disintegrate. “So what is missing from the equation of shifting demographics? Community,” Solis remarks. “It’s interesting to consider that many of the families who have been in El Sereno and North East Los Angeles were partially relegated to this area as a result of ‘redlining.’ Now their children cannot afford to live here.”

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Sunsets taken from El Sereno's flat areas along Main and Huntington Drive are also treasured by El Sereno's loyal residents. Photo by Iris DeAnda

Conclusion

Nonetheless, as much as El Sereno is changing, there are many locals in the community committed to protecting its charm. There is a mystical spirit in El Sereno that persists today. Iris DeAnda shares an anecdote that captures this: “When I was in high school I would take the bus to and from El Sereno to the San Gabriel Valley, one day I struck up a conversation with an elder on the bus and he said, where are you headed? I said, El Sereno. He said, ‘oh, the happy valley. Every sunrise and every sunset there are four hawks that come from all directions above the happy valley and circle around those hills.’ I smiled. It was time to get off the bus and I waved goodbye but his words stayed with me. So I began to pay attention to the sunrise and the sunset in my neighborhood and it was true and it is true to this day. The hawks are here above the hills always.” Today, these hawks can still be seen circling over Ascot Hills Park. They seem to be keeping close watch over this loved community remains for now, the Happy Valley. 

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