A Brief History of Monterey Park, California

Monterey Park Wasn’t Always an Ethnic Community?
Written for GE CLST 66A: Los Angeles, The Cluster at UCLA with Professor Jan Reiff on December 3, 2008.
2,727 words

Incredibly difficult assignment. The result is quite a bloated paper. Hopefully a bit more in-depth than the Wikipedia article on the interesting and vibrant community located in Los Angeles.

Conventional wisdom concerning Los Angeles suggests that much of the explosion of people and commerce in Southern California was a lucky hand dealt by fate, that everything, from the glitzy commencement of Hollywood to the freeway congestion, was serendipitous and eased by with just a bit of that handy California magic. That very same wisdom appears to also have a slight long-term memory deficit, because Monterey Park, one of the most renowned and interesting ethnic communities in the nation, appears to have always existed as an ethnic community—nothing more and nothing less. Monterey Park today, fascinating and critical to a meaningful discussion as it is, indicates little of its secretive, not-so-far-back past in the form of building facades or historical monuments. Very little exists to give an uninformed passerby an indication that maybe, just maybe there really was a time before the Chinese language storefronts dominated Atlantic and Garvey, or a time before a conversational command of Mandarin was needed to facilitate a successful lunch order in a restaurant.  Like Los Angeles as a whole, Monterey Park seems to have appeared in its present state spontaneously and coincidentally, retaining the core of its being—its culture, its people, and its unique identity—because… well, it just does. Unfortunately for conventional wisdom, it is wrong. Monterey Park became the nation’s most unique ethnic communities not as a result of a mere twist of fate, but because of enduring human deliberation during three critical periods of its evolution regarding views ranging from immigrant-native interactions and personal economic opportunities to the very cultural preferences that give Monterey Park its distinctive flavor.

The early story of Monterey Park begins with a clash between the natives and the newcomers. Before, Monterey Park was unconquered, untouched California wilderness, inhabited by the Gabrielino (previously called the Shoshone before the Spanish renamed them) Native Americans. The Gabrielino were among the first of the New World populations to be largely seafaring, as they were documented to have welcomed Cabrillo at sea when he first arrived. The arrival of Cabrillo in the mid 1500s marked not only the beginning of the Mission-rule era in California but also the first deliberate act of immigrant politics. Though the mission that would be found at the intersection of present-day San Gabriel Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue in Monterey Park was not built until 1771, it largely became the center of Native American and Spanish interaction, the heart of the internal transformation that was taking over other parts of Southern California simultaneously. This mission, formerly called La Misión del Santo Principe El Arcángel or the Mission of the Saintly Prince the Archangel, ultimately became the most productive of all the California missions, having converted 25,000 Native Americans (or what they called neophytes) during its years of activity. Eventually, mission land (including the vast holdings of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel) dissolved into individual Californio plots, one of them being the 30,000 acres to Don Antonio Maria Lugo, who owned Rancho San Antonio.1 Over time, American aggression acting upon the ideals of Manifest Destiny continually muscled their way deeper and deeper into California, creating tensions that eventually escalated into the two year Mexican-American War.  By 1834, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed to turn over the sovereignty of California to the United States and provide some kind of resolution to the war. However, while the treaty attempted to protect the holdings of landowners prior to the war, upon discovery of gold in California, landowners that could not provide physical documentation of their holdings had their land be returned to the public domain and parceled out under the Homestead Act of 1862.2 Of Rancho San Antonio’s 30,000 acres, 5,000 were sold to Alessandro Reppetto, a hardy Italian immigrant seeking economic betterment in America.

Repetto would soon transform his property into a profitable sheep ranch and make the early dirt road that ran through the land suitable for wagons.3 In 1879, Richard Garvey—the namesake of Garvey Avenue that runs through Monterey Park today—a U.S. Army mail carrier exchanged his quartz mines for land in San Gabriel Valley that followed his old mail route. As he settled, he became the man to bring to the area its first water system, first major thoroughfare, and first Garvey Lake dam.4 Portions of the original Repetto Ranch as well as portions of Garvey’s vast property eventually became Ramona Acres in 1906, a cheap land development that attracted small farmers who found the area to be an ideal location because of its proximity to Los Angeles. As the farmers inhabited and developed the land, they also became the first defenders of its welfare, vehemently opposing and conclusively thwarting the attempts of neighboring cities Alhambra, Pasadena, and South Pasadena to make their land a sewage dump. Had the cities succeeded, the property values of the residents would have likely plummeted, rendering their property worthless.5 Fortunately, the enduring human instinct for self-preservation intrinsic to the people of Los Angeles ran deep in the sensibilities of the landowners of Ramona Acres too and on May 29, 1916 they voted themselves into city hood. Their first order of business was to outlaw the construction of any kind of sewage treatment facilities in its boundaries and in this capacity, the city exerted itself for the first time.6 As the fledgling community developed and grew with white first-time homeowners seeking to escape the congestion of the city, businesses moved in to Monterey Park, seeking to fill new refrigerators with groceries and carpet new homes. Among these first businesses was that of potato chip and peanut butter pioneer Laura Scudder, who eventually became a kind of icon for Monterey Park’s entrepreneurial capacity.7 Monterey Park, like the rest of Los Angeles, was thriving and booming during the 1920s, which unfortunately had the consequence of rampant real estate speculation and undue investment optimism. Council member I. B. Alkire is quoted to have said, “All I can say is, that I wish I had $50,000 at my command right now. I would invest every penny of it in Monterey Park real estate” (original emphasis). 8 One real estate fortune-seeker did, and his name was Peter N. Snyder. Snyder was a developer who sought to make East Los Angeles into a community to rival Bel-Air and Beverly Hills. He proposed Midwick View Estates, a type of garden community with Spanish-style homes and large yards with the Cascades, a multi-tiered waterfall on Atlantic Boulevard, as its symbol unification. However, the period of economic prosperity turned out to be ephemeral and the Great Depression effectively halted the plans Snyder envisioned.9 To this day, the Cascades and the Midwick View Estates administration building, El Encanto, remain Monterey Park landmarks. After Peter Snyder, very little real estate development occurred in Monterey Park, as everyone was feeling the effects of the harsh economic climate and had neither the means nor the mood to move or invest. It would not be until after World War II would Monterey Park’s situation change dramatically. For the time being, it was comfortable being a quaint small-town with grounded small-town values.10

These small-town values became the cultural centerpiece of white suburban Monterey Park through World War II even after it experience significant population increases in the 1950s and the 1960s. The wartime economy had injected life into real estate development and Monterey Park was one of the communities in Los Angeles to feel growth again.11 Numerous veterans settled in the area, thanks to the G.I. Bill of 1944, and they continued through the 1950s, solidifying Monterey Park’s image as a respectable and modest middle-class community. Around this time, Monterey Park began to see newcomers from other ethnic groups, namely “Latinos from adjacent East Los Angeles, Japanese Americans from the west side of Los Angeles, and Chinese Americans from nearby Chinatown.”12 Though the diversity of Monterey Park had increased, it was still seen primarily as a homogenously white suburb of Anglo-Saxon Protestants. These residents supported a variety of early Monterey Park social institutions, such as the influential Monterey Park Lions Club and the local newspaper, Monterey Park Progress. The Lions Club was a community service organization that brought most of the white residents at the time together for projects like “White Cane Days,” a vision-impaired assistance initiative and helped local leaders obtain city council positions. The Progress’ structure and content is perhaps the most telling of Monterey Park’s pride in being a tightly knit, homey community; it featured—at this point in its existence—columns called “Bird on Nellie’s Hat” for the community’s latest social events, “The Church Mouse” for church gatherings, and “Neighbor of the Week” in addition to regular obituaries, marriage announcements, and school honor rolls.13 With a focus on the local and the familiar, the Progress also served activist functions, particularly in another dispute over the County of Los Angeles as a whole wanting to build a county dump by Monterey Park. Not only did the newspaper garner heavy criticism and outrage at such a proposal, they managed to force the issue all the way to the governor to “prohibit larger governmental bodies from placing dump sites without the local jurisdiction’s permission.”14 This purposeful decision is not only consistent with the Progressive attitude of California as a whole, but it also highlights the weight of human choices in the direction Monterey Park ultimately takes. Such was the cultural identity of mid-twentieth century Monterey Park, as well as much of Los Angeles as a whole at the time: the single family detached homes with spacious yards organized into consolidated and intimate communities with the convenience and commerce of the city was something of great value to them. This idea, however, was also sought after by the latest wave of immigrants to Los Angeles—an influx that constantly aids and cripples Los Angeles through the years—as they found themselves in the land of opportunity. As the 1950s continued in Monterey Park, the community found itself welcoming Hispanic families and Japanese families who discovered that the suburbia of Monterey Park, unlike the suburbia of other places, was accepting non-Caucasian ethnicities. This relative openness planted the first seeds of multiculturalism and diversity in Monterey Park, which would soon become one of the main factors of enticement for many of the Chinese that were just arriving in Los Angeles.15 Diversity does not truly explain why the Chinese first began to gather in Monterey Park and the resulting snowball effect of more and more residents of Asian descent. The explanation lies in what is called the formation of Monterey Park as an “ethnoburb,” or an “ethnic suburb” distinct from the previous urban formation of Chinatowns in numerous cities. Monterey Park as an ethnoburb, like Los Angeles as an open shop city, is the product of a system of decisions made by its residents and its potential residents. This system is a series of preferences that aligned those of the newcomers with that of the existing community and resulted in the seemingly supernatural phenomenon of Monterey Park. The first Chinese people who wanted to move in to Monterey Park moved in out of desire to escape the unfavorable conditions of Chinatown, where real estate was expensive but not very spacious. Many of these people lived in Chinatown to begin with because they often worked in public sector jobs as engineers where “levels of job discrimination are lower than in private businesses” or were foreign students in the United States to avoid strict and highly competitive educational practices or compulsory military service in China and Taiwan and found jobs that allowed them to remain in the United States. Monterey Park had the huge advantage of being bound by major freeways for ideal transit: In the north, the interstate 10, in the west, the 710, and in the south, state highway 60. This prime location facilitated the commute for work as well as their residual ties to the Chinatown for groceries and socializing.16 This first wave of Chinese immigrants to Monterey Park sought to assimilate into the greater culture of white suburbia, and so at first, the small-town intimacy was maintained. But Monterey Park continued to grow after the first wave of immigrants because many of those belonging to the second wave of immigration knew other Chinese people who were already established in Monterey Park. This second wave of the 1970s preferred to rely on the existing support network of established acquaintances in Monterey Park. However, while their numbers were greater, the defining difference was that they came richer and more culturally Chinese. Their money came from the fact that their occupations were largely business-related and during that time, numerous foreign investors were interested in American investments and their slow assimilation can be attributed to the fact that they did not move into Monterey Park as previous residents of Los Angeles like those of the first wave.17 The newer immigrants thus brought with them material flashiness and obvious foreign flair that the old-fashioned, conservative locals of Monterey Park disliked. “Residents spoke with disdain of the sudden increase of luxury cars in town, of $100 bills flashed in restaurants, of business people wearing tailor-made suits and sporting expensive jewelry.” The arrival of these business-minded Chinese did stimulate the slow, less active business areas in Monterey Park and encouraged the creation of new jobs.18 But as the businesses that were coming in largely began catering to Asian tastes and preferences, they started to muscle out the existing small businesses longtime residents of Monterey Park had viewed as iconic and integral to their way of life.19 For example, the previously mentioned Laura Scudder potato chip factory, became a Chinese grocery store after first transitioning as a Safeway in the 1960s. Landmark changes to the more innocuous adjustments of Monterey Park—such as increased showings of Chinese-language films—became the cultural force to alienate the white residents and change the human and physical landscape of the community.20 Monterey Park’s transformation into what became widely known as “The Chinese Beverly Hills,” strained existing institutions and conventions that did not adapt as swiftly. Schools in the 1970s and 80s, for instance, were inundated with English-learners that disrupted curricular normalcy in Monterey Park’s schools, and the push for possibly having bilingual education in schools coincided with the movement of people supporting the instatement of English as the official language of California. Supporters felt it to be unifying under a common tongue, but the opposition found it divisive and un-American.21 Others still had a mixed view, as Mary Krismunando, long time resident of Monterey Park, wrote to the Los Angeles Times, “I voted for English as the official language. Everyone is proud to be an American and also proud of their foreign heritage.”22 The proposition ultimately passed, to both the approval and disapproval of Californians everywhere, but the implication for Monterey Park and indeed Los Angeles as a whole still stands: the changes brought by new peoples from foreign places will challenge and change the status quo, but it would have to be the choices we make to see that those challenges and changes can benefit all.

Monterey Park today is still a bustling ethnic community, but the ostentation and wealth is less pronounced as wealthy Chinese immigrants primarily seek residence in nearby Arcadia or Rosemead. For the past thirty years, the white residents of pre-WWII Monterey Park have been few and far between while the existing Asian residents continue to enjoy the numerous Chinese grocers, restaurants, and bookstores available to them, reminding them of home. There is very little indication that this will change, as specialty Asian food stores still sell pigs’ feet and pigs’ blood and Mandarin will still be the dominant language regardless of what the Constitution of California suggests. Thus, there exists a feeling of stability and establishment that inordinately shortchanges the community’s persistent historical conception. But one only needs to look at the major streets of Monterey Park to be reminded of the actions and choices the people made to remember that Monterey Park is an extension of the people that have lived and passed in its limits. Like Los Angeles as a whole, it is the people the shape the environment all around, from immigrant reception and personal economic preservation to cultural decisions. California may be a magical place, but its magic lies in the minds and hearts of its people.

Notes

1. Fong, Timothy, The First Suburban Chinatown: The Remaking of Monterey Park, California, (Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1994), 15.

2. Smith, Frances Rand, “The Spanish Missions of California,” Hispania, 7.4 (1924): 243-258.

3. Fong, 16.

4. Ibid.

5. City of Monterey Park. “About Monterey Park.” http://www.ci.monterey-park.ca.us/index.aspx?page=1079 (accessed November 15, 2008).

6. “New City is Race Winner: Monterey Park Files its Papers Ere Opponents Can Restrain.” Los Angeles Times, June 16, 1916.

7. Rasmussen, Cecilia. “Community Profile: Monterey Park.” Los Angeles Times, November 28, 1995.

8. “Monterey Park’s Population to Be 20,000 in 1930, Prediction.” Monterey Park Progress, June 8, 1928.

9. City of Monterey Park, “About Monterey Park.”

10. Fong, 19.

11. Ibid, 20.

12. Ibid, 21.

13. Ibid, 57.

14. Ibid.

15. Li, Wei, “Building Ethnoburbia: The Emergence and Manifestation of the Chinese Ethnoburb in Los Angeles’ San Gabriel Valley,” Journal of Asian American Studies 2.1 (1999): 1-28.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Fong, 48.

19. Ibid, 49.

20. Ibid, 63.

21. Eng, Lily. “Monterey Park Struggles to Speak With One Voice on English Issue.” Los Angeles Times, October 30, 1986.

22. Krismunando, Mary. “Three Cheers for Ethnic Diversity.” Los Angeles Times, November 20, 1986, Letters to the Editor

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About kraftedbykelly
I'm a California girl living in Durham, North Carolina. I like to focus on baking from scratch, student-friendly cooking, and both high and low dining.

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