Lay minister Dora Tolmasoff surveyed a crowd of 60 parents and children seated in the chilly basement of St. Matthias Church for a baptism orientation class.
"How many of you parents have eight children?" she said in Spanish into a microphone. A few hands went up.
"How many have more than six?" Tolmasoff asked. More hands waved.
"Five or more?" Numerous hands went up. Tolmasoff smiled.
"Congratulations!" she said. "I have six children myself."
With 70 baptisms every weekend, the Huntington Park church requires attendance at evening baptism classes not only for religious training but also to ensure order at the services.
There is seemingly no end to the supply of babies for such baptisms in the Southeast area, where a cluster of small, crowded cities bordered by East Los Angeles to the north and Compton to the south have some of the highest birthrates in the county and where the population increase far outstripped the county's average growth rate of 10% between 1978 and 1983.
Population experts see this cluster of Southeast cities, together with East Los Angeles, as a port of entry or "incubator area" for Latinos immigrating to Southern California. The baby boom in the Southeast area stems from the fact that these immigrants are young Latinos who tend to have big families, experts say.
Together, immigration and a high birthrate have created the rapid population growth.
To city officials grappling with day-to-day problems, the dramatic population growth has been a mixed blessing. The growth has brought a rebirth of a kind to cities drained by white flight in the mid-'70s. Many of the new immigrants do not have cars and tend to shop locally, bolstering area businesses, officials said. And the newcomers have rejuvenated churches, service organizations, theaters, nightclubs and restaurants, bringing a new vibrancy to the area.
Strain on Communities
But the burgeoning population has put a strain on communities financially hard-pressed to meet the demand for everything from schools and park services to housing.
"Nobody's looking at the demographics of what's happening here and the plan for the future," said Bell Councilman George Cole. Population density is "taxing the whole superstructure of the cities here," he said. "To me it presents a real challenge."
Though population researchers differ on predictions for future growth, the statistics for the past five years show an unmistakable trend.
Huntington Park, Cudahy, Maywood, Bell Gardens, Lynwood and Commerce all placed among the 10 cities in the county with the highest birthrates in 1983, the latest year for which statistics are available. Neighboring South Gate and Bell placed 13th and 18th out of the county's 83 cities.
Southeast-area population increases--a combination of immigration and births--ranged from 17% in Commerce to an amazing 45% in Maywood between 1978 and 1983.
In Huntington Park, the growth is "causing a rebirth of the whole city" after years of decline in the '60s, said Mayor Bill Cunningham. "Our sales tax (income) is at an all-time high because these people stay (and shop) at home, and God love them for that."
Bustling Shopping Area
On Pacific Boulevard, a shopping area lined with department stores and shops specializing in children's wear, "it seems like it's Christmas Eve every Sunday," Cunningham said.
But cities like Cudahy, where nearly 20,000 people live in about one square mile, have grown poorer as they have grown larger, said Cudahy Councilman John Robertson. "We don't have the tax base to match the problem. You're talking about a community with a very low income."
The rapid population growth in Southeast-area cities would burden the wealthiest of towns. Some examples follow:
- Schools: Most Los Angeles Unified School District schools in the Southeast area, already on a year-round schedule of classes to reduce overcrowding, will reach capacity by June, district officials say.
The district has estimated that by 1992, enrollment will exceed capacity in the area by 4,000 students--even with construction of five elementary schools now on the drawing board. (See related story on Page 4.)
- Housing: Construction of new housing has lagged far behind the population surge. Land is so scarce that to build, the cities must bulldoze, and redevelopment projects often involve relocating low-income residents.
In Maywood, nearly 25,000 people are crowded into 1.2 square miles. The population has grown by 8,000 since 1978, while fewer than 50 new housing units have been built.
"We've got houses where people sleep in shifts," said Maywood Planning Commission member David Rogers. "You rarely see a house that is empty. The majority of units are overcrowded, and people are living in garages."