Old Neighborhood Has Long Outgrown Barrio Status : El Pueblo Thrives, Surrounded by Workaday World

May 05, 1985|JULIO MORAN | Times Staff Writer

TORRANCE — The face of industrial Torrance is changing after nearly 75 years. So, too, is El Pueblo.

Surrounded by industrial activity, El Pueblo--which means "the town" in Spanish--remains a residential island in a sea of warehouses and factories. But rather than being deserted or rezoned for industrial use over the years, El Pueblo has blossomed into a vibrant, well-kept, close-knit neighborhood.

And except for the shadows cast by the Mobil Oil refinery towers on one side and the frames of multistory warehouses going up on the other side, the 111 homes along Del Amo Boulevard between Crenshaw Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue are typical of other middle-class neighborhoods in this city.

"When it comes down to the nitty-gritty, we are Torrance," said Ruben Ordaz, 57, a lifelong resident of the area and president of the Pueblo Homeowners Assn.

Early Reputation

The neighborhood is also called Del Amo and La Rana, which means "the frog" in Spanish and got its name because a nearby pond was once full of frogs. The neighborhood has overcome a reputation as a poor, tough barrio and come to be considered a community of concerned homeowners whose votes are courted at each local election.

"The politicians know that we got about 100 votes," said Ordaz with a smile. "We usually vote in a bloc, so when we call we get a quick response."

Getting a bloc vote is easier, Ordaz said, because many of the residents are related. Ordaz's father, who moved here in 1925, still lives on the block, as do his uncle, aunt and several in-laws. When a family member dies, property is usually passed on to a relative.

Property values are slightly lower than in other neighborhoods in the city, but it still costs about $120,000 to buy a two-bedroom house here. An empty 50- by 100-foot lot has recently been appraised at $20,000.

High Offer for Home

"What do you think, just because I live in La Rana that I live in a shack?" Irene Ordaz, Ruben's wife, said she told a friend recently after the friend expressed surprise over her four-bedroom home. Ordaz said they have received offers of up to $150,000 for their home.

And the crime rate, once a major problem, what with youth gangs and drug dealers during the 1950s and 1960s, has dropped. Last year, a community watch program was organized.

Torrance Police Sgt. Wally Murker, a community relations officer, said the area may still have more drug problems than many sections of Torrance, but other neighborhoods have more burglaries. "I couldn't say it was any . . . different than other neighborhoods in Torrance," he said. "There are a lot of good people living there and they've got a good community watch program."

For the most part, living in the midst of industries has not bothered the residents. In the early years it was a matter of not biting the hand that fed them, Ruben Ordaz said, so residents tolerated the industrial noises and smells. Today, tighter pollution controls have eliminated most of the concerns, and the residents have learned to live with what remains .

Grew Up in Area

"Sometimes you wonder if your coughing is not because of Mobil or if your house is not going to blow up," said Joe Torres, 42, a receiving clerk. Torres grew up in El Pueblo, and except for a few years right after he got married, he has remained in the area.

But the possibility of industrial accidents is not a major concern. "My kids talk about it sometimes, but they also talk about nuclear wars and earthquakes," Torres said. "It's at the back of your mind, but it's a way of life here."

Surprisingly, there has never been any serious talk of rezoning the street for industrial use, city officials said.

"It's almost like a historical area," said Jeff Gibson of the city planning department. "I don't think it will ever get rezoned."

But city officials did not always look so kindly on what was originally referred to as the Mexican Village.

According to the book "Historic Torrance," land in the 1920s was designated for five uses: business, residential, industrial, unclassified, and "special quarters for non-Caucasians." It was in the "foreign quarters" that El Pueblo developed as the residential district for the Mexican labor that worked at Columbia Steel and Pacific Electric Railway.

Treading on Constitution

The book says Jared Sidney Torrance, the city's founder, admitted in his autobiography that segregation in his fledgling town "tread pretty hard on the toes of the Constitution of the United States."

Even former Mayor Albert Isen, whose father and uncle built the homes in the 1920s so workers could walk to the steel plant half a mile away, said the houses were "substandard, because that's all they really wanted and all they could really afford."

Ordaz, a former steelworker and now a custodian with the Torrance school district, said the homes remained in poor condition for many years, primarily because of language and cultural obstacles that kept residents--most of whom came from the small Mexican town of Purepero, Michoacan--from acquiring building permits for remodeling their homes.

Now those houses have been passed on to family members who are U.S.-born and who speak English. Many of the homes have been improved, and Del Amo, once a dirt road, is now a four-lane street with a center divider.

Spanish, once the only language spoken on this street, is hardly ever heard now. Even the one weekly Mass celebrated at St. Joseph's Catholic Church at the end of the block is said in English.

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