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Black Gold City Goes White Collar : Signal Hill Takes on Upscale Look as Condominiums Replace Oil Derricks

June 30, 1985|MARIA L. La GANGA | Times Staff Writer

SIGNAL HILL — They wore "I Signal Hill" buttons on their blue wool lapels and foulard ties knotted meticulously under the button-down collars of their oxford cloth shirts.

With full briefcases at their sides and notes carefully prepared, they came to Signal Hill City Hall on a recent evening to tell the City Council that they were displeased about plans to build a discount store across the street from their pricey condominiums.

Not that there's anything wrong with discount stores, many said, but a Price Club--with its warehouse-like interior and rough shelves choked with brown cardboard boxes--is a far cry from a more desirable department store such as a Bullock's or a Nordstrom.

"You're about to sell us out if you put the Price Club in there," said Steve Sabin, who owns a condominium in Signal Hill's Willow Ridge complex. "You won't be able to continue to build fine quality residences here anymore with that type of business across the street."

Such talk is commonplace in affluent communities across the country, but it is a new concern being voiced in this 2.1-square-mile oil town--until recent years a rough-and-tumble blue-collar enclave with an unsavory reputation that was tarnished further by the 1981 jail-house death of college football player Ron Settles.

But in the last four years, this community and its image have undergone radical changes. Signal Hill, which possesses some of the last prime vacant land left in the Los Angeles Basin, is now viewed as a bustling development site, and new businesses and upscale residents are spending their white-collar dollars here for the first time since oil was discovered in the '20s.

Oil companies began pulling out in 1980 as the oil deposit waned. As more wells are abandoned, it is expected that about 40% of the city eventually will be vacated for residential and retail development.

The population--which grew by only 152 persons, or 2.7%, between 1970 and 1980--is expected to increase 60%, to slightly more than 9,000, by 1989, according to demographers and city officials. The new population boom is already bringing with it the first surge of service businesses in decades to a city that has never even had a grocery store.

Some Signal Hill residents contend that it was Settles' death and the attendant publicity that altered their city so radically. Others point to the waning oil industry as the harbinger of change. And still others say the city changed when the new young-professional class, with members such as Sabin, moved to town.

Signal Hill is not the only city in the nation to experience growth and gentrification. But the impact of such change is greater here because it has come so quickly. Signal Hill, the 10th smallest city in Los Angeles County, is also its fastest growing, according to a 1984 Census Bureau report.

'Like a Little Country Town'

"This was like a little country town up until the episode of Ron Settles, and then Signal Hill started changing--drastically and fast," said Doris Miller, 79, president of the Signal Hill Historical Society, who moved here from Nebraska in 1943 with her husband, Henry.

Settles, a 21-year-old black football player at Cal State Long Beach, died in this city's small jail on June 2, 1981, hours after Signal Hill police stopped him on a speeding violation. Officers maintained that he had resisted arrest and, when confined, hanged himself.

Settles' parents accused police of killing their son and a coroner's jury ruled the young man's death a homicide, but the Los Angeles County district attorney's office decided there was insufficient evidence to file homicide charges against the officers on duty.

Other charges of police misconduct were leveled against the Police Department after Settles' death, and the attendant publicity was followed by a purge of the department that later extended to other levels of the city government. Then-Police Chief Gaylord (Red) Wert was fired. Half of the 28-officer department was replaced through termination, retirement and attrition in a four-year period.

In the 1982 and 1984 City Council elections, Signal Hill residents--many of them newcomers who had moved into the city's newly built condominiums--voted out the last of any Old Guard councilmen who had controlled the city since the 1960s.

The new council members campaigned on platforms that emphasized their freshman status and desire to cleanse the city of its dark reputation and provide for its economic future as it moved out of the oil business.

Because the oil lands were rapidly being sold to condominium developers, they also pledged to monitor residential development with an eye to changing zoning and density. In the three intervening years, the council voted several moratoriums on development as they began to carry out these pledges. (See story, Page 5.) The council also replaced every department head, from planning director to city manager.

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