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Tiny Urban Ranch Sitting on Cash Crop

June 17, 1988|AMY STEVENS | Times Staff Writer

It's probably the only ranch in Los Angeles that's half a block from an automated teller machine. Behind the cow shed and the fruit pickers' trailers, where Crescenciano Lopez once harvested giant pumpkins, rises the new five-story headquarters of a multinational corporation.

Farther down the street, a business park shadows land that used to be his cornfields. And on weekends, traffic backs up along the edge of the ranch at Jefferson Boulevard, which Lopez once knew as a narrow, two-lane road into Playa del Rey .

Over the years, Cressy Lopez sold all but four acres of the original 18-acre parcel he bought with his celery picker's wages during World War II. He doesn't farm much there anymore--a small crop of tomatoes, some corn in the summer--and most of that is sold at his roadside stand.

According to Los Angeles County Deputy Agriculture Commissioner Jits Teruya, the Lopez Ranch stand, which also sells flowers, fruit and vegetables grown elsewhere, is the last grower-owned, open-air market in the city of Los Angeles outside the San Fernando Valley.

As recently as 10 years ago, there were a dozen markets like Lopez's and about double that in the preceding decade, Teruya said.

But it's not nostalgia that keeps Lopez from selling the rest of the ranch.

"I've had enough farming," Lopez, 65, admitted. "Too much up and down. One day you have it, one day you don't. But I don't think the full value of my land has come yet."

Russ Warner, a manager of commercial investments for Merrill Lynch Realty, estimates the value of the Lopez Ranch at "anywhere up to $70 per square foot," or $10 million to $12 million. The high value of the ranch is due in part to its location between Playa del Rey and Westchester, which are targeted for intensive future development.

A couple of times a week, developers call Lopez with offers as high as $60 a square foot. In 1967, when he "needed the money," he sold 12 acres for about $700,000.

Lopez was 10 when he started selling sweet corn near his home in "Tijuanita," a former community of Mexican-Americans in Culver City. By the time he was 15, Lopez was operating several small produce stands in the area.

A year later, in 1940, he got a farm job on a piece of land leased to a Japanese man by a wealthy Mexican family--property he would one day own. Lopez moved into a farm workers' camp and planted celery and picked string beans alongside 20 other men and women until the farmer was sent off to an internment camp during World War II.

"The Japanese just left me his lease," Lopez said. "I bought his farm equipment for $1,200 and ran the place the way he did."

By 1945 Lopez had saved enough money for a down payment on the $42,000 purchase price of 18 acres.

When the Japanese farmer, Eiichiro Murayama, returned penniless to Los Angeles after the war, Lopez took him in.

"I fixed up a little bungalow on the ranch," Lopez said. "He stayed here three years."

Murayama, now 70 and working as a gardener, still visits the ranch once a week to buy vegetables.

"A lot of Mexicans started here working for my father in the lettuce (fields). They have now become big executives in landscaping and construction. Some now own restaurant chains, really big-time," Lopez's son, Chris, 35, said.

Cressy Lopez, in turn, said he was helped by his neighbor, Howard Hughes, who owned property bordering the Lopez Ranch that is now the Hughes Airport. Lopez claims to have met the legendary billionaire on a few occasions in the early 1960s.

The produce stand, which opened in 1955 as a palm-frond-covered shed, is now a 40-by-60-foot structure opening onto a dusty lot filled with house plants and fruit crates. Faded banners hang from telephone poles, relics of countless Christmas-tree and pumpkin sales.

"Our business roller-coasters," Chris Lopez said. "Summers, we're real busy because of corn and strawberries. October, we're busy because of pumpkins, and we get 800 to 1,200 kids a day from as far away as Watts and East L.A., Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades."

June Fears, a Marina del Rey housewife, said she has bought produce from Lopez Ranch for 20 years. She said she looks forward to the sweet corn every summer.

Her wait may be over. Chris Lopez is expecting the first delivery of locally grown sweet corn this afternoon.

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