PARAMOUNT — With the exception of a few months in Missouri when she was very young, Peggy Lemons has spent all of her 32 years in Paramount, growing up, going to school, marrying and raising her children.
But when people would ask where she lived, Lemons was not always straightforward.
"I told them I lived real close to Downey or Long Beach. And I said it very quietly," Lemons said.
Like a lot of residents, Lemons was not proud of her hometown. A hay- and milk-producing community in the beginning, the city was one of 84 of the nation's suburbs--including Bell Gardens, Compton and Huntington Park--which were declared urban disaster areas in a 1981 RAND Corp. report.
Downtown Paramount was decaying, dozens of the stores were empty, there were serious graffiti and gang problems and many of the city's shabby homes and apartments needed paint and repairs. Abandoned vehicles sat on many of the properties.
Since then, however, the community of 40,000 has undergone a rebirth. Through redevelopment it has a shiny new downtown and shopping center, new homes and apartment complexes. And in part because of several innovative city projects, the neighborhoods are clean and a there has been a reduction in graffiti and gang activities.
Named for Award
Out of civic pride, Lemons and others have started to acknowledge where they live. And their pride received a significant boost recently when Paramount was one of 10 cities to receive an All-America City Award from the National Civic League.
"We are no longer quiet about where we live," said Lemons' husband, Don, a freight car repairman for Santa Fe railroad and a real estate salesman for a Downey realty firm. "Paramount has come a long way."
The Lemons' family, including daughters Shannon, 5, and Brandy, 7, were considering moving a few years ago. But now they are adding about $35,000 in improvements to their home.
"The city has really improved," agreed Stanley Glass, 90, who has lived in the city for 67 years. "Paramount was once a dilapidated, run-down place with a few bars to drink beer in."
The city's new image started to take shape about eight years ago, Mayor Charles R. Weldon said recently, when the City Council hired Bill Holt as city manager, Richard R. Powers as director of community development and Sandy Groves as finance director.
(Powers was recently hired to be Norwalk's city manager. And Groves will be his assistant.)
'City Was Dying'
"The city was literally dying," Weldon said, "but the council, along with some very talented staff people, started to do something about it."
The Redevelopment Agency acquired more than 100 business sites to make way for $150 million in urban renewal along two blocks of Paramount Boulevard, the city's major thoroughfare. Now, there are more than 38 retail shops on the west side, where the major store is a Vons market. And on the east side, there are 25 shops anchored by a Miller's Outpost clothing store.
Powers said the city's philosophy was to build up the downtown, then create housing to attract middle-income residents.
Since 1985, more than 24 acres have been zoned for new housing. Two different single-family housing tracts with 2-, 3- and 4-bedroom homes have been completed. Ten multifamily or apartment units are in various stages of development. All of the projects were undertaken by private developers who invested more than $75 million while the Redevelopment Agency contributed about $1.6 million, ,raccording to Pat West, deputy city manager.
Some residents worry that the housing boom has been too much, too fast. In fact, a slow-growth measure on the November ballot calls for reducing the maximum residential density for new apartments.
But redevelopment was only one of the changes that city officials and civic leaders pointed to with pride when they applied to gain All-America status from the civic league.
Each year, the league honors communities that have brought government, business and residents together to attack "major issues or problems," said John Parr, president of the nonprofit New York-based organization. Four other California cities--Inglewood, Carlsbad, Colton and Richmond--were among the 94 entrants. But only Paramount was among the 10 national winners.
Paramount spent $250 to enter the competition. And when five residents and three council members traveled to Houston in June to make a presentation before the Civic League, the trip cost about $10,000. The city is expected to spend another 15,000 to $20,000 in promoting the award, designing a new city logo and holding a recognition dinner for civic and city officials.
White House Visit
In a couple of months, city representatives are also expected to join other national winners at the White House, where they will receive their All-America City awards from either President Reagan or Vice President Bush.
The city's award, according to Parr, came largely on the strength of three municipal programs.