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In Search of an Identity : Area Lacks a Sense of Community

January 01, 1989|SHERYL STOLBERG | Times Staff Writer

Dick Haddon's church has an identity problem.

"I tell people that the First United Methodist Church of Gardena is not in Gardena," the Rev. Haddon said, "and people just kind of stare in disbelief.

"This is Gardena, but it's not. Even the post office says 'Gardena,' but the reality is, we do not live in Gardena. . . . If we had a fire . . . the response would come from the city of Los Angeles."

That is a complicated fact of life in Harbor Gateway, the 8-mile long, 4-block-wide umbilical cord acquired at the turn of the century to link Los Angeles to its port.

In a city where community names conjure up images--Venice, Silver Lake, Boyle Heights--Harbor Gateway draws a blank.

Bounded on the west by Gardena and Torrance and on the east by Carson and unincorporated county land, the area was for decades known as the "city strip," the "shoestring strip" or, simply, "the strip."

Area Rechristened

Four years ago, the Los Angeles City Council rechristened the area to try to bring a sense of identity and community pride to its citizens--some of whom do not even know they live in Los Angeles.

Harbor Gateway lacks much of what makes a community a community--no central business district, no civic center or gathering place, no library branch, no police station and, as Haddon noted, no post office. Its largest park is a cemetery. And, despite the new name, mailing addresses of residents remain unchanged. They still say Torrance or Gardena, not Los Angeles.

Not surprisingly, this leaves some people confused.

"They say, 'Look, my mailing address is Gardena,' " reported Gene Painter, the city of Gardena's superintendent of human services who said he does not turn away Harbor Gateway residents who ask for help. "Strange as it may seem, they don't know where they live."

Optician Chris Toughill joined the Torrance Chamber of Commerce when he opened his shop in a Harbor Gateway strip mall, and his neighbors did the same. It wasn't until the Torrance mayor declined to attend their grand opening, Toughill said, that the merchants discovered that they were in Los Angeles.

Even the young toughs of the Gardena 13 gang, interviewed while hanging out on a Harbor Gateway street corner, insisted they were standing in Gardena.

In population, Harbor Gateway is tied with Westwood as Los Angeles' second-fastest growing area. Sylmar is first. Between 1980 and 1986, according to Los Angeles Planning Department estimates, Harbor Gateway's population increased 15.6%, from 30,238 to 34,951.

A drive through the Gateway is like a trip from the city to the suburbs. On the north end, which begins at El Segundo Boulevard, there are apartments needing repair, gang graffiti on walls and single-family homes with barred windows. The southern end--which stops at Sepulveda Boulevard, where Harbor City begins--is punctuated by newly built strip malls, condominiums and well-manicured lawns.

Property values follow a similar pattern, with the lowest prices in the north. Home values in nearby Torrance or Gardena, however, are considerably higher. Real estate agents report that a house in Harbor Gateway might sell for as much as $50,000 less than one across the street in another community.

Agents attribute the difference to better city services, particularly in Torrance, which has its own schools.

"The minute you mention Los Angeles," said Gardena real estate agent John Warner, "it frightens . . . people away. It's just one of those things. Homes have always been cheaper over there (Harbor Gateway)."

Said resident Betty Roy: "I hate to be known to live in the strip. When my friends ask where I live, I tell them Torrance."

Indeed, four years after the name change--in spite of spiffy blue-and-white signs that declare "Harbor Gateway" below the Los Angeles city seal--those who live and work there say they still feel betwixt and between, not fully a part of Los Angeles, Harbor Gateway or the bordering cities.

'In Limbo'

Moreover, they complain that their new moniker has not brought with it what they really want: more attention from city officials, better services such as street cleaning and tree trimming and, above all, increased police protection.

"We're like in limbo," said Roy, a longtime resident of the Gateway's southern end. "We're not really Torrance and we're not really Carson. . . . We're only here because Los Angeles needs this little piece of land to attach to the harbor. Nobody cares about us. . . . We're like the forgotten people."

For Sylvia Figueroa, life on the border means a daily struggle at It's a Miracle, the Mexican pizza parlor she opened a year ago at Gardena Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles.

The city of Gardena is across the street, and the differences are stark. On the Gardena side, Gardena Boulevard--that city's main business thoroughfare--is getting a face lift. The street is clean, and the trees are neatly trimmed. City officials are offering grants to business owners for renovations.

Neighborhood Contrasts

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