South El Monte Mayor Albert G. Perez sat on the edge of his seat in the back of an air-conditioned sedan, pointing through the tinted windows at the good, the bad and the ugly of his small, industrial flavored town.
Sure, the mayor was saying, this is not San Juan Capistrano--not with the hodgepodge of smudge-encrusted Quonset huts, lots with graffiti-sprayed walls and row after row of windowless machine shops.
But there are pleasant areas, too, he said, ordering the city manager to steer down tidy streets of single-family stucco homes, many with neat lawns, fresh coats of paint and white wrought-iron fences.
"This is just another normal city," Perez said. "There's nothing special about living here. We're just a community of good, hard-working people who mind their own business."
That's not the same picture painted last week by a Chicago-based urbanologist who ranked this predominantly Latino city as the 15th poorest suburb in the United States.
In a report aimed at identifying the wealthiest and poorest American communities, Roosevelt University Prof. Pierre deVise said areas such as South El Monte represent "the American nightmare," with their "ramshackle houses, old jalopies, slum schools, dirty air (and) clubby neighbors of the street gang variety."
South El Monte, which ranked just behind the Los Angeles County cities of Cudahy, Bell Gardens and Huntington Park, earned its spot on the list with an estimated per capita income of $7,100 a year, based on projections from 1980 U.S. Census data.
"At first, I laughed at it," said Perez, quickly adding that, as a Caltrans electrical engineer, he earns $42,000 annually. "But then I started thinking about how something like that really hurts the people who live here. It sort of gouges you. . . . Those numbers are not a true reflection of our community."
Indeed, for all of South El Monte's uncomeliness, it's hard to imagine this city of 18,500 as one of the most impoverished areas of the nation.
More than 1,300 firms do business here, most drawn to the 3.1-square-mile town by its ordinances against levying property taxes, utility taxes and business license fees. Foster Farms and Zacky Foods, the chicken wholesalers, call the city home, as do women's sportswear manufacturer Joni Blair, swimsuit maker Sirena, military contractor Vacco Industries and Lee Pharmaceuticals.
Ramada Inc. plans to build a 109-unit luxury hotel on a vacant field at the city's south end. Nearby, construction is already under way on a 53-unit tract of $200,000 homes.
The result is about $3.5 million in annual sales tax revenue, which the City Council has used to provide a large public swimming pool, outdoor tennis courts, lighted fields for three dozen Little League teams, shuttle service for the elderly and several city-run child-care programs.
"The business community . . . they're the home boys," said Councilman Jim Kelly. "They pay the bills."
On the other hand, this is not a town that tends to evoke effusions of civic pride, either. Many residents, asked why they live in South El Monte, simply shrug and usually say something about the excellent freeway access.
There's no downtown, no central plaza, no shopping mall and no department stores. Complaints about the dearth of restaurants are common. Night-time entertainment seems limited to a few Latin dance halls and a Spanish-language drive-in theater.
Even within the San Gabriel Valley--a region that has struggled to establish a coherent identity of its own--South El Monte remains something of an unknown quantity. Apart from the American flags on the lampposts of busy Santa Anita Avenue, there's very little in the way of decoration or architectural frill to promote an image other than that of an industrial district.
"There's no excitement at all here, whatsoever," said Mary Dixon, a 60-year-old mother of nine who serves as a crosswalk guard near one of the elementary schools. "But I guess it's a nice place to live. Nobody bothers anybody, as far as I know."
South El Monte has seen headier days. Many longtime residents came in the 1950s, as the postwar boom brought inexpensive housing to what was then a predominantly agricultural region. "Anglos, cows and pigs," is the way Councilman Kelly, a truck driver, remembers the town.
When industry also began to boom, residents wanted to preserve the growing wealth for themselves. Fearful that neighboring El Monte was poised to annex the community, they led a successful drive in 1958 to incorporate as a city--one of the first in California to contract out with the county for police and fire protection.
In those days, South El Monte was a comparatively well-to-do place, and the revenue generated from industry went to a long list of social and charitable agencies that provided a wide range of services to residents.