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Fontana Shedding Its Steel Town Image : New subdivisions on the outskirts are a sharp contrast to older parts of the city.

August 06, 1989|CARLA LAZZARESCHI | Times Staff Writer

Like many newcomers to the multiplying suburban sprawl of inland Southern California, Ingrid Galeano Morrison didn't know one city from the next. She certainly didn't know Fontana until she, her mother and sisters bought a house there a few months ago.

And now there are times when she wishes she had done a little more homework before being lured by some of the best housing prices east of Pomona.

"If I had known the city looked like this . . . , " she mused, while tending the front lawn of the family's new, four-bedroom, two-bath home. Morrison doesn't finish her thought. The $130,000 price tag on the family's dream house, she knows, makes up for a lot.

And she has absolutely no complaints about her immediate, spanking-new neighborhood. It's just the south-central part of town that depresses her.

This old-time section of Fontana, which stretches north from Valley Boulevard just out of the shadow of the shuttered Kaiser Steel mill, seems to be home to half of the world's auto repair shops and a good number of its Confederate flag retailers. And long blocks close to the old downtown are spotted with debris-littered lots and dilapidated buildings.

Population Has Doubled

"It's tacky, very, very," Morrison said. "But, maybe I should be grateful. People tell me it used to be worse."

Indeed. Fontana is changing.

In the last five years, the city's population has nearly doubled to 80,000 as thousands of young and largely upwardly mobile families have decided to trek even farther inland in search of housing bargains.

They find pay dirt in Fontana. New, detached, single-family homes can be purchased for as little as about $110,000, and nothing costs more than $250,000. The average price of a new home, according to the city's housing division, is $128,052.

And there is a wide selection from which to choose. No fewer than 18 new subdivisions are under construction; another 20 are under review by the city's planning staff.

More House for Money

Many of Fontana's new residents are first-time homeowners. And just as many are move-up buyers seeking to get more house for their dollar than they can in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

But although these families are willing to give up their old neighborhood ties and commute longer distances to their jobs in exchange for their housing bargains, they seem loath to abandon community values and expectations shaped by other areas of Southern California.

The result has been a bit disconcerting.

As in so many other fast-growing older communities, a schism has developed between the established working-class residents who liked Fontana for the steel town that it was and the new families who would mold it into something with a bit more style, charm and pizazz.

One story that circulated widely several years ago was told about two young housewives who had moved into Southridge Village, then the city's newest planned community.

Culture Clash

The women were apparently so concerned about the negative image of Fontana that they refused to use it as their mailing address, substituting "Southridge Village" as their hometown. Through the miracle of ZIP codes, they still got their mail.

This culture clash was, in many ways, inevitable. Unlike the entirely new residential communities that are springing up throughout Southern California, such as Moreno Valley in Riverside County and vast stretches of Orange County, Fontana is an established city with thousands of longtime residents.

As the onslaught of new home buyers continues, the differences between old and new becomes more apparent.

"Whether people realize it or not, Fontana is becoming a segregated city," said Rudy Cruz, a 35-year-old RTD bus scheduler and father of three who moved from San Gabriel into a new home in the city's emerging northwestern quadrant last year.

"It's not segregation by race, but by economics. It's the old residents versus the new."

'One Whole Big City'

Fontana's city leaders downplay the importance of such comments, noting that virtually all communities undergoing population explosions suffer growing pains and temporary imbalances until the growth pace slackens and the new residents have been absorbed into the city's mainstream.

"In another 10 years, we'll be one whole big city," says Chamber of Commerce director Meredith Watkins. "Until then, there's bound to be some isolation of the new residents. It's normal; it's geography. And it will change."

John Anicic Jr., a Fontana resident for nearly 20 years, says newcomers aren't the only ones affected by the changes brought on by growth.

There's more traffic and the city is more crowded," he explains. "This town used to be like a country farming town. Now things are more spread out."

But Anicic, the manager of Foothill Builders Mart, a lumber and hardware store, isn't terribly concerned about the city's new residents. "They don't have ties to town yet, but they're slowly getting involved. It takes time."

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