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City Is Old, But Full of Life : Monrovia: Ambitious redevelopment program in the '70s triggered economic improvements and rekindled the small-town spirit of residents.

November 12, 1989|EVELYN DE WOLFE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Last one to leave town, turn off the lights" was a popular refrain in the 1970s when residents of Monrovia began looking beyond the town's borders for a decent place to shop, to eat and to do business.

"But that was long before we came to live here," said Margo Silverman, a former Hollywood resident, who likes the community's small-town, Midwestern atmosphere and boasts about its rebirth in recent years.

With a population of almost 36,000, Monrovia hugs the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains 8 miles east of Pasadena, and is the fourth oldest incorporated city in Los Angeles County. Its immediate neighbors are Arcadia to the west and Duarte to the east.

The activity at the Silvermans on a recent Sunday afternoon centered on getting 8-year-old daughter Lauren ready for a children's recital at Library Park, one of a series of community family events that reflect the town's feeling of "togetherness."

"It's a good place to raise a family," said Ken Silverman, a media consultant whose work takes him on daily commutes to Westside clients.

"The people are friendly here," Margo Silverman added. "Besides, where else could a young family like ours find such a large and beautiful old home . . . for an affordable rent?" Realtor Miles Tolbert agreed that home rentals are reasonably priced in Monrovia and said he had just rented a three-bedroom home with 1 3/4 baths and swimming pool for $1,450 a month, adding that landlords usually accept tenants with children and pets.

One-bedroom apartments, he said, rent for between $475 and $600 and two-bedroom units in medium-income neighborhoods rent for $700 to $900.

Tolbert, 80, has lived in Monrovia for 55 years and has seen many changes in its property values. He bought a two-bedroom home there in 1936 for $1,700 with only a $300 down payment and a monthly mortgage of $16.80.

"Our present home was built for under $20,000 in 1960 on a lot with an existing structure. We invested a total of $33,500, and today the property is worth about $400,000.

"But, at least for a while, I think property values have topped out," Tolbert said, adding that a home in Monrovia may still be a good buy for families who want to settle there. "They can expect some appreciation in the long run but Monrovia is no longer an area for speculators."

The city is served by two major freeways, the Foothill (210) and the San Bernardino (10) and its northern and southern sections are divided by a stretch of Huntington Drive that has become the community's major regional shopping focus, with outlets such as Mervyn's, Builders Emporium, Home Depot and an impressive "auto row" now anchored there.

For most Monrovians, however, Myrtle Avenue remains the heart of the town.

Myrtle has evolved from an unpaved Victorian horse-and-buggy street into a charming Park Plaza Village setting with landscaped areas, brick walks with shade trees and benches, and a variety of small shops, restaurants and shopkeepers who greet their customers by name.

A familiar face along Myrtle Avenue is that of Steve Baker, parish administrator at St. Luke's Episcopal Church and president of Monrovia's Historical Society. Baker lives around the corner from the town's main street in an 1887 house that belonged to his great-grandfather. It is where his grandmother lived and where his father was born.

"I also attended the same local grammar school as my father," Baker said, adding that in spite of the changes, the community has deep roots and retains many of its traditional values, pulling together whenever a common need arises.

A prime example, Baker said, was demonstrated when Monrovia--like other older cities in the San Gabriel Valley--began experiencing serious economic problems due to competition from chain retailers in outlying areas.

It took an ambitious redevelopment effort in 1977 to trigger the revitalization of the city, he said.

One of the leaders in the effort was Pat Ostrye, a longtime resident who was married and raised seven children in Monrovia. Ostrye was the first woman to serve on Monrovia's City Council and the city's first elected mayor (1978-79). She later served as city clerk.

"Whenever something needs to be done in this town, everybody joins in," Ostrye said, "It was a major cooperative effort of schools, government, chamber of commerce, business and the residents that put this town back together again."

Major improvements were completed in time for the city's centennial celebration in 1986.

Monrovia was named for William Newton Monroe, a railroad construction engineer who came to Southern California in 1875. In the spring of 1886, with former Los Angeles Mayor John D. Bicknell and James F. Crank, Monroe laid out a 60-acre town on land purchased from the grant holders of the ranchos Santa Anita and Azusa de Duarte.

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