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AT HOME : Town Relies on Sense of Community : Gardena: Residents applaud the positive growth and appreciate the financially stable, affordable middle-class community with a balanced ethnic mix.


Thora Smith Pursche, 88, came to Gardena as a bride in 1924 and has lived in the same little bungalow ever since.

The farmlands of the South Bay city and the sweet aroma of its strawberry fields are now gone and Pursche's home can barely be seen among the car dealerships, banks and office buildings of busy Redondo Beach Boulevard.

Developers have made tempting offers for this last remaining single-family dwelling along the "golden mile" of Gardena's prime commercial real estate. But Pursche's riches, she maintains, are still to be found in simple tasks around her garden and in the bounty of her back-yard orchard.

Pursche and other longtime residents of Gardena are disturbed by some of the changes in their city, in particular the number of single-family homes that have been replaced by apartment houses, creating increased traffic and parking problems.

But they also applaud the positive growth. Gardenans see themselves as living in a financially stable, mostly residential, affordable middle-class community with a well-balanced ethnic mix.

The Ruizes and Ybarras, Bakers and Blanchards, Nakaokas and Nakajimas are part of this racially diverse population of about 50,000 that is primarily Caucasian, black, Latino and Japanese, with growing numbers of Koreans, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Hawaiians and Samoans.

"When we have a Cinco de Mayo or Oriental festival, a Martin Luther King Jr. parade, a fund-raiser for the homeless or citywide sports events, everyone joins in and is supportive," said Rosa Montano, a 34-year-old bridal coordinator of Mexican heritage who is involved in community activities.

But for the most part, she added, "People here tend to mingle with their own. They feel more comfortable in their bilingual environments where cultural traditions are expressed openly."

Bill and June Gerber, both in their 70s, settled in the upscale Hollypark area of Gardena when it was first being developed in 1955 in the northwestern part of town. They purchased a 1,400-square-foot two-bedroom, two-bath home for $18,OOO, with 4% loan interest payment.

"We like it here," Bill Gerber said. "Gardena is a sound community with a low crime rate. The climate is about the best anywhere, with prevailing westerly winds and a temperature that is 15 degrees less than Los Angeles. And we have easy access to four freeways," Gerber said, adding that 95% of Hollypark's 1,800 homes are now occupied by black families.

"They are good neighbors," said the retired industrial engineer. "We all get along just fine."

James and Kai Parker, one of many black families who moved to Hollypark in the '60s and '70s, paid $28,000 for their five-bedroom home on a large corner lot.

"We feel lucky to have such a large home where we can gather our family and friends," Kai Parker said.

"We knew very little about Gardena when we moved here, but in driving through the area, I was impressed with the well-kept parks, the church down the block, the high school nearby and the proximity of El Camino College.

"We had two sons and felt it was a great place to raise a family," said Kai Parker, now a grandmother and employed as special projects coordinator for Pasadena City College.

"I would say that 80% to 90% of Gardena's residents moved here because of what this community has to offer to families. We have a pluralistic environment where there's a lot of respect for one another's differences and a lot of support in helping maintain the dignity and beauty of the city."

Gardena's boundaries are roughly 190th Street to the south, El Segundo Boulevard to the north, Crenshaw Boulevard to the west and Vermont Avenue to the east, with a few unincorporated peninsulas woven in, which still remain somewhat neglected.

"We hope someday to have them become a part of the city," said City Planner Roy Kato. "There would be more police control and more benefits to those areas."

Kato noted that while housing is still affordable in Gardena, it is not as easily available as before.

"To fill that demand, investors have been buying up every available single-family home on an R-2 lot and building apartments and condo units," he said.

"Even some of the major nurseries that once flourished in Gardena have been bought up for commercial and residential development. But we are working on a plan to limit development that encroaches on single-family neighborhoods."

Rachel Ruiz Adam, who was born in Gardena and heads the Old Timers group (made up mostly of Latinos whose families pioneered the area), bemoans the fact that "the town has gotten bigger and we've lost some of the neighborliness I grew up with.

"When we were country hicks, we had fewer problems," she said, adding that her parents arrived in the area from Mexico in 1919, and her 94-year-old mother still lives in the community. "But Gardena is still a wonderful place to live, and the police here are super."

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