The population grew at a double-digit rate throughout Southeast Los Angeles County in the last decade, according to preliminary census data.
But last week's Census Bureau figures provided few surprises for city officials, who have long been wrestling with the challenges of rapid growth that has strained city resources, packed neighborhoods and schools, and triggered unending debates about development.
Nineteen of the area's 25 cities, from Long Beach to Montebello, recorded population increases of at least 10% in the 1980s.
The growth rate generally was highest in such cities as Bell, Cudahy, Maywood and Huntington Park, which have become teeming landing pads for immigrants from Mexico and Latin America.
Thousands of Asians also contributed to a 17% population increase in Long Beach, significantly altering a city once known as Iowa by the Sea because of its predominant white middle class.
Despite the documented growth, local officials in this region as elsewhere expressed concern that census takers missed thousands among the homeless and immigrant populations.
In Bell, for example, census figures showed that population has grown 33% in the last 10 years, to 33,813 residents. But census takers may have missed up to 6,000 residents, said John Bramble, Bell's city administrator.
There's more at stake than civic pride, Bramble noted. He estimates that his city, like others, receives at least $50 from the state and $20 from the federal government for every resident. Much of this money comes in the form of the city's share of vehicle licensing fees, state taxes and community development grants.
Bramble said the money is desperately needed in Bell, whose general budget fund has declined from $6.6 million two years ago to $5.5 million this year.
Even 10 years ago, Bell had little open land, making it an unlikely boom town. But many houses have been razed to build apartments, and larger families and groups of several families have crowded into remaining houses, Bramble said. In some cases, property owners have built living spaces behind their own homes.
"We're past saturation at this point," Bramble said. "Our water system is now at a state where it needs major renovation. Our sewer system is not of sufficient capacity. Our streets are at capacity. Most are too narrow to have 200 cars parked on them.
"Our parks are overtaxed substantially," he said of a city with 11 acres of parkland, "and so is our ability to keep them up adequately. We need more park space."
New arrivals from Latin America go to overcrowded communities such as Bell because "other countrymen are there already," said Dowell Myers, a professor at the USC School of Urban and Regional Planning. "Immigration works through networks."
The crammed conditions make crime problems worse. Arrests made by the Bell Police Department through July this year have increased by 645, or about 45%, from the same time last year.
By contrast, arrests are down in La Mirada, a city with no confirmed population rise. There were 1,164 arrests in fiscal year 1986-87, but just 924 in fiscal 1988-89. Figures for last year are being compiled.
As serious as Bell's problems are, with more than 30,000 people squeezed into about one square mile of residential area, the city's dilemma is hardly unique. Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, Cudahy and Maywood all have more population density. In fact, those cities have the highest population density in the state, said George Malone, supervising regional planner with the county's Department of Regional Planning.
All 24 Los Angeles Unified School District campuses in May wood, Bell, Cudahy, Huntington Park and South Gate have been on year-round schedules since the early 1980s. And thousands of students still have to be bused as far away as the San Fernando Valley and Tujunga. In Long Beach, public school enrollment is increasing by 1,200 students a year, local educators said.
The rate of population increase, rather than raw population numbers, is what strains city services, Myers of USC said: "There's no limit to how much growth could be absorbed here, as long as it came slow enough. You could have 20 million people in the next century, and that would be OK as long as they came slowly enough. It's really the rate of change. It takes time to plan roads."
Not all heavily Latino communities had this rapid population increase. Pico Rivera grew by 10%, Montebello by 12%.
In Long Beach, 40,000 refugees--many fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime--have opened stores and businesses, creating one of the world's largest concentrations of Cambodians outside of that Southeast Asian nation, city officials say.
"We've turned into Little Cambodia by the Sea," said Glenn Walker, an information specialist with the city's Planning Department.