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From Citrus Groves to Ex-G.I. Homes : Duarte: Nestled below the San Gabriel Mountains, the city now is attracting another generation of home-seekers.

September 02, 1990|GORDON DILLOW | Dillow is a La Canada-based free-lance writer.

The city of Duarte was built on G.I. dreams. Dreams like Monty and Dorothy Montgomery's.

At the end of World War II, J. A. (Monty) Montgomery had just finished a South Pacific sojourn on a Navy destroyer; Dorothy was a WAVE stationed at Treasure Island naval base in San Francisco.

They met, fell in love, got married, mustered out of the service and then, like a lot of Northerners--she was from chilly Michigan, he was from chillier North Dakota--they joined the migration to sunny Southern California and started looking for a place to live and raise a family.

Unfortunately, like thousands of other former servicemen and their families who had similar hopes and dreams, they found themselves in the middle of the worst housing shortage in Los Angeles history.

"God, it was awful," Monty Montgomery, 67, a retired construction contractor and former Duarte city councilman, says. "There was nothing--nothing!--available anywhere."

But if housing was scarce, orange and avocado groves were plentiful. And in the face of the incredible demand for new homes, developers cut down the groves, poured thousands upon thousands of concrete slabs and created vast tracts of single-story, ranch-style houses with big back yards--"G.I. houses," they called them then.

After living with his parents in Pasadena for awhile, and then in a too-small house in what is now Monrovia, the Montgomerys visited one such tract in an unincorporated area at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, due east of Pasadena.

"A real estate agent took us around to look at lots of houses, including these, which were still being built," says Dorothy Montgomery, 64, sitting in the kitchen of her four-bedroom, two-bath home on a cul-de-sac at the end of Cinco Robles Drive. (Cul-de-sacs were a startlingly innovative concept back then.)

"Everything clicked; we were the first family to move into this tract. It was like being out in the country."

The Montgomerys paid $12,800 for their home, which seemed like a lot of money at the time. Monty Montgomery says he was offered $190,000 for the house not long ago.

According to real estate agents in the Duarte area, that puts the Montgomery home in the medium price range; prices in Duarte range from $130,000 at the extreme low end to almost half a million dollars for some homes in the newer, hillside areas.

In 1957, the 6,000 or so residents of the area became concerned about encroaching gravel quarry operations, so they incorporated a 6.8-square-mile area and became the city of Duarte, named after Andres Duarte, a 19th-Century Spanish soldier who owned Rancho Duarte until the Americans took over from Mexico and he got behind on his tax payments.

The new city was a classic Los Angeles "bedroom community." There really wasn't a downtown to speak of, police and fire protection were provided by the county on a contract basis and except for the City of Hope Hospital (now Medical Center), which was founded in 1913 as a tuberculosis sanitarium, there wasn't much in the way of large business or industry in the city either. It was a place where people lived and raised families.

"It was a very family-oriented community back then," says Monty Montgomery, the kind of community where PTA meetings were always packed. (Duarte had formed its own school district in 1957.) Almost every family had two or three children; the Montgomerys had six.

That sense of community began to change in the late 1960s, the Montgomerys say, when the Foothill (210) Freeway was built, dividing the city into north and south. Increased commercial development along Huntington Drive, which runs north of and parallel to the freeway, also served to separate the two sections of the city.

Generally speaking, homes south of Huntington Drive are older and less expensive than the ones to the north, many of which were built in the 1970s rather than in the post-World War II boom.

"We're in Baja Duarte," Dorothy Montgomery says, laughing. "A lot of new people (in Duarte) see it as a lower economic area."

Although Monty Montgomery would like to move--now that their children have grown, he says, "the house is just too big"--both Montgomerys think that Duarte, whether baja or alta , is still a good place to live.

"There's just a good basic attitude here," Monty says. "I still enjoy this community."

Ed Carey, a retired auto upholsterer and a 40-year resident of Duarte, agrees.

"It's just been a very pleasant place to live," says Carey, 67, who with his wife, Nita, paid $8,600 for their three-bedroom home on Chesson Street in 1949, back when "there was nothing but orange groves out here." He values it now in the just-under-$200,000 range.

Carey is concerned that "there just isn't as much a sense of community as there used to be"--an old-timer's lament that probably can be heard in any city or town in America--and he misses the "out in the country" feeling that Duarte had before it was surrounded by suburban sprawl, and saw its own population grow from 6,000 to more than 21,000.

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