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Home-Grown : Development: Old-timers lament as nurseries and duplexes give way to pricey condos, making the ethnic neighborhood into just another part of West L.A.

July 07, 1991|BARBARA KOH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Among the camellias in buckets, hanging pots of fuchsias, trays of moss, and palm trees in barrels, Shichiro Hashimoto putters, watering and transplanting, enjoying the sunshine and letting his children run his busy nursery on Sawtelle Boulevard.

Hashimoto, 88, was once a pioneer. The Hashimoto Nursery, which opened in the 1920s, was one of the first in the neighborhood known as Sawtelle. By the late 1950s, there were more than 30. But now there are just seven; the pioneer has become a holdout.

He speaks for many of the longtime Sawtelle residents when he says he misses the old "one-man, one-lot" days. They lament as the nurseries, the aging stucco and clapboard houses and old duplexes and triplexes give way to luxury condominiums, high-priced apartments, mini-malls and office towers. Slowly, the old-timers say, a unique ethnic neighborhood is being transformed into just another part of West L.A.

"They're going to make more houses, tall houses," Hashimoto says of the development plans. "It's too bad. I don't care for these tall ones."

From the start, Sawtelle was a working-class area, settled around the turn of the century by people who were barred from other areas by racial covenants or high prices: Latinos, Japanese and poor whites. They worked at the Old Soldiers' Home (now the Veterans Administration Hospital), on the railroad, in the fields of lima beans and barley that covered much of the land between Sepulveda Boulevard and Barrington Avenue. And they worked in the houses, kitchens and gardens of the wealthy in Bel-Air, Beverly Hills and Brentwood.

Today, Sawtelle remains one of the most racially mixed neighborhoods on the Westside, with no group a majority. The 1990 Census counted 14,042 residents, of whom 48% were Anglo, 26% Latino, 23% Asian, and 3% black. (By comparison, the overall West Los Angeles-Century City-Rancho Park area was 73% Anglo).

The racial percentages in Sawtelle in the 1990 Census were virtually unchanged from 1980, but that is not to say it was a quiet decade. In fact, it was a period of considerable turnover and development.

The neighborhood was one of just a few on the Westside in which the population grew in the '80s--it was up 6.7%, because of a surge in construction activity. From 1980 to 1990, the number of dwelling units in Sawtelle increased by 692, or 10.6%.

The most noticeable change has been a proliferation of luxury apartments and $200,000 and $300,000 townhouse condos--replacing, in many cases, single-family homes and aging two- and three-unit apartment buildings. The longtime residents call the process "Brentwoodization."

Among the new arrivals are young professionals, students and a small but visible contingent of Japanese nationals, business executives sent by their companies to work in the United States for a few years. To the old-timers, the newcomers are a more transient and anonymous bunch.

"I feel like I'm a stranger in my own neighborhood," said Ruben Ortega, whose family has lived in Sawtelle since the 1920s. "Even the Latinos are different from the ones I grew up with. . . . Children sell out for money instead of keeping the property and having some place they can call home."

Before, added Al Casas, 39, who grew up in Sawtelle and has never left for long, "if somebody weird walked through the neighborhood, everybody knew it. Now . . . with all the building and all the apartments, a lot of people come and go so you don't even get to know (them)." In the last 10 years, he said, four different households have occupied a condo across the street from where he lives.

Sawtelle, according to neighborhood historian Harlan Hiney, was named in 1899 after W.E. Sawtelle, a prominent local banker. It incorporated in 1909, and was annexed by Los Angeles in 1922.

Its proximity to the growing, upper-class districts was ideal for Sawtelle residents, who found jobs building the estates of movie stars and millionaires and then cleaning them and working in the gardens.

At Emerson Junior High and University High School, children from Bel-Air and Brentwood snubbed the Sawtelle kids as "the peons (who) lived . . . south of the tracks," recalled Tom Ikkanda, 73.

Ikkanda moved to Sawtelle from Claremont with his parents in 1923 because they had heard "the gardening was pretty lucrative here." His mother caught the Red Car on Santa Monica Boulevard to go to housekeeping jobs in Beverly Hills.

Rich soil and mild weather helped make Sawtelle a natural for the nursery business. Margie Robles' father, who planted palm trees in Beverly Hills and whose gardening customers included Will Rogers and Tom Mix, opened his nursery in 1939 on 1 3/4 acres on Missouri Avenue, Robles said.

The largest nursery--and loudest--was Armacost & Royston at Bundy and Olympic, where the orchids and roses in the two blocks of glass greenhouses were heated by a steam plant whose whistle blasted at each shift change. "You could practically time your watch to it," recalled historian Hiney, 53. The nursery closed in 1970.

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