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Irwindale's Family Values : The City's Close-Knit Residents Have Carved Out a Bit of Paradise Amid the Rock Quarries--and They're Keeping It to Themselves

January 20, 1994|LEE ROMNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cities across the San Gabriel Valley gutted recreation programs last year and slapped taxes and fees on everything from utilities to dog tags. But Irwindale expanded its library hours and started tutoring kids for free.

Demographic change is sweeping through Southern California and rising crime tops a litany of modern Angst in suburbia. But Irwindale, a quarry-pocked working-class city of about 1,050, grew by only 20 people in the 1980s--and most of them were related to the families whose Mexican ancestors put down roots there at the turn of the century. There is no local gang; home burglaries tallied a modest eight last year; there were no rapes; and the city logged only two murders, neither of them involving residents.

Seven years after the city suffered a costly embarrassment in its failed bid to lure the Raiders, Irwindale finds it can hold its head higher than ever, especially compared with its neighbors. And in the case of its senior citizens, those heads are barbered or coiffed at city expense.

"We're surrounded by big towns and corporations that want to eat us alive. People are envious of what we have. But we've built this place--with our hearts and souls," said Dolores (Peaches) Barbosa, 37, who moved away from Irwindale for a decade before coming home to the comfort of family five years ago. "There's poor people here and they're in paradise."

The national media mocked the city as naive after the sour Raiders deal emptied once-bulging coffers of more than $20 million; and as long ago as 1961, only four years after incorporation, a local press account snidely dubbed the city "a study in dust and dejection . . . as attractive as a goiter."

But since the Raiders fiasco, the luster in better-groomed Southern California cities has faded in the face of increasing crime and a long-suffering economy. And Irwindale finds itself looking pretty good.

What other city offers all its residents medical prescriptions for $3, plus vision care and free trips for the kids to Disneyland? Students are driven to outlying school districts in city buses, and tuition for college is as easy as filling out a request and handing it over to the Chamber of Commerce. Senior citizens' benefits kick in at the spry age of 50 and include free piano lessons and barbering. And the city will fork over a $5,000 grant to any homeowners who need to bring their houses up to code. And come Christmas, every child gets a stocking stuffed with goodies.

So how do you get in? It's almost impossible.

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While for-sale signs dot front lawns in other cities, Irwindale residents recall seeing only two over the past three years. Nearby realtors don't remember any. Even the most run-down cottages are coveted as tickets to privilege: When they are sold or rented out, more often than not they are passed on to relatives.

The median family income in 1989 was only $29,900, the third-lowest in the Valley, higher only than El Monte and South El Monte. But a dollar goes further in Irwindale. Garbage pickup is free, and residents are exempt from the steep 7.5% utility tax imposed on business.

At the Ortiz family home on the tiny cul-de-sac of Nora Avenue, a workman dabs finishing touches around a $5,000 window job that will finally keep the winter air from seeping through the cracks. The bill: to be paid by a city grant.

Around the corner at the city's recreation center, Rebecca Ortiz, 16, and sister Laura, 12, pile into a city bus with dozens of other Irwindale youths for a trip to Disney on Ice in Anaheim. Tickets are free for kids and half price for teens. And just two days earlier, their mother, 39-year-old Cheryl Ortiz, picked out a new pair of eyeglass frames--billed to the vision plan the city offers all Irwindale residents.

If Barbosa's sister, recreation supervisor Veronica Lara, didn't use the city's prescription plan, the $65 injections she needs to alleviate recurring migraines would cost her between $150 and $300 a month. She pays $3 per shot.

City trips are half price for adults as well as teen-agers. Last month, a busload headed for the Bette Midler concert at the Universal Amphitheatre. The $50 tickets cost residents $25. And three weeks earlier, $10 got Irwindale residents prime seats to watch the L.A. Rams play the Washington Redskins.

Laura Ortiz thanks the new tutoring program, staffed with credentialed teachers who pull in $22 an hour, for upping her science grade from a D to a B. Held at the old City Council chambers next to the library, the program is open to all of Irwindale's school-age children.

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And at the $2.5-million senior center, residents enjoy everything from ceramics to knitting, and can get beauty and health instruction free of charge. Ladies get their hair done every Friday, and the men's barber comes every two weeks.

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