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Where Life Moves to Latin Beat

Huntington Park: City is a friendly mix of Latino immigrants and dedicated "old-timers" who wouldn't think of living anyplace else.

August 04, 1996|KAREN E. KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Karen Klein is a Monrovia freelance writer

Jaime Sanchez was only 17 years old when he left Jalisco, Mexico, to join his older brothers in Huntington Park. He washed dishes when he first arrived, then completed his education and eventually became a real estate agent.

At 43, Sanchez has had plenty of opportunities to move from Huntington Park. But he has stayed. "Living here, it feels just like I am in Mexico," he said. "Everywhere you go, they speak Spanish and serve Mexican food."

The population of Huntington Park, five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, is about 96% Latino. The city, surrounded by Vernon, Maywood, Bell, Cudahy, South Gate and Walnut Park, has one of the highest residential densities in Southern California. The official population is 58,000 but city officials estimate that about 75,000 people live in Huntington Park, counting undocumented residents.

Huntington Park is also the home of the Pacific Boulevard shopping district, one of the most vibrant Latino marketplaces in Southern California.

Sanchez bought his first home, with two bedrooms and a bath, in the early 1980s for $65,000. He and his wife, Doris, a homemaker, purchased their current home in 1989 for $129,000. It has two bedrooms, with a bonus room that the family uses as a third bedroom, and 1 1/2 baths in 1,200 square feet.

"I can't imagine living anywhere else," Sanchez said. "I wouldn't be comfortable outside my own community."

Huntington Park draws many first-generation immigrants like Sanchez, and close to 75% of its residents are renters, most living in single-family homes since there are relatively few apartments in the city.

Two- and three-bedroom California bungalows and Craftsman-style homes with less than 1,000 square feet and dating from the 1920s and '30s sell for an average of $130,000. Newer homes, built in the last decade, are typically three- and four-bedroom two-story houses from 1,500 to 1,900 square feet and sell for $150,000 to $170,000.

The city's main thoroughfare and thriving shopping district, Pacific Boulevard, is five blocks long and provides more than half a mile of shopping that draws customers from as far away as Northridge and Santa Ana.

More than 600 merchants are situated on Pacific Boulevard, mostly independent stores catering to Latinos but including such national retailers as JCPenney, Petries, Thrifty and Miller's Outpost.

The crime rate along the boulevard--from shoplifting to car burglary--has decreased, thanks to police bicycle patrols and a storefront substation established recently, said Police Chief Randy Narramore, who was hired in April 1995 to revamp the department. Narramore has implemented several innovative programs to help fight the gang violence and crime that plagues the city. Residents are feeling the improvements. "I feel safe here," said Rosie Olguin, 32, an office assistant who has lived in Huntington Park since April 1988. She purchased a two-story home built in the northeast part of the city in the mid-1980s for $157,500, getting three bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, a family room, a dining room and a two-car garage.

"The police cars are always around keeping an eye on things, the schools are pretty good and the shopping areas and freeways are really close by," she said.

The proximity of Huntington Park to downtown Los Angeles played a large part in its incorporation back in 1906. It started out as an exclusive residential enclave called Le Park, removed from the dirt and noise of downtown but close enough to get there by horse and buggy.

The city boomed in the 1920s, when Henry Huntington brought his railroad through the center of town and got the town named for himself. Over the next five decades, Huntington Park remained a fairly exclusive city. Its population has shifted to majority Latino during the last 15 years, with 3% non-Latino white residents and only a handful of African American and Asian American residents.

Manuel V. Avila, a social worker, and his wife, Becky, a preschool teacher, have experienced the demographic shift first-hand since they moved to Huntington Park in the early 1970s and purchased a three-bedroom 1 1/2-bath home for $21,500.

"For us, it's a nice place to live because we are close to downtown, to the airport, to the beaches at Long Beach and San Pedro, to Orange County and Disneyland. The community is strategically located, right in the middle of where the action is," Avila said.

The family purchased a larger home in 1987, paying $150,000 for four bedrooms, two baths, a den and a study and adding a swimming pool.

Tom Jackson, 59, who has been on the City Council for 27 years and has served as Huntington Park's mayor nine times, remembers decades ago when Pacific Boulevard was a high-end regional shopping area featuring car dealerships, exclusive clothing shops and boutiques. Jackson has owned a florist shop in Huntington Park since 1970.

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