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City Smart / How to thrive in the urban environment
of Southern California | Community Profile: Bell

March 07, 1997|CECILIA RASMUSSEN

Long before the so-called "Baby Bells" came to dominate the telephone industry, Los Angeles had its own Bells--not companies, but entire communities.

Bell, Bell Gardens and Bel-Air--each was home to three generations of Bells. Like many pioneers, the Bell family put its name to cities and streets.

The City of Bell is where the family first settled in Southern California. Shortly after James George Bell arrived in 1875, fleeing "bushwhackers" in Virginia, he bought 350 acres of Rancho San Antonio and became a prosperous farmer, cattle rancher and land developer.

After battling to keep the Santa Fe railroad from gaining a foothold through his land, Bell relented when railroad negotiators promised to name the station "Bell," and to give his 6-year-old daughter, Maude, a train ride. The town took its name from the station.

By 1927, Bell was an exclusive residential enclave five miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles when it incorporated with the motto "Key to Industry." The bedroom community supplied manpower to neighboring industrial cities. The city was determined to expand--but only on a pay-as-you-go basis, buying up property without going into debt.

Like other cities in Southern California, World War II threw Bell into high gear, and began its transformation from a residential island into a populous city dense with apartment buildings.

In 1960, Bell city annexed 130 acres of federal land--the former Cheli Air Force Depot, a way station for military supplies destined for the war in the Pacific. (Eventually, streets on the land were named after aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, to recall the property's origins.)

The city held out hope that one day the land would be declared surplus and sold for industrial development, thus ensuring a solid tax base. They held out hope for 17 years. In 1978, the federal government released the property; 92 acres were put up for sale, and soon became the city's first industrial redevelopment project.

While Bell's sister city, Bel-Air--founded by Bell's son, Alphonzo Bell, the father of the 1960s congressman--has attracted the rich and famous, Bell draws some of the poorest Latino immigrants following their dreams in America.

By the late 1970s, the densely crowded "Hub City" was desperate for revenues and opened the California Bell card club in 1979. At its peak, the club put more than $3 million a year in Bell's coffers. But after a succession of scandals in which several people were sentenced to prison, the casino was closed in 1995.

But the small, blue-collar city hasn't sworn off gambling. A proposed 100,000-square-foot card club is in the works, but a lawsuit is delaying construction. City officials say they are adopting Bell's pay-as-you-go attitude of seven decades ago, and won't again make the mistake of depending on casino income to keep the city running.

James Bell's 1876 house, once abandoned to the ignominy of being a brothel--the room numbers are still on its doors--is now the heart of the Civic Center.

MORE BELLS: In a move that would have a dramatic effect on West Los Angeles, Alphonzo Bell took his oil riches and in 1926 built what would become one of the richest neighborhoods in the world: Bel-Air, home to movie stars and presidents.

BELL Inside Out / By the Numbers

CITY BUSINESS

Date incorporated: November 7, 1927

Area in square miles: 3

Number of parks: 3

Number of city employees: 71 fulltime; 34 part time

1996-97 operating budget: 6 million (capital & restricted funds excluded)

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ETHNIC MAKEUP

Latino: 86%

White: 12%

Asian: 1%

Black: .6%

Other: .4%

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PEOPLE

Population: 34,365

Households: 8,974

Average household size: 4

Median age: 26

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MONEY AND WORK

Median household income: $22,515

Median household income / L.A. County: $34,965

Median home value: $167,800

Employed workers (16 and older): 14,741

Women in labor force: 47%

Men in labor force: 77%

Self-employed: 569

Car-poolers: 3,364

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FAMILIES

Married couple families with children: 38%

Married couple families with no children: 15%

Other types of families: 27%

Nonfamily households: 20%

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1989 HOUSEHOLD INCOME:

$0 to $14,999: 32%

$15,000 to $24,999: 24%

$25,000 to $49,999: 32%

$50,000 to $74,999: 9%

$75,000 to $99,999: 2%

$100,000 or more: 1%

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BELL RETAIL STORES

Total stores: 275

Total employees: 1,380

Annual sales: $197 million

Source: Claritas Inc. retail figures are for 1995. All other figures are for 1990. Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number.

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