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Hue and Cry Over Colors of Homes

South Gate: While the council considers banning loud paint jobs, others defend them as a tradition brought from Latin America.


Since Hermila Sanchez and her husband, Miguel, painted their beige South Gate home a light turquoise with white trim, they have noticed some passing neighbors giving the small stucco house disapproving looks.

"I say if they don't like it they can come help us paint it another color," Hermila Sanchez said good-naturedly from her front porch.

Her neighbors may not have a say in the color, but the city of South Gate soon may. This predominantly Latino, blue-collar city in southeast Los Angeles County is considering imposing the kind of color and design restrictions that are usually found only in affluent communities such as Laguna Beach and Westlake Village.

At the request of Mayor Henry Gonzalez, the South Gate City Council will vote today on creating a citywide program that limits the colors of homes and businesses to a designated few--most likely not to include the turquoise of the Sanchez home, or the maroon, orange and purple that also dot the landscape.

Gonzalez said the proposed restrictions were prompted by several complaints from residents about garish colors on businesses and homes around the city.

"People are saying, 'It looks like hell,' " he said.

Many homes in this town of 93,000 can best be described as the colors of sorbet: lime green, peach, raspberry and banana yellow. An automotive shop that has drawn the mayor's ire is bright purple with white trim.

But the politics of color may turn into a cultural debate. Many of the property owners who have chosen the lively hues for their homes and businesses may be carrying over a tradition from Mexico or other Latin American countries where vivid colors are embraced and are an expression of individuality.

"It's part of our cultural identity," said Leo Limon, a local artist and co-chairman of the Aztlan Cultural Arts Foundation in Los Angeles. "It's the colors of feathers and birds and trees, and the Latino population sees that and uses that."

Others warn that imposing such restrictions could prompt a backlash against South Gate's City Council, which has been all-Latino since a white council member recently died.

"If you want to get people mobilized, just tell them that they cannot do something with the property they own," said Fernando Guerra, director of Loyola Marymount's Center for the Study of Los Angeles.

Mayor Gonzalez said most of the complaints about loud colors are coming from Latino residents themselves, not the Anglo minority, which makes up about 14% of the city.

For years, affluent communities have adopted aesthetic standards to preserve historic themes or to create a unifying, albeit muted, color scheme. The courts have upheld the right of cities to impose such standards. Still, the restrictions continually prompt fierce debates about freedom of individual expression versus community standards.

South Gate is one of nearly a dozen seemingly indistinguishable cities in southeast Los Angeles that have felt the impact of changing demographics and disappearance of industrial jobs. The city's median household income of $27,300 is nearly $8,000 below the countywide median.

As South Gate celebrates its 75th anniversary this year, the city is continuing to enjoy an economic rebound from the closure 18 years ago of General Motors and Firestone Rubber and Tire plants, once the area's largest employers.

Ted Chandler, executive director of South Gate's Chamber of Commerce, said the proposed color restrictions are part of the city's efforts to improve its image.

Gonzalez said he will ask the council to consider restricting homes and businesses to three or four colors. The city's code enforcement unit would enforce the restrictions, which would apply only when a structure is repainted or rebuilt, he said.

To avoid imposing a financial hardship, Gonzalez said he will ask the city to provide grants to subsidize the cost of the paint and labor.

"I don't want to create a burden, but I want a consistent [color] code where everybody knows what it is," he said.

Vice Mayor Hector De La Torre supports the idea, saying it will help create an identity for the city.

"South Gate has never had a feel," he said. "It was always kind of a hodgepodge."

But most of the dozen or so homeowners and merchants who were interviewed last week said the bright colors they chose for their homes and businesses are a personal expression that should not be restricted by government.

"Imagine having every house the same color," said Angelina Rivera, who painted her one-story stucco home on San Vincente Avenue a faded pink, a color she described as ropa vieja, or old clothes.

Antonio Rubio, a mechanic and longtime Los Angeles resident, owns that purple, two-story auto shop on the corner of Southern and California avenues that has drawn the ire of Gonzalez and other city officials. Rubio said he painted the building purple about three months ago to grab the attention of potential customers on the nearby busy intersection.

"This is a place where we paint cars and sell exotic rims," he said in Spanish. "The color of the building should be exotic."

That opinion is not universal.

Maria Marquez and her husband, Salvador, who have lived in a bright yellow house on Otis Street for 14 years, said a limited color scheme would give the city a more uniform look.

Maria Marquez said she and her husband inherited the paint job when they bought the house. "I would have chosen beige," she said.

Earlier this month, when Hermila and Miguel Sanchez began splashing turquoise on their San Gabriel Avenue home, they were surprised to find the color was much brighter than it looked on the paint can. But they realized it would have cost too much to repaint, so they stuck with the color. As it turns out, the house matches the color of their new car.

The couple said they have since learned to appreciate it.

Says Hermila philosophically: "I want to be able to drive down the the street and find my house."

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