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Cerritos: New Bastion of High Art for Middle Class


The tidy middle-class enclave of Cerritos is quietly creating a new role for itself: patron of the arts. The suburban Medicis of Cerritos are investing heavily in art and culture--even commissioning music--and doing it all in the birthplace of auto malls and freeway buffer walls.

City officials call it a social work in progress.

Signs of the creative surge are most evident at the intersection of Bloomfield Avenue and 183rd Street near City Hall. On one corner stands a new $35-million library with iridescent titanium skin. Across the street, in the shadow of the city-owned and -operated Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, Cerritos officials plan to build an art museum. Nearby Heritage Park is being transformed with deepened lakes, a replica of an American Colonial village and a 12-foot-tall bronze of Paul Revere on horseback.

There's more.

The city, gearing up for a 10th anniversary tribute to the performing arts center, plans to commission orchestral pieces from film and television composer Lalo Schifrin, perhaps best known for the theme to "Mission: Impossible." It also is considering commissioning a symphonic work that would incorporate a dance accompaniment, preferably performed by tap-dancer Gregory Hines, a regular center performer.

In a built-out city where sales taxes make up about one-third of the $71.1-million annual budget, officials say spending on public art and splashy buildings helps maintain the quality of life, celebrates the diversity of its 53,000 residents and attracts new business.

Seated at a gleaming titanium table in one of the library's study rooms, Councilman Robert Hughlett, a driving force behind the project, noted: "A lot of what you see around here is ostentatious. But there's a teachable moment in every stitch of it."

One floor below him is a 40-foot-long model of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, posed a few feet from a 15,000-gallon aquarium stocked with five sharks and dozens of marine species--all of which can be viewed via closed-circuit TV on computers throughout the library.

Designed by Jim Nardini of the Glendale firm Charles Walton and Associates, the lavish Millennium Library houses 200 computer terminals and 300,000 volumes. Non-city residents must pay $100 to get a library card.

"We want our city to be the best possible for our residents, so we're making it sparkle more, in carefully considered ways," Hughlett said. "We've already invested heavily in education. Art and culture seems the next logical phase."

Cerritos is not the only city investing in architecture and art to boost what some call the "livability index." Tracy, Merced, Santa Ana and Laguna Beach among others have integrated art into their communities.

But the scale of projects in Cerritos sets it apart. In fact, what impresses newcomers is how an atmosphere of order and quality permeates everyday life in the tightly zoned 8.9-square-mile community that, to outsiders, is often remembered as the site of the 1986 Aeromexico crash that killed 82 people.

Cobblestone walks are lined with neatly trimmed trees, neighborhoods crisscrossed with freshly paved streets. Industrial parks are unblemished by graffiti. In a region devoted to the car, Cerritos has allowed only one drive-through restaurant, though it will allow a second one, a Krispy Kreme, this year.

"Cerritos is an anomaly in terms of successful Southern California cities," said Dan Barber, professor of public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. "It has no ocean, mountains or Queen Mary--it's just a spot on the map. But outsiders come into town, notice all the trees, clean streets, public art, fountains, low crime and general good mood, and they start firing up the credit cards.

"Cerritos could have been more assertive in terms of trying to diversify its community with more low- and moderate-income housing," he added. "But then, they've got no room left." Indeed, the library was built on the foundation of the city's first library. Its 8,000-square-foot art museum--by Los Angeles-based Frederick Fisher & Partners, which also designed a $5.6-million expansion of the Long Beach Museum of Art--will be built in a former downtown medical center.

The shortage of space has not diminished City Manager Art Gallucci's dreams of transforming the town, located 10 miles north of Long Beach.

"We're looking for a niche; it could be music," Gallucci said. "I want to take the Center for Performing Arts to a higher level."

For the 2002-03 season, Gallucci increased the number of productions over the previous year from 153 to 200, an ambitious schedule for an 1,800-seat facility. He recently hired Craig Springer, former assistant dean of cultural arts at USC, to run the place.

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