Not even civic boosters were prepared for the stunning news last week: Paramount, once labeled among the worst places to live in the nation, scored the second-largest gain in property values of any city in Los Angeles County.
Property values in the working-class, mostly Latino community grew 17.2% in 2006, placing it ahead of Palmdale and behind Lancaster -- both perennial growth magnets. "We were very surprised by this finding," said Robert Knowles, a spokesman for the county assessor's office. "A year ago, Paramount had 12.3% growth, which was not even close to the top 10."
Authorities in Paramount, 15 miles southeast of Los Angeles, attributed the city's achievement to a long and hard parcel-by-parcel slog out of a municipal funk and relatively simple improvements that redefined its image.
Can other troubled suburbs hope to match Paramount's success?
To answer that question, Paramount City Manager Linda Benedetti-Leal likes to lead visitors into a new civic center oasis near the City Hall serving the city's 58,000 residents. She sweeps her hand past the native California plants, Mexican fan palms and a fountain-fed koi pond and says, "Our perception of ourselves starts here. This beautiful place sets a tone and raises expectations."
Richard Hollingsworth, president of Gateway Cities Partnership, a nonprofit community development corporation representing 27 cities of the southeast county, put it another way.
"There's a lesson here," he said. "Smart growth is not done in weeks or months or even years -- it takes decades of plodding along. You start with a good plan and stick with it."
Many cities have defining characteristics. Lakewood has 40,000 trees. In Monrovia, it's classic California bungalows. Cerritos touts a titanium-clad library.
Paramount's sense of place is reflected in its little parks and white picket fences. The city's White Picket Fence Program pays 75% of the purchase and installation cost to replace chain-link fences with rust and graffiti-resistant polyurethane picket fences.
Satisfied customers include Jose Luis Romero, who a year ago adorned his two-bedroom home with a fence he described as "a heck of a deal, almost free. The city lets you pay your 25% portion on a payment plan.
"I've noticed a few more fences have gone up on the street since I got mine. I bought my home in 1994 for about $120,000. Now, I could get $400,000 for it, no problem," the 44-year-old warehouseman said.
The fences tend to serve as catalysts, motivating nearby property owners to paint a house, add an awning or plant a garden. They also embody one of the city's strategies: modest expenses for improvements with ripple effects.
Paramount has spent $708,380 on the fences in the last decade, about $70,000 a year, city officials say. About 325 homes have been spruced up. The average cost for each household -- about $770.
A few blocks away from Romero's house, Alicia Alongi and her husband, Gus, prepared for the lunch crowd at their Cafe Corleone, an Italian restaurant that opened June 14.
"This city is amazing," said Alicia Alongi. "City officials said they will pay 75% of the cost of improving our facade, up to $26,000."
The couple had explored the possibility of opening their restaurant elsewhere, perhaps in Westwood or Culver City, but "fell in love with Paramount because of the way they have welcomed us," she said.
It helps that Paramount has a cohesive City Council. When it comes to renewal projects -- from the first major redevelopment plans in the 1980s to recent agreements to make room for Wal-Mart and Home Depot stores -- the five-member council routinely votes unanimously.
This year, the Paramount Unified School District is rolling out a new arts program and is building a new science building and football stadium at Paramount High School. This month, three Paramount High seniors were recipients of Gates Millennium Scholarships, which funds minority students' college education from the undergraduate through doctoral level in science, engineering, mathematics, education and library sciences.
Now, as Paramount celebrates its 50th anniversary as a city, officials are exploring proposals to upgrade their 20-year-old downtown core with new restaurants and condominiums.
Recreation Director Vince Torres said he was particularly proud of what he called the "Paramount welcome wall," a new public sculpture at Flower and Downey avenues. The wall, which masks a bus maintenance yard, incorporates a waterfall worthy of an upscale Orange County suburb, Torres said. Foot-high silver letters that spell Paramount are on the wall.
Torres also likes to show off Paramount's "pocket parks," which have become the city's antidote for trash-strewn vacant lots. The city entered into no-cost leasing agreements with the property owners to landscape their lots and accept liability while the land is in public domain, but the owners retain the right to sell at any time.