The boy found it hard not to think about getting bonked with a baseball as he played a game of catch with his father in a park in El Monte. It was early in the evening, but in the fast-fading light, Jose Rocha, 9, said the baseball looked like a wad of paper.
"It's kind of hard to see it," the boy said in Lambert Park.
Anxious to find savings as city coffers take a hit, El Monte turns off half the lights in all its parks.
"We used to play till 8," the boy's father, also named Jose, said. "Not anymore."
In El Monte, the fear these days is about backsliding.
The city pool has closed, after-school programs have been cut, and El Monte's nearly 400 city employees were told to either take a 10% pay cut or see colleagues lose their jobs. Seventeen police officers were laid off. Violent crime is up 16% while crime is dropping elsewhere in L.A. County.
The recession has hit El Monte hard. The city has improved in the last two decades thanks in large part to revenues from car dealerships. Auto sales provided 60% of El Monte's revenue, helping the working-class city give its employees raises, beautify streets, hire more police officers, staff a $14-million aquatic center and build a network of after-school programs.
But in the last nine months, three of the city's eight largest car dealerships have closed. The rest struggle. The city's tax revenues have plummeted. And El Monte is now faced with some tough choices. To longtime residents, the reversal of fortune is bringing back memories of the bad old days, when gang violence plagued the streets and the city had a reputation for being run-down.
"Please, you guys," one woman pleaded at a council meeting. "Think about it: This is El Monte, not Pasadena. We need our officers."
Maria Bascunan, an elderly Chilean immigrant, said she remembers when she couldn't walk past the driveway of an apartment building she managed without being confronted by a throng of loitering gang members.
"It was bad. There were a lot of gang members hanging around. There were a lot of robberies, people fighting in the streets," Bascunan said.
That began to change as the Police Department started receiving enough funding to combat the crime problem and as after-school programs started keeping children busy.
Mayor Ernie Gutierrez, whose family moved to El Monte in 1937, said the reversal is a humbling experience for a tough-luck city that was trying to leap forward.
"When times are fine, you're drinking Champagne," the 74-year-old said. "Before you know it, you have to start drinking Kool-Aid again."
El Monte, with a population of 126,000, never had it easy. In 1971, a national magazine described the city as a "blur of suburban sprawl." Most of the citizens were "unskilled or semi-skilled workers from the South and the Midwest." But the Mexican and Mexican American community was growing fast, with many leaving the barrios of East L.A.
In the 1950s and '60s, the still mostly white city was a hangout for country music fans, with clubs like the Nashville West. In the late 1960s, the American Nazi Party opened a headquarters on Peck Road, which caused regular demonstrations. A leader of the group was later killed in front of the offices after an argument with other party members.
"El Monte had a fighting reputation," Councilwoman Patricia Wallach said. "It was a kind of rough and tumble town."
At one time, it also had a main street that boasted the kind of department stores that gave the town the appearance of middle class. But it would never quite achieve that status, unlike neighboring Temple City, Arcadia and Rosemead and nearby West Covina.
"It was a neat little town, a real nice little town. Working class," said Janice Wiggins, 71, who has lived in El Monte since 1948.
By the 1970s, El Monte's white population was in flight and the city became a hub for immigrants from Latin America. The city's population exploded while its median household income declined. Crime remained a big problem, along with graffiti and general urban blight. Many of the mainstream retailers left, including stores like J.C. Penney.
Wiggins said she was working at Cal State L.A. at the time when a co-worker asked where she was from. "I said El Monte, and he said, 'Oh my God. I bet that's depressing,' " she recalled. "I told him, 'Well, I never thought that before.' "
But even if some retailers refused to take a chance on El Monte, car dealerships found it ideal. Located near the junction of the 10 and 605 freeways, the city was centrally located, able to draw from the San Gabriel Valley, the Inland Empire, Los Angeles and north Orange County.