In the 1800s, the king of Spain was in the habit of extravagantly rewarding the civil servants and soldiers who helped tend to his far-flung empire, providing eye-poppingly large land grants to generals and back-office non-commissioned officers alike.
So it was that Cpl. Don Antonio Maria Lugo, a Californio who hailed from Salinas, came into possession of 30,000 acres of prime grazing land when his service to the king was done.
His military record — aside from a picaresque episode that ended in the capture of an English "buccaneer" near Santa Barbara — was unremarkable, but still he reaped rewards more befitting those of a conquering hero than of a workaday cavalryman.
Lugo was surely happy with his royal gift: The land was perfectly situated for ranching.
It stretched across the lush alluvial plain between the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers and was additionally watered by the Rio Honda, ensuring a never-ending drinking supply capable of supporting vast herds of livestock. Lugo and his family raised cattle and horses on the land, which he called the Rancho San Antonio.
But the Lugo family fortunes began to take a turn for the worse in the mid-1800s, and the Lugos were forced to sell their massive land holdings for less than $1 an acre.
One of the purchasers of Lugo's former estate was James George Bell, whose 360-acre Bell Station Ranch just happened to sit upon one of California's most productive undiscovered oil fields. Oil strike after oil strike on the land made rich men of James and his son Alphonzo, with whom he formed the Bell Petroleum Co..
The wealth derived from James Bell's discount purchase of Rancho San Antonio land gave Alphonzo the financial wherewithal to go on to found Bel-Air, co-found the Riviera Country Club and provide crucial support to institutions of higher learning, including Occidental College and UCLA — not to mention having the cities of Bell and Bell Gardens named after him.
Of course, most people today don't think of Alphonzo Bell or Don Lugo when they think of Bell, but rather the municipal corruption scandal that erupted there in 2010 when a Times investigation revealed that city officials were paying themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for their public service work. Although the city today takes great pains to be transparent, the damage done to its reputation may take years to undo.
Centrally located: As one of the Gateway Cities, Bell is a convenient commute to downtown Los Angeles and northwestern Orange County.
Bargain hunters rejoice: The Citadel Outlets is just up the freeway in Commerce, and the new Azalea Regional Shopping Center is minutes away in South Gate.
Housing deals: There is a surprising range of homes available for relatively reasonable prices, with everything from fixers to new construction.
The lingering effects: The scandal is over, but the stain on the city's reputation will probably take years to erase.
David Duran of Century 21 Powerhouse Realty said that although Bell's real estate market has generally mirrored those of its larger neighbors, such as Commerce and Huntington Park, the small city offers something that others can't.
"Because of its size, communities here are more tightknit," Duran said. "It's a small but efficient city."
He added that the corruption scandal hasn't had a huge effect on the city's real estate scene. In the areas where housing prices are low, people are starting to tear down homes in favor of modern builds.
"At the end of the day, this will always be a popular area purely because of its location," Duran said.
In the 90201 ZIP Code, based on seven sales, the median sales price for single-family homes in November was $400,000, down 5.9% year over year, according to CoreLogic.
Of the five public schools in Bell, Nueva Vista Elementary scored the highest in the 2013 Academic Performance Index at 808. Woodlawn Avenue Elementary scored 769, and Bell Senior High scored 705.
Times staff writer Jack Flemming contributed to this report.
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