Black Gold City Goes White Collar : Signal Hill Takes on Upscale Look as Condominiums Replace Oil Derricks

Times Staff Writer

They wore “I Signal Hill” buttons on their blue wool lapels and foulard ties knotted meticulously under the button-down collars of their oxford cloth shirts.

With full briefcases at their sides and notes carefully prepared, they came to Signal Hill City Hall on a recent evening to tell the City Council that they were displeased about plans to build a discount store across the street from their pricey condominiums.

Not that there’s anything wrong with discount stores, many said, but a Price Club--with its warehouse-like interior and rough shelves choked with brown cardboard boxes--is a far cry from a more desirable department store such as a Bullock’s or a Nordstrom.

“You’re about to sell us out if you put the Price Club in there,” said Steve Sabin, who owns a condominium in Signal Hill’s Willow Ridge complex. “You won’t be able to continue to build fine quality residences here anymore with that type of business across the street.”


Such talk is commonplace in affluent communities across the country, but it is a new concern being voiced in this 2.1-square-mile oil town--until recent years a rough-and-tumble blue-collar enclave with an unsavory reputation that was tarnished further by the 1981 jail-house death of college football player Ron Settles.

But in the last four years, this community and its image have undergone radical changes. Signal Hill, which possesses some of the last prime vacant land left in the Los Angeles Basin, is now viewed as a bustling development site, and new businesses and upscale residents are spending their white-collar dollars here for the first time since oil was discovered in the ‘20s.

Oil companies began pulling out in 1980 as the oil deposit waned. As more wells are abandoned, it is expected that about 40% of the city eventually will be vacated for residential and retail development.

The population--which grew by only 152 persons, or 2.7%, between 1970 and 1980--is expected to increase 60%, to slightly more than 9,000, by 1989, according to demographers and city officials. The new population boom is already bringing with it the first surge of service businesses in decades to a city that has never even had a grocery store.


Some Signal Hill residents contend that it was Settles’ death and the attendant publicity that altered their city so radically. Others point to the waning oil industry as the harbinger of change. And still others say the city changed when the new young-professional class, with members such as Sabin, moved to town.

Signal Hill is not the only city in the nation to experience growth and gentrification. But the impact of such change is greater here because it has come so quickly. Signal Hill, the 10th smallest city in Los Angeles County, is also its fastest growing, according to a 1984 Census Bureau report.

‘Like a Little Country Town’

“This was like a little country town up until the episode of Ron Settles, and then Signal Hill started changing--drastically and fast,” said Doris Miller, 79, president of the Signal Hill Historical Society, who moved here from Nebraska in 1943 with her husband, Henry.


Settles, a 21-year-old black football player at Cal State Long Beach, died in this city’s small jail on June 2, 1981, hours after Signal Hill police stopped him on a speeding violation. Officers maintained that he had resisted arrest and, when confined, hanged himself.

Settles’ parents accused police of killing their son and a coroner’s jury ruled the young man’s death a homicide, but the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office decided there was insufficient evidence to file homicide charges against the officers on duty.

Other charges of police misconduct were leveled against the Police Department after Settles’ death, and the attendant publicity was followed by a purge of the department that later extended to other levels of the city government. Then-Police Chief Gaylord (Red) Wert was fired. Half of the 28-officer department was replaced through termination, retirement and attrition in a four-year period.

In the 1982 and 1984 City Council elections, Signal Hill residents--many of them newcomers who had moved into the city’s newly built condominiums--voted out the last of any Old Guard councilmen who had controlled the city since the 1960s.


The new council members campaigned on platforms that emphasized their freshman status and desire to cleanse the city of its dark reputation and provide for its economic future as it moved out of the oil business.

Because the oil lands were rapidly being sold to condominium developers, they also pledged to monitor residential development with an eye to changing zoning and density. In the three intervening years, the council voted several moratoriums on development as they began to carry out these pledges. (See story, Page 5.) The council also replaced every department head, from planning director to city manager.

To Christine Shingleton, director of planning and community development, newcomers such as Sabin--and much of the large crowd that recently protested during the city

hearing over the Price Club issue--are the reason Signal Hill has changed so quickly and dramatically.


“A lot of people here say that the changes came about because of Settles or because of the political atmosphere changing and the new City Council,” Shingleton said. “But I don’t view it that way at all.”

In the last five years, thousands of condominium units have been built here, Shingleton said, bringing an influx of “yuppies, so to speak, single people, two-person households, highly educated, upper-middle-class” residents with white-collar jobs, where there once were mostly blue-collar workers.

With condominium prices ranging from $89,000 to $275,000, low-income families cannot afford to move here. The young professional population has grown, while the city’s traditional population has not. And many old-timers are grumbling.

‘Not Beverly Hills’


“This is Signal Hill, not Beverly Hills,” said J. Karrin May, vice president of Blow-Out Preventors Inc., a small oil-well safety equipment firm. “They’re trying to take a city where work is done--an oil town--and change it. But it’s not a place that lends itself to the type of beauty they’re wanting.”

Census Bureau statistics and projections by private demographics firms foretell a new upper-middle-class population for Signal Hill. While the percentage of older residents tapers off, the number of households making more than $35,000 will increase, and lower-income households will gradually decrease, the projections show.

Signal Hill’s population grew from 5,582 in 1970 to 7,315 in 1984 and is expected to rise to 9,039 by 1989, according to Donnelly Marketing Information Services, a Connecticut-based demographics firm.

The 25-to-44 age group is the city’s fastest growing, making up 26% of the population in 1970 and 39% in 1984. Educational attainment rose, too: In 1960, the median number of school years completed by the city’s population was 10.9. By 1980, it was 12.6.


Increase in Income

And the median income per household has increased: From $16,496 in 1980, it grew to $20,177 in 1984 and is expected to increase to $26,007 by 1989, according to Donnelly demographics. But what is perhaps more striking is that the fastest-growing income range for Signal Hill households is the $25,000-$49,999 bracket.

Sara Dodds, who designs restaurant interiors for a living, moved from Westminster to Signal Hill’s Panorama Summit condominiums in May, 1984, with her husband, John.

Seated in her luxurious living room amid lush plants and copies of Architectural Digest and Skiing magazine, Dodds gestured out the window at the twinkling lights below.


“I’ve looked for a condominium up on this hill for about three years,” said Dodds, whose condominium has one of the better views in a building where units can cost more than $200,000. “I feel it’s one of the last undiscovered places. You can’t find places like this in Los Angeles. You’d be paying a fortune for this view.

“I can see from the Queen Mary all the way around to, well, we could actually see the Olympic flame at the Coliseum this summer,” she said. “We can see the mountains to Palm Springs and the Hollywood Sign. It’s fantastic.”

Lack of Businesses

There are drawbacks though, Dodds said. There is one dry cleaner and one beauty salon. No barbers or dentists have businesses here. And while there are small delicatessens and sandwich and coffee shops, there are no restaurants in Signal Hill.


But the public-service business sector is changing. There is now a specialty wine shop in the city. Three years ago there was only one bank; now there are four. In addition, the Price Club and a major auto mall are being planned as part of the council’s effort to create a strong commercial tax base.

“Five years ago there was no such evidence of growth,” said Jerry Koff, co-owner of the Claret House, the specialty wine shop and wine bar that opened in a warehouse at 20th Street and Freeman Avenue last December. “It was still an oil town then. I had the same prejudices against Signal Hill that everyone else did--until I got here. I thought it was all bars and oil.”

Koff and his partner, Dick Manning, have since changed their minds. They came to Signal Hill for the low rent of an industrial location and because the city is between two freeways--the San Diego and the Long Beach.

“There’s activity in Signal Hill,” he said while strolling through well-stocked rooms of Champagnes, Cabernet Sauvignons, California Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. “The image is changing . . .. And the Claret House adds a little class. Signal Hill is the last place you’d expect a place like this.”


Bank Branch Opened

Larry Echelmeyer, vice president and district manager for First Interstate Bank, said his company considered putting a branch in Signal Hill as early as 1972, but the time was not right. A decade later, there were signs that development and the business community were ready to take off, he said.

First Interstate’s decision to open a branch in Signal Hill “indicates that we at least feel there is enough business there to keep it active and support us,” Echelmeyer said. “Three years ago it was uncharted ground. It’s a roll of the dice when you come in before all of the changes.”

City officials estimate that the number of businesses has grown from 1,200 in 1983 to about 1,300 this year. But despite Signal Hill’s growth, most businesses advertise that they are in Long Beach and use Long Beach mailing addresses. This is possible because Signal Hill has no post office.


“I’d like to think that it’s because of corporate images and better name recognition,” Shingleton said, “but it’s partly because of Ron Settles and our old image.”

Although many Signal Hill business owners and residents consider the newcomers beneficial to the city, none deny that a way of life has ended.

Old-Timers Dwindling

Before 1981, “everybody knew the other person,” said Miller, founder and president of the historical society. “You knew what your neighbors had for breakfast. Now the old-timers have almost all moved away or died.


“Progress in the long run is good,” she said. “But I miss the friendliness.”

May, a second-generation Signal Hill oil worker and businesswoman, is more critical of the new Signal Hill.

“They (city government) are trying to change their image, and they’re doing it at our (the oil industry’s) expense,” May said. “In previous years, Signal Hill was more oriented toward business (industry). Butwith the development of the new housing, it got to be kind of an exclusive, expensive club here.”

May contends that the oil industry helped create the city and, therefore, deserves consideration. But recent ordinance changes requiring upgrading of businesses’ signs, fencing and facades are proof to her that the city government does not appreciate the old-timers and their contributions to the city.


“The city does look better, but you have to weigh the better image of the city against the hardship it’s causing the business owners,” May said. “They (City Hall) don’t want the industrial image at all. They want a Beverly Hills image.”

City Councilman Gerard Goedhart acknowledged that improving the image of Signal Hill--along with revamping city government and providing for future economic stability as the city’s oil operations wane--is a major City Council goal.

“In other cities, oil companies have cleaned up their act, and it’s not unreasonable to ask for the same in Signal Hill,” Goedhart said. “We’re going from an oil town to a town with oil, and we just asked the oil companies to be good neighbors.”

Grumbling Heard


But the oil industry is not alone in its discontent; the newcomers are grumbling, too. Those who have purchased and moved into the hilltop condominiums with 180-degree views of Long Beach Harbor now also have a stake in the city’s future.

And many of these newest residents don’t share the council’s vision about the kind of commercial base that will be the keystone of the city’s economic future.

The council has advocated the Price Club and auto plaza because they will bring sales tax revenue and a stable economic base for city government. The newest residents are more concerned that the city have an upscale, residential ambiance.

Donna Lehrer, 28, and her husband, Scott, bought a condominium and moved here a year ago for Signal Hill’s “small-town, forward-looking atmosphere,” she said. But after she got settled, she became increasingly concerned about the potential for commercial development and its effects on her new home.


The Lehrers, the Doddses and about 500 others residents organized the Greater Signal Hill Council of Condominium Owners in March to “try to educate the City Council” to the kind of “high quality” development they feel suits the city.

“We’re very concerned about the lowering of property values for existing properties,” said Lehrer, who also attended the City Council meeting at which the Price Club drew fire. “I’m a planner by training, and it (Signal Hill) is more or less in a time warp as far as development goes. We don’t think they’re developing the city in the quality way that it should be developed.”

Goedhart contends that this new City Council, which has been negotiating with the Price Club since early 1984, is merely fulfilling the promises it made when elected: to move from an industrial city to one with a strong commercial and residential foundation. And those promises predate this flood of new residents.

“We’re on the threshold of achieving what we all stated we wanted to do,” he said, “and now we’re having a bit of a backlash . . . from people who weren’t here when we started in 1982.”


SIGNAL HILL: A CHANGING POPULATION Shaded areas represent the fastest-growing age and income groups.

1970 1980 1984 No. % No. % No. % TOTAL POPULATION 5,582 100% 5,734 100% 7,315 100% HOUSEHOLD SIZE 2.33 2.2 2.1 AGE OF POPULATION 0-13 899 15.9% 988 13.7% 1,383 18.9% 14-24 1,147 20.5% 1,139 19.9% 943 12.9% 25-34 936 16.8% 1,317 23.0% 1,858 25.4% 35-44 517 9.3% 592 10.3% 995 13.6% 45-54 562 10.1% 529 9.2% 644 8.8% 55-64 557 13.9% 534 9.3% 658 9.0% 65+ 774 13.9% 635 11.1% 834 11.4% HOUSEHOLD INCOME $0-499 490 19.8% 490 15.0% $7,500-9,999 221 8.8% 222 6.8% $10,000-14,999 410 16.6% 412 12.6% $15,000-24,999 755 30.6% 987 30.2% $25,000-34,999 338 13.7% 660 20.2% $35,000-49,999 180 7.3% 350 10.7% $50,000-74,999 50 2.0% 98 3.0% $75,000+ 26 1.1% 11 1.5% MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME $16,496 $20,177

1989 (est.) No. % TOTAL POPULATION 9,039 100% HOUSEHOLD SIZE 2.1 AGE OF POPULATION 0-13 1,880 21.6% 14-24 977 10.9% 25-34 1,745 19.3% 35-44 1,790 19.8% 45-54 832 9.2% 55-64 732 8.1% 65+ 1,076 11.9% HOUSEHOLD INCOME $0-499 449 10.9% $7,500-9,999 206 5.0% $10,000-14,999 397 9.2% $15,000-24,999 905 22.0% $25,000-34,999 1,182 28.7% $35,000-49,999 704 17.1% $50,000-74,999 194 4.7% $75,000+ 99 2.4% MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME $26,007

Source: U.S. Census Bureau; Donnelly Marketing Services, Inc.