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Western Avenue: : Not Long Ago South Bay Area Cut by Street Was ‘Edge of the World’

Times Staff Writer

The eucalyptus trees used to begin at the corner and stretch single file from Western Avenue down both sides of El Segundo Boulevard. At night the voices of hundreds of owls thrummed from the high branches.

On weekends, GIs who had just come home from the war--to the new tract houses built out here, on the back end of nowhere, three bedrooms, washer and dryer, all for $59.95 a month--would drive their new cars out of their new garages and park them along here, to paste-wax them lovingly in the fragrant shade.

To a young veteran who hitchhiked west right after World War II with only his Navy dress blues and $300, Western Avenue, from Gardena to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, was “the edge of the world.”

From the bakery truck he was hired to drive, young Joe Jeffers sold bread and just about everything else to the housewives on his Western Avenue route: eggs and the live chickens that laid them, strawberries picked up from the truck farmers along the way--all the goods that a market would have stocked, if there had been a market.

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Jeffers, from the driver’s seat, saw almost everything, as he has seen almost everything change in the 40 years since.

Between Western and Crenshaw, around Imperial, were two lakes full of largemouth bass just begging to be caught.

It’s all homes and businesses now.

Farther down Western, near 135th, were two airports: the Western Avenue airport and the Gardena Valley airport. It was a risky business; in 1946, it was reported, Gardena airport manager Arthur L. Sharp and the manager of the airport next door got into a donnybrook when a plane landed at the wrong airport, and Sharp had his right cheek bitten by his rival.

Dycer’s airport, another private flying field, opened in 1923 at Western and 94th Street and operated until around World War II--when locals groused that they couldn’t find their way home in the clouds of dust the planes kicked up, housewives complained that it dirtied the laundry on their clotheslines and an opera star contended that the dust choked up her singing voice.

The whole area was a natural basin. After one bad flood in the 1950s, Sharp’s airport turned into Sharp’s marina--200 airplanes were set afloat in the water. Farther south--" 'Lake Rosecrans,’ we called it,” said W. Stewart Leitch, whose family once ran a chicken ranch along Western--the National Guard went in during the flood of 1953, rowing to the rescue in boats.

It’s all houses and businesses now.

In half a lifetime, this southern stretch of Western Avenue has gone from being “the edge of the world,” unpaved or underwater, to being a densely busy axis of the thriving South Bay.

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The chicken ranches have been shouldered out by fast-food chicken stands. Machine shops cover what were once mustard fields. But Western Avenue is still a street of pioneers, from the Chester L. Washington Golf Course at El Segundo Boulevard, named for the man who put together the country’s largest black-owned newspaper chain, down to Harbor City and Narbonne High School, named for Nathaniel Narbonne, a sheep rancher who, 100-odd years ago, donated 10 acres in nearby Lomita for “educational purposes,” and whose name followed the school to its new site.

And some people became pioneers just by staying put.

When Jacqueline Boddie moved to Western and Imperial in the late 1960s, she counted among her neighbors oil derricks, the old Rio movie house and the Devil’s Dips.

On the southwest corner, down to the old Southern Pacific tracks--where the Century Freeway will soon grind through--were steep dirt hillocks and deep, dusty grass, full of jack rabbits and gophers and rattlesnakes. The neighbor kids rode their bikes or motorcycles there, and “it was very dangerous,” Boddie recalled.

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She kept her distance from Devil’s Dips, until some local man--his name forgotten, his generosity not--got to worrying about the kids and put in a makeshift wooden outdoor roller rink around 1970, where you could skate all day for a quarter.

The rink burned down, the man moved away, but Boddie is still there, now a clerk typist with the shortest commute in town: She just walks across the street, to what has replaced the Devil’s Dips--Boddie’s alma mater, Southwest Community College, where about 4,000 students now come to study nursing or engineering or computer skills.

The industrial part of Western Avenue begins south of there: auto salvage shops, a hosiery maker, tool-and-die companies, Northrop aircraft buildings, welding shops and truck rigs nose to tailpipe along the street.

All these workers have to eat. For them, one of the last Donut Kings lords it over the Compton Avenue intersection, a brown-stuccoed cruller two stories high. Former U.S. Treasurer Ramona Banuelos’ Mexican food plant is there, with a deli that sells fast lunches to women in dress-for-success suits and men in blue chambray work shirts.

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Down the street, below the topless joint and a country-Western dance hall, B & W Tile Co., one of the first and now one of the last tile plants in Southern California, is still open for business.

Neither Mr. B nor Mr. W is around--years ago, Mr. W’s wife is said to have run off with Mr. B and that ended that--but Joe Logan, who said his father stepped into that breach more than 30 years ago, is running the show now with his brother.

The plant has been here so long that its operation predates zoning laws, so long that neighborhood tile stores have put something of a dent in business. But Joe Logan is staying put, as his father did. “He loved this,” the son said. “This was his heartthrob.”

Industries like Joe Logan’s have insulated Gardena, as the long drive down Western Avenue once isolated it from Los Angeles.

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Gardena is still a city with real neighborhoods, many of them populated by the Asian-Americans--mostly Japanese--who made up more than 40% of the stretch of Western Avenue through Gardena in the 1980 census, and number even more now. Between the Asian-Americans and the newcomer yuppie singles, the area boasted, even five years ago, a median income of nearly $22,000, contrasted with a countywide figure of $21,125.

Some of the Japanese were there before World War II; even more of them came back after the war.

“In those days,” said Jeffers, now a real estate dealer, “you couldn’t sell houses to Japanese in certain areas--people really got up in arms . . . . It was a natural reaction--122 guys lost on our ship, you don’t forget. But all those things changed, certainly for the better. The Japanese are the stabilizing community of Gardena by far. I can’t say enough good about them.”

Thirty years ago, about the time Jeffers began selling houses to Japanese-Americans, a small shopping plaza opened on Western, south of Compton Avenue.

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It was christened blandly Town and Country, but its chief backers were Japanese-Americans who last year renovated it and renamed it the Kyoto Plaza, “to give it an Oriental flavor,” said its main investor, dentist Paul Tsukahara, befitting and at last acknowledging the community it serves.

Tsukahara, a California native, spent much of World War II in an internment camp, and then went right into the U.S. Army and wound up in 1953 in Gardena, where he is a city councilman.

Even then, he saw Western Avenue as “a main thoroughfare. I felt the potential for growth was there.” So he built his office just a few doors down from his plaza in 1954, when his neighbors were strawberry fields, a pet shop and a Gypsy palm reader.

And sure enough, a few blocks south is Gardena’s golden quadrangle, perhaps its most valuable real estate, Western and Redondo Beach Boulevard, where 14 banks with a total of $1 billion in deposits line the boulevard like a Las Vegas Strip of investment.

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Shock’s Hardware is one bus stop from that pricey corner, a homey little place that has been in business almost since Western and Redondo Beach were mere right-angle wagon paths.

The original owners had to shut down their first hardware store, farther south on Western, when World War II demand for scrap metal cut off their stock for the duration.

After the war, said current co-owner Walter Raasch, they reopened in the same building, which still smells of jack oil and raw twine, where the chief attractions are a senior citizen discount and employees who think nothing of spending 20 minutes hunting down eight odd-sized screws for a woman’s cat-carrier--and charging her pennies for them.

The store’s other attraction is Rita Bennan, the bantering, red-haired queen of Western Avenue. For 14 years, she has worked here--first in the back office, where she strained wistfully to listen when she caught the drift of laughter out front. Now, she presides from a wooden cash register dais brightened by pictures of Rita in Europe or Rita para-sailing, the delight of customers and the worry of her grown children.

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Dick, the lock-and-key man from up the street, keeps importuning her teasingly to marry him. Bill, who managed the Eagle restaurant across the street, kept trying to hire her for “that smile.” But Rita Bennan likes it fine right here, where, through the plate-glass door, she watches most of Gardena go by--the part that doesn’t come in to chat.

Next door, though, there is not so much for her to see, since the card club was bulldozed, soon to become a small hospital, said Ken Landau, Gardena’s city manager

The card clubs that won Gardena its reputation for daring--but well-policed--night life are dwindling as other cities, encouraged by Gardena’s 40-year track record, build their own clubs--newer, flashier, closer to home. The clubs once supplied 30% of Gardena’s revenue; now, Landau said, it’s less than 10%.

Buford Herren never thought of Gardena as a flashy gambling capital. It was, to him, the small town where he and his wife, Miree--the Creole spelling, he says proudly--came to rear their sons when they fled Los Angeles.

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Herren is a craftsman, owner of Cameo Chair Inc. He opened it in an old five-and-dime store on Western, which had been an even older grocery store, Olson’s, at the turn of the century, in what was once the town of Moneta. Herren is fastidious about his custom upholstery and furniture-making, and proud of his city. He brags to his Los Angeles friends about Gardena police’s two-minute response time. “I’d never live in another big city again,” he said.

As for Western Avenue, “it’s one of the best-known streets in the area. . . . When we had the opportunity to get a business here on Western, boy, we jumped at it.”

Even the bar on the corner isn’t just a bar, he said, it’s an institution.

From the looks of it--50-year-old oil paintings of zaftig beauties in skimpy costumes, the chocolate-drop lamps, big as wagon wheels, pickled eggs and pretzels--the Bank Club has been serving up brews since before Prohibition.

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But it wasn’t always a bar. It really was a bank, built around 1918 and closed by 1931, steamrollered by the Depression. Through his childhood, W. Stewart Leitch remembers taking in his pennies to deposit, and later, seeing the lines of people outside when the Red Cross handed out food and blankets to the needy from the defunct bank.

Now, the beer and the books--including a register of patrons dating back 50 years--are kept in the old bank vault, with its cubit-thick concrete walls. The new owner, Yuan Chen, has made only one change--adding Chinese beer.

That suits the patrons just fine. At home, the wallpaper may change; outside, Western Avenue has changed. But the Bank Club stays the same.

“I can’t believe they haven’t even changed the pictures,” marveled Tom Klocker, who hadn’t been back in a good 15 years, since the days when the old owner, a one-legged man named Brownie, wired silver dollars to the scarred, curving bar, setting off an embarrassing alarm any time a greenhorn tried to slip one in his pocket.

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In 15 years, Eve Haverstick has hardly gone a week without coming in for a beer with her husband, Bob. In this “landmark,” Haverstick “never had to worry. No one would come up to me and treat me like a bar woman.” Brownie enforced the standards, always closing on holidays. He went home to his family, and he thought everyone else should too. Even without Brownie, Haverstick still likes this “better than anyplace I go.”

Places like the Bank Club are disappearing. Lee B. Hawkins’ hauling service--once across the street with a fleet of Mack trucks that could “beat the train by a week,” he advertised in 1922--is long gone. But there are still old-timers.

Trailer parks survive along this part of Western--some of their signs so venerable that they still use that out-of-favor phrase. They are “mobile homes” in terminology only: For 20 and 30 years, neighbors have been rooted to their spaces, which used to sit in wide open spaces.

But the street they front is much changed: storefront businesses that repeat like a tape loop every few blocks: fast-food/car lot/office building/drugstore/condominium/medical plaza.

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There are some surprises left. Luthi Machinery & Engineering opened here in 1947, when old Mr. Luthi’s friends teased him, “You’re crazy; it’s the middle of nowhere.” The firm has kept its original Quonset hut building and still, boasts office manager Stella Graczyk, makes the machines that pack “almost every can of tuna fish in America.”

Western hopscotches through a patchwork of city and county jurisdictions that make the route the despair of road repair crews, for whom fixing a pothole there is like trying to run an election in the Balkans. Even the ZIP code changes from one side of the street to the other.

As an example, said Mas Fukai, an aide to Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, a road crew working at the intersection of 182nd and Western finds that the northeast corner to the middle of the street is owned by Gardena, the southeast corner is owned by the city of Los Angeles and the west side belongs to Torrance. Any pothole that overruns its jurisdiction could risk being left only half-filled.

Below the San Diego Freeway--where Western becomes, on Caltrans maps at least, State Legislative Route 213, down into San Pedro--is Toyota’s new national headquarters, close to the harbor, close to the airport, only four blocks but architectural light-years from its old headquarters on 190th Street.

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The exotic building, the solitaire stunner of a $100-million complex, looks like a modern Hanging Gardens of Babylon, with the gardens mostly on the inside of an atrium interior--all on 41 acres that, less than five years ago, recalled Toyota spokesman Art Gardner, was a vacant field.

Forty years ago, Toyota would have been an unsettling neighbor. Across the way, a family company, Harvey Aluminum--which had turned out small-arms ammunition in Long Beach--moved here to make aluminum foil and such for peacetime.

The firm was bought out by Martin Marietta Corp., recalled a longtime employee. And now, 40-some years after Harvey made bullets for the war against Germany and Japan, a Japanese company has bought up much of the firm and renamed it International Light Metals. What goes around comes around; Japanese gardeners once farmed that very site.

Beyond, past stucco houses with laundry draped on the cyclone fences, is Tom Hitchens’ neighborhood: 40 lanes but no alley. At 28, Hitchens manages Bowl-O-Drome, a Torrance bowling center--don’t call it alley, he shudders--that opened the year he was born.

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As a Pittsburgh teen-ager he pitched in to help his mother’s friend when the pin boy at her bowling alley broke his arm. By the time he was 16, he was working the desk, sliding bowling shoes across the counter, as he does now, with a “good luck!” that still sounds sincere.

“Before, bowling alley was a good description. You’d have drug deals, hoodlums, pool hustlers; upper-income people wouldn’t come around.” Now, with cystic fibrosis benefit bowl-a-thons, family nights, an automatic scoring system that keeps fistfights to a minimum, and free games for good report cards, bowling alleys in general, and Hitchens’ in particular, are “not a junkie place.”

But there is not much more than junk left on the 50 prime acres around Western and 213th. The buildings of Torrance Tubing & Conduit are empty; old turbines sit like rusting mushrooms in the work yard. Next door, the Armco plant stands empty, where, during World War II, 2,500 men and women worked around the clock making gun barrels and landing gear for the Allies.

Back in 1912, when Western ended at the oil fields around Torrance Boulevard, Union Tool Co. opened shop on that site, the only oil drilling equipment-maker on the West Coast, said Richard Cowles, a former Armco operations manager.

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Torrance itself began as a bedroom community to the old company; it was “the reason, the driving force for Torrance,” Cowles said. The plant changed hands through the years, but it still made drilling parts during peacetime and did its bit during World War II, and during the Korean War it manufactured the huge barrels of the Navy’s “Long Tom” cannons.

But three years ago, when the oil boom of the early 1980s ended, so did many of the jobs at Armco. And now the old plant, too, will be going. City redevelopment plans have cast a new future for the site, for light, clean industry.

To make that possible, both plants are scheduled for demolition this year; about 300 Armco workers picked up their last paychecks in March. “If you know anyone who needs a good operations manager, let me know,” Cowles said forlornly.

The city of Torrance has videotaped the buildings to preserve at least the image of the industries that no longer fit Torrance’s image of itself.

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Their kind of manufacturing, Cowles said, “is still a basic industry,” but one that “doesn’t fit with office parks and bedroom communities.” Contrasted with “someone who assembles circuit boards,” he sighed, “it’s dirty.”


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