The bedroom community of Gardena seems, on the surface, a model suburban American city: relatively peaceful, ethnically diverse, mostly middle-class.
Founded in 1930 on rich farmland, the area was transformed after World War II into a city of neat tract homes and industrial buildings.
City officials extol Gardena for its ethnic balance, citing it as a major reason for its selection in 1980 as an All-America City by the National Municipal League.
In 1980, Gardena was about 31% Anglo, 23% black, 21% Japanese and 17% Latino. The rest included Filipinos, Chinese, Native Americans and a burgeoning Korean community. By 1987, according to National Planning Data Corp. figures projected from the 1980 census, Gardena's 50,000 residents were 26.3% Anglo, 23% black, 22.7% Latino and 28% other races.
The various ethnic groups have lived peacefully but separately in Gardena since the 1960s when middle-class blacks began moving into the Hollypark area at the city's north. Japanese and Anglos tend to live in the central and southern portions of the city, census tracts showed.
Most Gardena residents are pleased with the relatively peaceful life in their suburban city, but Gardena is far from ideal, some residents said.
Here are the perspectives of four Gardena residents:
- Duffie Brown, president of the predominantly black Hollypark Homeowners Assn., which represents more than 3,000 Gardena residents, said racial harmony in Gardena is lacking in a number of ways.
"If you look at the geography, (Gardena) is not integrated," he said. "And as far as the government is concerned, we're not integrated. We have zero-percent black leadership in local government."
The city also has "minuscule" black representation on its administrative staff, less than 25% minorities on its police force and no black firefighters, he said.
"The flowers are not blooming for us in Gardena," Brown said.
- City Councilman Paul Tsukahara recalled anti-Japanese sentiment during and after World War II when much of the city's Japanese population was placed in internment camps.
Upon their return to Gardena and other cities, educated Japanese-Americans "were not accepted in the white community," Tsukahara said. "No white-owned business would hire educated Japanese so they ended up working in menial jobs."
A dentist and World War II veteran who recalled signs refusing service to Japanese, Tsukahara moved to Gardena in 1953 because its large Japanese population allowed him to work in his profession.
"You found comfort among your own people," Tsukahara said. "The Japanese community is sometimes misunderstood because they do tend to be clannish in a way."
One reason for their "clannishness," Tsukahara said, is that historically "this was not a friendly country" for the Japanese, who were subject to land exclusionary laws and internment during World War II. They were not allowed to become U.S. citizens until 1950.
In Gardena, however, Japanese-Americans have always worked well politically with other ethnic groups but have tended to live separately because "you tend to be more comfortable living with your own kind," Tsukahara said.
- Former Gardena Mayor Edmond J. Russ said there has never been friction among the city's ethnic groups, even during the turbulent 1960s civil rights movement.
"It's just that way," said Russ, who is Anglo. "I was on the (Gardena City) Council during the Watts riots, but that was all farther north from Gardena. We really didn't have any problem with that at all." A multiracial advisory committee formed during his council tenure may also have averted potential problems, he said.
A Gardena native, Russ grew up on a ranch much like the farms then common in the area. He said he remembers that Latino, Japanese and Anglo farm laborers always worked well together.
"The Japanese community was a much greater percentage before the war than after the war, and there's always been a big Latino community, too," Russ said. When blacks began moving to Gardena in the 1960s, the harmony continued, he said.
- Lorenzo Ybarra, whose family has lived in the Gardena area since the turn of the century, remembers when Gardena High School teachers in the 1950s "didn't think Mexican-Americans were qualified to pursue academic careers." He was advised to take vocational courses.
But Ybarra earned business degrees at USC and Harvard and last April was elected Gardena's city treasurer, becoming the city's first elected Latino official.
Ybarra acknowledged that the number of minorities in the city government "doesn't directly reflect the makeup of the city." But he believes his election demonstrates how Gardena's government is becoming more balanced.
"Gardena serves as one of our best examples of how people can live together," Ybarra said.