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Immigrants Bring Energy to Old City : Alhambra: Town’s mix of Anglos and Latinos has seen changes with influx of Asians, many of whom have invested in businesses and homes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A decade ago, the moon cake was as unfamiliar to residents of Alhambra as the hamburger was to the Russians.

But today the bean-filled Chinese delicacy is common fare in most bakeries of the San Gabriel Valley community, where Asians account for more than 30% of its population.

“Alhambra has been experiencing the winds of change with hurricane force,” noted Warner Jenkins, the editor of the Alhambra Post Advocate for the last 42 years.

“The infusion of Asian money, Asian customs and the energy of immigrants experiencing a new kind of freedom and opportunity have made a big difference,” Jenkins said, adding that of Alhambra’s 75,000 residents, Anglos and Latinos now make up less than two-thirds of the population mix.

David and Fei Louie, newlyweds in their 20s, recently closed escrow on a $190,000-townhouse in Alhambra. David, a native of Hong Kong, has been in the U.S. for more than a decade, while Fei arrived from mainland China three years ago.

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“We live in a good area and in a well-educated community,” said Louie, an assistant vice president at Banker’s Trust in Los Angeles.

Janet Ho, the agent at Imperial Realty who sold the Louies their home, finds it easy to sell properties in Alhambra.

“I’ve done very well selling to new immigrants, many of whom are young professionals,” said Ho, adding that one of the reasons they can afford to buy property is because their parents often provide the down payment needed for the purchase.

“Traditionally, we Chinese want to help our children get a good start in life,” she said.

Initially, the influx of Asian immigrants created unsettling feelings for many of Alhambra’s long-time residents.

Even Dr. Annie Chin Siu, a Chinese-American who settled in Alhambra 35 years ago with her physician husband when very few Asians lived there, admits she had to adjust to the changes.

“For a native Californian like myself, the new Asians seemed so different,” said the Alhambra orthodontist and former president of the local Chamber of Commerce. “But because I had an Asian face, they related to me, and it was easier to establish communication.

“The immigrants, especially older Asians, are taught to blend into the woodwork and not make any waves,” she said. “It’s refreshing to see that the younger people who have been arriving from Taiwan and Hong Kong have brought with them a strong sense of enterprise and enthusiasm.”

High on the list of amenities that draw newcomers to the city is Alhambra’s convenient location, only 8 miles northeast of Los Angeles Civic Center. This was a major consideration for newlyweds Maruca and Jose H. (Pepe) Ojeda, who both commute to jobs in Los Angeles.

“I’m employed by Childrens Hospital and my husband has a job with the Bank of America. It only takes us 25 minutes to get to work,” Maruca Ojeda said. “We drive the surface streets to avoid the freeway traffic.”

The Ojedas were married last October and started looking for a house in Montebello, El Monte, Covina and other affordable communities before purchasing their 1,240-square-Spanish-style home in Alhambra.

“We wanted to live in Alhambra because it was the kind of stable community where eventually we would want to raise our family. Alhambra is close-knit, has nice parks and is well maintained and secure,” she said.

The city’s 160-member police force prides itself on a lower crime rate than most similarly sized communities and on its three-minute response to major crime calls.

Broker Millie Williams of Century 21 ACRES, a neighbor of the young couple, sold them their home. “It was a particularly good buy for the Ojedas at $194,000,” she said. “Anything that close to San Marino normally sells for around $240,000.”

“We’ll have to do some fixing to the property,” said Cuban-born Ojeda, “but that’s always expected when you move into an older home. Maruca and I will enjoy making something beautiful out of it.”

Meanwhile, some older residents have been cashing in on huge home equities and moving away from the community, said editor Jenkins, who paid $18,000 for his home in 1958 and recently declined a cash offer of $300,000 for the house.

“Others are simply being squeezed out by the high cost of living,” he said. “Those most affected are older women who have outlived their families and live alone.”

One of these is Gwen Cottier, who at 82 feels fortunate to be paying only $445 a month for her small two-bedroom court bungalow near the center of town. “I get by on Social Security, Medicare and on the small sums I receive for performing at local clubs and organizations.”

A former career pianist and singer, Cottier is active in the community’s Crime Club and Postal Alert programs and does volunteer work at Joslyn Center, which sponsors programs for seniors.

Rising housing costs within the community are most apparent in an area commonly known as the Bean Tract in the northeast portion of the community adjoining San Marino, said realtor Tom Berge who manages the Berge Co.

“A tear-down in that area would cost you around $250,000, while a four-bedroom home with all the modern amenities would run close to $650,000,” Berge said.

The least-expensive residential property can be found next to the San Bernardino (10) Freeway and alongside the railroad track on Mission Street, he noted. Home prices there average from around $180,000 or $190,000.

A new housing trend is seen in increasing numbers of new multifamily developments being built throughout the community, Berge said. “The price for three-bedroom condo units is at about $200,000, while rentals average between $1,000 and $1,200 a month in upscale areas.”

Unusual properties like Dupuy Castle, just south of Valley Boulevard near the western entrance to the city, are rare listings nowadays, said Orin Berge, who founded the long-established realty firm.

“The castle, with its numerous secret passages and turrets, has long been the source of mysterious speculation and is said to have served as a hide-out for Eastern gangsters. It was built in 1926 to resemble a chateau in the Pyrenees,” he said.

Berge Co. sold the 10,000-square-foot, 26-room chateau for $400,000 a few years ago after it was sectioned off into apartment units and had fallen into disrepair. The concrete-and-steel structure, extensively renovated by its most recent owner, is back on the market for $3.5 million.

Nearby, Ramona Convent remains the most visible of Alhambra’s landmarks, and is said to be the oldest private Catholic school in Los Angeles County still on its original site. It was founded in 1899 by the Sisters of the Holy Names.

The city was incorporated in 1903, but its earlier formative years are linked to Benjamin D. Wilson, a native of Tennessee and wealthy land owner known as Don Benito, who purchased the original Alhambra Tract.

The naming of Alhambra is credited to Wilson’s daughters, who had read Washington Irving’s tales of the Moorish palace in Spain and suggested it to their father. Hence, also the city’s romantic street names--Almansor, Granada, Valencia, Cordova, Vega and Hidalgo.

Dorothy Outwater, Alhambra’s city clerk from 1966 through 1986, lives in one of the community’s older homes, which was built by her husband’s parents in 1923.

“I find the growth in the community in recent years very exciting,” she said. “One of the more dramatic changes has been in the influx of Asians. I find them very gracious.”

The current demographics for the community are clearly reflected in the student enrollment at Alhambra’s four high schools (which are 55% Asian) and an even greater Asian student enrollment in the elementary grades, said Parker Williams, vice president of the Asian-owned American International Bank and a former mayor of the city who now serves as president of its board of education.

“Actually, we have become the beneficiaries,” Williams added. “Historically, education has been an important focus for Asians, and this kind of motivation for scholastic achievement has spread to all our students.”

For Charles A. Hayden, a mortician since 1949, Alhambra’s growth and development would be far greater today if not stymied by the delays in linking the Long Beach Freeway to the Ventura (134) and Foothill (210) freeways.

“It remains the biggest problem we face,” he said. “And we just haven’t addressed it firmly enough. Too many of Alhambra’s main streets, like Garfield and Atlantic, are being used as access to northern communities from Interstate 10.”

Mike Paules, 33, the city’s assistant manager and director of housing and community development, agrees with Hayden on the need to resolve the freeway issue, although, he said, there have been major gains for Alhambra, particularly in the mid-'80s, that account for a healthy and growing economy.

To the south, new Asian businesses have mushroomed along the town’s 3-mile stretch of Valley Boulevard, where properties that sold for $20 per square foot 10 years ago are now worth $150 a square foot.

“And the rebirth and beautification of Main Street, which seemed doomed to becoming a ghost town in the ‘60s and ‘70s, is another of Alhambra’s signs of wellness,” Paules said.

“On its south side, Alhambra Place--a major shopping hub anchored by Mervyn’s and a multi-screen theater complex--already has helped restore the town’s pedestrian environment. And in a few months, construction is expected to begin on a new 40,000-square-foot upscale supermarket and 60,000-square-foot retail center on the north side of Main Street.”

Notable development to the west, Paules said, includes Auto Row and a busy Commerce Center that includes the Price Club, with a reported retail volume of $100 million a year.

AT A GLANCE Population 1989 estimate: 75,271 1980-89 change: 16.5% Median age: 32.2 years Annual income Per capita: 11,784 Median household: 25,072 Household distribution Less than $15,000: 28.7% $15,000 - $30,000: 29.8% $30,000 - $50,000: 27% $50,000 - $75,000: 10.3% $75,000 + 4.1% Home price December average: $198,832


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