Home-Grown : Development: Old-timers lament as nurseries and duplexes give way to pricey condos, making the ethnic neighborhood into just another part of West L.A.
Among the camellias in buckets, hanging pots of fuchsias, trays of moss, and palm trees in barrels, Shichiro Hashimoto putters, watering and transplanting, enjoying the sunshine and letting his children run his busy nursery on Sawtelle Boulevard.
Hashimoto, 88, was once a pioneer. The Hashimoto Nursery, which opened in the 1920s, was one of the first in the neighborhood known as Sawtelle. By the late 1950s, there were more than 30. But now there are just seven; the pioneer has become a holdout.
He speaks for many of the longtime Sawtelle residents when he says he misses the old “one-man, one-lot” days. They lament as the nurseries, the aging stucco and clapboard houses and old duplexes and triplexes give way to luxury condominiums, high-priced apartments, mini-malls and office towers. Slowly, the old-timers say, a unique ethnic neighborhood is being transformed into just another part of West L.A.
“They’re going to make more houses, tall houses,” Hashimoto says of the development plans. “It’s too bad. I don’t care for these tall ones.”
From the start, Sawtelle was a working-class area, settled around the turn of the century by people who were barred from other areas by racial covenants or high prices: Latinos, Japanese and poor whites. They worked at the Old Soldiers’ Home (now the Veterans Administration Hospital), on the railroad, in the fields of lima beans and barley that covered much of the land between Sepulveda Boulevard and Barrington Avenue. And they worked in the houses, kitchens and gardens of the wealthy in Bel-Air, Beverly Hills and Brentwood.
Today, Sawtelle remains one of the most racially mixed neighborhoods on the Westside, with no group a majority. The 1990 Census counted 14,042 residents, of whom 48% were Anglo, 26% Latino, 23% Asian, and 3% black. (By comparison, the overall West Los Angeles-Century City-Rancho Park area was 73% Anglo).
The racial percentages in Sawtelle in the 1990 Census were virtually unchanged from 1980, but that is not to say it was a quiet decade. In fact, it was a period of considerable turnover and development.
The neighborhood was one of just a few on the Westside in which the population grew in the ‘80s--it was up 6.7%, because of a surge in construction activity. From 1980 to 1990, the number of dwelling units in Sawtelle increased by 692, or 10.6%.
The most noticeable change has been a proliferation of luxury apartments and $200,000 and $300,000 townhouse condos--replacing, in many cases, single-family homes and aging two- and three-unit apartment buildings. The longtime residents call the process “Brentwoodization.”
Among the new arrivals are young professionals, students and a small but visible contingent of Japanese nationals, business executives sent by their companies to work in the United States for a few years. To the old-timers, the newcomers are a more transient and anonymous bunch.
“I feel like I’m a stranger in my own neighborhood,” said Ruben Ortega, whose family has lived in Sawtelle since the 1920s. “Even the Latinos are different from the ones I grew up with. . . . Children sell out for money instead of keeping the property and having some place they can call home.”
Before, added Al Casas, 39, who grew up in Sawtelle and has never left for long, “if somebody weird walked through the neighborhood, everybody knew it. Now . . . with all the building and all the apartments, a lot of people come and go so you don’t even get to know (them).” In the last 10 years, he said, four different households have occupied a condo across the street from where he lives.
Sawtelle, according to neighborhood historian Harlan Hiney, was named in 1899 after W.E. Sawtelle, a prominent local banker. It incorporated in 1909, and was annexed by Los Angeles in 1922.
Its proximity to the growing, upper-class districts was ideal for Sawtelle residents, who found jobs building the estates of movie stars and millionaires and then cleaning them and working in the gardens.
At Emerson Junior High and University High School, children from Bel-Air and Brentwood snubbed the Sawtelle kids as “the peons (who) lived . . . south of the tracks,” recalled Tom Ikkanda, 73.
Ikkanda moved to Sawtelle from Claremont with his parents in 1923 because they had heard “the gardening was pretty lucrative here.” His mother caught the Red Car on Santa Monica Boulevard to go to housekeeping jobs in Beverly Hills.
Rich soil and mild weather helped make Sawtelle a natural for the nursery business. Margie Robles’ father, who planted palm trees in Beverly Hills and whose gardening customers included Will Rogers and Tom Mix, opened his nursery in 1939 on 1 3/4 acres on Missouri Avenue, Robles said.
The largest nursery--and loudest--was Armacost & Royston at Bundy and Olympic, where the orchids and roses in the two blocks of glass greenhouses were heated by a steam plant whose whistle blasted at each shift change. “You could practically time your watch to it,” recalled historian Hiney, 53. The nursery closed in 1970.
The oldest surviving nursery in Sawtelle is Hashimoto’s, started by Shichiro Hashimoto’s oldest brother in 1925. The brothers ran a flourishing wholesale business delivering plants all over Los Angeles, Shichiro Hashimoto said. The nursery sat idle during World War II--Hashimoto and his older brother had returned to Japan before the hostilities started, and their two younger brothers were interned at Manzanar. After the war, the brothers returned and started anew.
Nurseries were then taking root all over Sawtelle. “People would buy a ramshackle home, with a big yard, the wife would stay home (tending the growing plants) while the husband was out gardening,” Ikkanda recalled. “You’d have a vacant lot next door, and all of a sudden, you’d have a nursery.”
Japanese, Latinos and whites clustered in certain pockets. The Latinos--in the early days, almost all were Mexican or of Mexican descent--lived on the southeast and western fringes, the Japanese on and near Sawtelle Boulevard, the whites in the north.
Although the Japanese turned to Little Tokyo and the Latinos to Santa Monica’s Pico neighborhood as their headquarters for ethnic shops, entertainment and socializing, they developed some institutions in Sawtelle. After school, Ikkanda took Japanese classes at the Japanese Institute of Sawtelle on Corinth Avenue. There were Japanese Buddhist and Methodist churches. Latinos flocked to St. Sebastian’s Church and to the Regis House, which had after-school games and sports for kids.
Some residents recall sticking with children of their own ethnic group, but outgoing youngsters like Casas remember with pleasure the opportunities to dabble in the other cultures in the neighborhood.
“I (was) able to eat Japanese food . . . just by trading a peanut butter and jelly sandwich” at Nora Sterry Elementary School, said Casas, who now runs a carpet-cleaning business in Santa Monica. He took karate and judo at the West Los Angeles Japanese-American Community Center “and the Japanese people in turn ate at the Mexican restaurants.”
Some hangouts were shared by all, a favorite being Ketchie’s, a 12-stool food stand on the edge of the now-abandoned Russell’s Service station. From inside a red-painted shack, Oklahoma native Lonnie Ketchie served up hot dogs, burgers and tacos.
Children played baseball and swam at Stoner Park and saved their pennies for Westerns at the Nuart or the Olympic Drive-In. The Nuart, now one of Los Angeles’ leading movie revival theaters, showed Spanish-language movies twice a week, Margie Robles recalls. The Olympic has been replaced by a Cadillac dealership.
Many homes and businesses emptied during World War II when the Japanese were shipped to internment camps. “The class got real small--(it seemed that) half the school was gone,” said Robles, then at Nora Sterry Elementary. “I cried and cried.”
Her father vowed never to become a U.S. citizen “because he said they could do the same thing to him if they started a war with Mexico,” she said. “What’s the point of having a (citizenship) paper?”
Nonetheless, the war brought opportunities for those who remained. Better-paying jobs opened up at defense contractors such as Douglas Aircraft, on the site that is now Santa Monica Airport. “That’s the way a lot of Mexican people got rich,” Robles said. Her father ran his nursery by day and assembled machine parts by night at a defense plant.
After the war, houses, duplexes and businesses sprouted up to accommodate an influx of veterans and Japanese--some of them returning to Sawtelle, others coming to Los Angeles for the first time because they had lost their farms in northern and central California during the war.
Sawtelle became self-sufficient. It already had the civic center, including police and fire stations and a library, from the ‘20s and ‘30s. There were grocery stores, sushi restaurants, Japanese markets, five-and-dimes, department stores and pool halls--complete with “gambling in the back room, illegally,” Ikkanda said.
“You had . . . everything you needed to survive in Sawtelle here,” recalled Hiney.
The Bay Cities Gardeners Assn., started in 1955, had nearly 600 members in Sawtelle, Venice, Santa Monica and Mar Vista, said Sam Yoshimura, a former president of the association, who gardened for actor Joseph Cotten. The nurseries and several lawn mower shops “all did good business because there were so many gardeners.”
The construction of the San Diego Freeway brought big changes. Dozens of families, most of them Latinos, were uprooted. Before the freeway was built, the neighborhood extended to Sepulveda Boulevard, but construction had the effect of amputating Sawtelle’s eastern edge. “Pontius and Cotner kind of got left out in the cold,” recalled Casas, referring to the two avenues east of the freeway.
Now freeway-close, Sawtelle became “almost a town of gas stations,” with 20 gas stations by 1960, Hiney said. The construction of the Santa Monica Freeway in the mid-60s heightened Sawtelle’s desirability for commercial development.
What brought the original settlers to Sawtelle draws day laborers now, who ride the bus from other parts of the city. ‘We got a lot of rich people (nearby), and they hire a lot of people to beautify (their homes),” said longtime resident Guadalupe Pinto.
One entrenched, if not altogether respectable, Latino tradition is the Sotel gang, whose name is a corruption of Sawtelle. Los Angeles Police Department gang experts say that compared to other gangs in Los Angeles, Sotel is small and relatively benign. Lt. Brad Merritt of the West Bureau anti-gang unit estimates that it has “well under 100 active members.”
The Sotel gang’s distinction is its durability: It has been around for more than 50 years, and is said to include some third-generation members in its ranks.
Some residents and park rangers have complained that gang members have intimidated them at Stoner Park, the group’s primary hangout, Merritt said. Generally, however, he said, it is an “old, traditional-style gang” whose function seems mainly to be social.
“They just hang around, drink beer, play their music, and are just a nuisance to the community,” he said. “Committing a crime . . . doesn’t seem to be their primary intent.”
There has not been a gang-related shooting incident at Stoner Park since 1989, Merritt said, although one member was killed in 1990 in Santa Monica, where a rival gang is based.
Development is the big issue in Sawtelle these days. For residents, it is both plague and deliverance.
Tom Ikkanda laments the proliferation of lot-filling blocks of apartments on land that used to hold nurseries, small businesses and single bungalows. But he sold his garage and engine-parts business four years ago to a developer who built a four-story apartment building. The price, $570,000, was “such a fantastic offer,” Ikkanda explained, that he couldn’t pass it up.
The issue involves more than apartments and condos. Every month seems to bring a new mini-mall to Sawtelle or Santa Monica boulevards. High-rise office buildings are taking over Olympic Boulevard. Traffic congestion and parking get steadily worse, residents say.
Businesses mirror the change in the populace. In addition to serving the local Japanese population, Sawtelle Boulevard now draws Japanese nationals from throughout the region.
The boulevard boasts two tablecloth Franco-Japanese nouvelle cuisine restaurants and “The Wave,” billed as an “upscale karaoke club” with lounge singers. The mini-malls include a cappuccino bar, Du Japon Hair Club, and Kumon Math, which expounds a math-learning technique developed in Japan. There are two Japanese-operated bakeries, Mousse Fantasy and Ginza-ya Bakery, that have the airy, chestnut- and green-tea cream pastries that are favored in Japan. Several video stores and bookstores carry the latest from Japan.
Overall, Sawtelle in transition is a mix of residential, commercial and industrial, and old next to new.
“You can walk down a block where there’s not that much that has changed, and then the next block, there’s nonstop four-story buildings, and 15 stories on Olympic,” said historian Hiney.
Peter Best, senior marketing consultant at Grubb & Ellis, the commercial real estate firm, has another description: “It’s just a mishmash. . . . It needs an aesthetic shot in the arm.”
For several years, developer Raleigh Enterprises, which owns several key parcels in Sawtelle, has been courting community groups and trying to orchestrate the preparation of a detailed master plan--known as a specific plan--for the neighborhood that would bring some order to the urban hodgepodge.
Raleigh put up $350,000 to co-sponsor an international design competition for a section of Olympic Boulevard, and suggested changing the community name from Sawtelle to “Garden District,” in recognition of the many nurseries. And as an alternative to waiting for several years for city planners to draw up a specific plan, Raleigh offered to finance the writing of the plan.
Eventually, a committee composed of residents, businesses and developers decided to wait and go through regular city channels and asked Councilman Marvin Braude to appoint an advisory committee. Braude is considering the request, his chief deputy, Cindy Miscikowski, said.
The plan may be three years or longer in the drafting. Given budget cutbacks, it’s doubtful that city planners could be assigned to the project soon, Miscikowski said. And considering that the recession has slowed development, “there’s no immediacy for the effort,” she said.
Adding to the uncertainty for Raleigh’s development plans is that it is a partner in several real estate ventures with Executive Life Insurance Co., whose collapse early this year was the largest failure ever by a U.S. life insurer. One of their joint projects is the Executive Life Center on Olympic Boulevard that serves as headquarters for both companies.
Raleigh Enterprises president George Rosenthal acknowledged that Executive Life has been a “key player and catalyst” in the Garden District development plan, but now, he said, the plan “has a life of its own.” Raleigh remains interested in the project, he said, although there appears to be less urgency to its Sawtelle development plans than there was in 1989 or early 1990.
Other real estate professionals share Raleigh’s belief that once the recession is over, Olympic Boulevard has a rosy future. Susan Loranger, leasing agent at Jon Douglas, says that a nearly completed eight-story office and retail building on Olympic near Bundy Drive is one of her hottest properties, and predicts that Olympic Boulevard will eventually rival Wilshire Boulevard as a prestigious business location.
“It’s as wide, it’s in as much use. As years go by, it will definitely be on par with Wilshire,” she said.
Longtime Sawtelle residents are containing their enthusiasm, but many reluctantly acknowledge that their location means that continued development is inevitable.
The neighborhood’s principal homeowner group, the Westside Residents Assn., is trying to keep Sawtelle from being overwhelmed. “All of us over the last years have gotten weary over the development wars,” said vice president Thomas Donovan, who helped found the group in 1984 to block a 12-story office project. “There’s a lot of common ground that (can) be found” between developers and the community.
He said he hopes a specific plan can be devised that will preserve the Japanese flavor of Sawtelle, which, he said, “makes it different from a zillion other places in L.A.” but is seeping away.
Casas, who is on the association’s board, is a bit more pessimistic. It will be a monumental task, he said, to come up with a specific plan for an area “in the middle of Los Angeles that already has a general plan . . . and a huge variety of special interest groups, from property owners, to renters, to Japanese, to everybody.”
But Casas is not ready to give up on the neighborhood, even though three lots on his own block have been bought by a condo developer.
“It’d be great to be able to sell your property and move away and make a lot of money, but then the neighborhood will die,” he said.
“I could live anywhere in Southern California I want,” he added. “I just choose to live here. Here my old Japanese, my old Mexican neighbors wave to me as I go to work in the morning. . . . It makes me feel I have roots someplace.”
Another holdout is Margie Robles, who last year was offered $700,000 for her nursery lot at Barrington and Exposition. She turned it down “because I love the nursery.” Besides, she says, “Where would I go?”
“It’s going to be all commercial,” she predicts of the future. “And 20 years from then, it’ll look like L.A.”
Even Shichiro Hashimoto knows that the days of his nursery are numbered. He doesn’t expect any of his six grandchildren to keep it going. The 1 1/2-acre property is surely worth more than $1 million, and developers have asked whether he wants to sell “many, many times. I tell them, after I die,” he said.
“This is the end. They can sell this land, or they can build (their) house” on the lot, he said. “I’m not here by that time, so I don’t mind.”