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EL SERENO : Price, Convenience, Friendliness Exert Pull : El Sereno: Close to three freeways and just 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles, its residents have an easy commute.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Martin Matias returned from college at UC Berkeley and began searching for his first house earlier this year, he didn’t expect to wind up back home in El Sereno.

But that’s just where the 23-year-old counselor and public relations officer for Cathedral High School in Los Angeles landed after a fruitless search for an affordable house in nearby Alhambra.

Matias and his wife, Cynthia, also 23, said they were ecstatic to find a two-bedroom, one-bath home along El Sereno’s desirable eastern border, adjacent to Alhambra, for $165,000.

“That was a great price and we jumped,” Matias said. “When I was away at school in Berkeley, I really missed it here. The people are really friendly. I grew up in El Sereno and it’s close to everything, it’s really, really convenient.”

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That convenience and it’s relative affordability has attracted many to this urban Los Angeles community that offers a variety of homes and home prices for everyone from low-income renters to high-end home buyers.

Situated about 10 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles, El Sereno encompasses about five square miles west of Alhambra, south of South Pasadena, east of Monterey Road and north of Valley Boulevard. It includes Cal State Los Angeles, which has made the community its home since 1955.

In recent years, the low prices in this predominantly Latino neighborhood have attracted new Asian immigrants, as well as young couples and families buying their first homes.

Eddie Silva, owner of Eddie Silva Investments, has been selling property in El Sereno for nearly 30 years. Even during the recent real estate slump, he said, sales activity and prices in the community have remained relatively stable.

“There’s a lot of demand for property here,” he said.

Recent sales figures show the average price for a three-bedroom, two-bath home at about $160,000, with the least expensive at $100,000 and the most costly at $275,000. Many of El Sereno’s homes are about 50 years old, with a growing number of large, expensive houses being built in pockets throughout the community.

Most notable are a collection of hillside homes along Barret Road, north of Huntington Drive. These houses, which are priced between about $400,000 to $1 million, have expansive views that take in large portions of Pasadena, Alhambra and beyond. The largest is a seven-bedroom, 6 1/2-bath home with 5,200 square feet in the main house and 800 additional square feet in a maid’s quarters.

While these larger houses are situated north of Huntington Drive, above El Sereno’s more densely populated and less-expensive northwestern neighborhoods, they overlook the more-desirable portion of El Sereno that’s south of Huntington Drive and adjacent to South Pasadena and Alhambra.

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Silva said the community is most popular among investors who rent their property and among young buyers seeking an affordable first home. He said area homes hold their value well for several reasons.

“First of all, you’re so close to the freeways and to (downtown) Los Angeles,” he said. “The majority of people are very happy because they only have to commute 10 or 15 minutes.”

Huntington Drive, El Sereno’s main thoroughfare, provides easy access to North Broadway and downtown Los Angeles. And the Golden State, Pasadena and Long Beach freeways are each within a couple of miles of the community’s center.

El Sereno’s commercial district is confined mainly to Huntington Drive, with most of it a collection of mom and pop shops, grocery markets, small cafes, service stations and fast-food restaurants.

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Matias TV is among those stores. The shop is owned by Fausto Matias Farfan, 52, Martin Matias’ father.

The elder Matias says he moved to El Sereno in 1967 because it was close to his job, which was then in downtown Los Angeles. “Also the price of homes was low compared to other areas,” he recalled.

Matias bought his then 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom, one-bath home north of Huntington Drive and within walking distance of Alhambra and South Pasadena, for $21,000. In recent years, he’s added a fourth bedroom and two more bathrooms. Now, the 2,200-square-foot house, situated in a tidy neighborhood with mature trees and green lawns, is worth many times the price he paid.

Over the years, Matias says he’s seen a lot of changes.

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“When I moved here, we didn’t have a McDonalds, a Jack-in-the-Box, we didn’t even have a gas station,” he said.

The years also brought changes in demographics.

“When I moved here in ’67 there were more Italians and a few other Anglos,” Matias said.

Latinos began moving to El Sereno in the early 1960s. Realtor Silva said it started with construction of the Long Beach Freeway and displacement of Latino families living in its path.

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“They all got cash for their houses and many moved to El Sereno,” he said. “Before that, there were mostly Italians and other Anglos working for Pacific Railroad and a lot who worked for the police department.”

Today, the newest immigrants are Asians. And while they still make up only a small percentage of El Sereno’s population, more and more Asians are moving into the area.

“The reason why they’re moving there is the homes are reasonably priced and it’s very convenient to L.A.,” said Rick Chang, a realtor with Goodwill Realty in nearby Lincoln Heights. “They can take the bus and go to Chinatown very easily.”

Moreover, he said, El Sereno’s proximity to the heavily Asian communities of Alhambra and Monterey Park are another attractive aspect to many Asians, especially the newer immigrants who don’t yet have the money to live in these more expensive cities.

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El Sereno got its start more than 160 years ago as the Rancho Rosa de Castillo, named after a river that once ran through the property. The land was originally granted to Juan Balesteros in 1831 and later became a sheep ranch owned by Juan Batista Batz and his wife, Catherine.

After the couple died, the land was divided among their six children and later acquired by George W. Baird, a Los Angeles real estate developer and produce merchant. Baird named the land Bairdstown and began subdividing and selling the hilly property in 1900. About 10 years later, it was re-named El Sereno, Spanish for “the serene one.” And in 1915, the City of Los Angeles annexed the community.

Romy Rojas, a native of nearby Lincoln Heights, moved to El Sereno 20 years ago, after marrying her husband, Joe. The couple paid $21,000 for their Spanish-style, three-bedroom, one-bath home and later added a second bathroom. Rojas, who raised three sons in her home south of Huntington Drive, near Alhambra, said she plans to stay in the community for some time.

“I don’t see any point in moving out,” said Rojas, a clerk with the local library branch on Huntington Drive. “We’d have to go pretty far out to get an affordable home and our payments here are so low.”

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She too has seen the community undergo much change. Most visible, she said, is an increase in graffiti. “That’s the main problem here and everywhere,” Rojas said.

“The graffiti are an eyesore,” agreed Los Angeles Police Officer Danny Roman, “and the gangs can be a problem but there’s not thousands of gang members here, only about a hundred or so. . . .”

Other concerns for residents are a high number of residential burglaries and car thefts. But on the plus side, he said, is a reduction in the area’s drug problem.

“We’ve cleaned up a lot of narcotics there,” said Roman, attributing law enforcement’s success to “a strong community and a lot of good people.”

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Residents who opt for the area’s public schools send their children to one of several elementary schools. Older students attend El Sereno Junior High School and Wilson High School. However, those who can afford it usually choose private schools, since the junior high and high school are both plagued with lower-than-average district test scores.

Nevertheless, new homeowner Julie Nguyen, 30, who moved to a quiet street south of Huntington Drive, said the advantages of living in El Sereno far outweigh any negatives.

“It’s convenient for me because I work in downtown Los Angeles,” said the aspiring civil engineer who works in the city’s drafting department.

Nguyen moved to El Sereno from a rented home in Monterey Park.

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“I started looking for houses in Alhambra, but they were too expensive, so I went a few blocks down and found this,” she said of her Spanish-style home that she and her brother bought in December, 1989, for $175,000.

“This is an area I can afford,” she said. “The neighbors are so friendly, the neighborhood is nice, quiet and safe and those are the most important things to me.”

At a Glance Population

1991 estimate: 33,484

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1980-91 change: +18.6%

Median age: 28.2 years

Annual income

Per capita: 9,439

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Median household: 29,992

Household distribution

Less than $15,000: 20.9%

$15,000 - $25,000: 20.9%

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$25,000 - $40,000: 23.3%

$40,000 - $75,000: 27.6%

$75,000 + : 7.3%


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