An Established Community With a Feeling of Family : North San Gabriel: Wooded area looks expensive, has sense of community and high state test scores at schools.

Mark and Mary Ann Epstein had long contemplated looking for greener pastures in Northern California. That is, until they discovered the community of North San Gabriel.

"I thought we had to leave Southern California to find what we've found here," said Mary Ann Epstein, a part-time occupational therapist for Rancho Los Amigos Hospital in Downey. "It's solid. It's family."

The Epsteins, who have two children, 1 and 5, first looked for a home in areas farther east, like Covina, San Dimas and Glendora. But Mary Ann's brother, a real estate appraiser, steered them to North San Gabriel.

"We didn't think we could afford the neighborhood because it looks so expensive," Mary Ann Epstein said.

They were surprised to learn that the neighborhood was within their budget. In July, 1993, they bought a 1,500-square-foot home on a quiet, tree-lined street for $255,000. Now Mark Epstein, a data communications analyst for Parsons Engineering in Pasadena, is close to his job, and their daughter, Sarah, is a half block away from the neighborhood school she attends.

"We lived in Alhambra for five years and knew only two people," Mary Ann Epstein said. "But this is just like a real neighborhood."

North San Gabriel is the area of San Gabriel north of Las Tunas Boulevard. It is bordered to the north by San Marino, to the west by Alhambra and to the east by Temple City. It also includes a section in the northeast corner that is part of Los Angeles County.

"Most people don't know about North San Gabriel," said Wade Norwood, a Coldwell Banker real estate agent who specializes in the area. "It is more heavily wooded and established than the rest of San Gabriel."

Real estate agents differentiate North San Gabriel from the rest of the city because the "quality of homes and neighborhood" is reflected in the price. The average price for a three-bedroom home in the North San Gabriel area, based on data for the last six months, was $283,000, verses an average price of $200,000 for the rest of San Gabriel.

Recently sold homes ranged in price from a low of $140,000 for a 1,088-square-foot home to a 3,700-square-foot home in the San Marino School District that sold for $740,000.

The majority of the architecturally diverse homes built in the 1930s and '40s are in the 1,200 to 1,800 square foot range. The exception is the row of estate homes along Country Club Drive, adjacent to the San Gabriel Country Club.

Peggy and Robert Kinkaid moved from San Marino to their two-story, colonial-style home on Country Club Drive about 12 years ago. Peggy thinks the area has a "Midwestern feel" because of the older homes, big trees and friendly residents. "We have wonderful neighbors and a back yard gate to (their) property," she said.

The Kinkaids believe that their house is "a home we could live in for the rest of our lives," with their two children, Elizabeth and Kathryn, ages 6 and 7. Apparently, other residents feel the same way because, even though the Kinkaids have been in the house for 12 years, they are still "one of the newest neighbors on the street."

Alfred and Sylvia Valles moved into the northwest corner of North San Gabriel in November of 1993. After years of buying fixer-uppers and moving on, Alfred Valles admitted, "I don't mind if we never move again."

Valles, a partner in a window and door manufacturing business, and his wife, a teacher, feel this is a good area for their children, 1 and 4, to grow up. They like the fact that the local school has a good reputation and that the "neighborhood is family oriented and has a good mix of old and young people."

Julie Lichtenberg-Stern, director of development and alumni relations for the school of business at Cal State Northridge, and her husband, Joel, a sales manager for a business forms manufacturing company, moved into their 1930s Spanish-style home in 1987.

Julie has high praise for the local schools, which their daughters Sascha, 10, and Marissa, 5, both attend. The school district is "well organized, cares about the interests of the students," she said. "And, because it's a small district, parents have complete access to the superintendent's office. It's easy to make your wishes and concerns known."

Said San Gabriel Supt. Gary Goodson: "We pride ourselves on our open-door policy. We're available, we listen to the issues and we try to follow up on the educational needs."

He added that the three elementary schools in North San Gabriel have high state test scores that compare favorably with San Marino, South Pasadena and Arcadia.

Goodson is enthusiastic about two major school district changes scheduled for September. The middle school will be restructured to include Grades 6 through 8 instead of Grades 7 through 9. And Grades 10 through 12 will attend the newly created Gabrielino High School.

Longtime residents of North San Gabriel have seen very little change in their neighborhoods over the years. Albert Hill Kuhn, who bought his vacant lot in 1946 for under $1,000, fondly remembers "picnics over the back fence and dances in the streets" in his earlier days, but said that the neighborhood is still "friendly and quiet."

At the time that Kuhn and his wife built their home, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) limited the size, depending upon the number of family members. Since Kuhn and his wife had only one son, they were limited to a home of 900 square feet. Since then, Kuhn has added another 300 square feet.

The biggest change that Kuhn sees in the neighborhood is in the ethnic mix. When he and his family moved in, the law on the books was that residents had to be Caucasian.

Nearby Las Tunas Boulevard reflects the changing ethnic diversity of the community. Thirteen ethnic groups are represented in shops and restaurants on a one-mile stretch of the commercial street.

North San Gabriel's growing Japanese population is especially reflected in the businesses on Las Tunas: a Yaohan Supermarket; Yama, a small market selling fish and sundries, and Kintaro, a Japanese lunch shop.

Ray Goto, a second-generation Japanese who is a fish salesman, drives his truck from neighborhood to neighborhood serving a largely Japanese clientele in North San Gabriel. For 30 years, Goto has offered everything from fresh salmon and tuna to octopus and squid.

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Taeko Sakata, a Japanese national, said that Goto sells "the freshest fish I have found." The Sakata family, like many other Japanese nationals living in the community on five-year work visas, opted to lease rather than buy their North San Gabriel home.

Pam Izmarian, who has lived in her home since 1959, has seen another change in the community: she has watched the trend in stay-at-home mothers go full circle.

When she and her husband first moved into the neighborhood, mothers typically stayed home with their young children. In the '70s, Izmarian observed that the neighborhood became very quiet when a growing number of mothers joined the work force. But since the late '80s, she has seen a return of the traditional full-time mom. "It's nice to see the activity with young children once again," Izmarian said.

When Diann McGarvey became a full-time mother three years ago, she and a friend decided to start a play group. They canvassed their neighborhood and soon found 25 other stay-at-home or part-time working mothers with young children.

The group has "made the neighborhood seem much smaller and friendlier," said McGarvey. "It's kind of like what I grew up with."

At a Glance

Population

1993 estimate: 5,707

1980-90 change: -4.1%

Annual income

Per capita: 31,752

Median household: 63,800

Household distribution

Less than $30,000: 15.2%

$30,000 - $60,000: 27.9%

$60,000 - $100,000: 31.8%

$100,000 - $150,000: 19.1%

$150,000 + 6.1%

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