Glendale’s ‘Racist Shadow’ Shrinks as City Transforms Itself

Gregory Rodriguez, associate editor at Pacific News Service, is a fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and the Alta California Research Center

When council member and former mayor Richard M. “Rick” Reyes first drove up Brand Boulevard in Glendale in 1959, he had the distinct feeling that a Latino kid from South-Central didn’t belong there. Glendale was a stridently conservative bedroom community with a Midwestern flavor; it was 97% Anglo. Dancing in nightclubs was prohibited by law. Forest Lawn Memorial Park, the cemetery that had brought the city worldwide attention, did not bury nonwhites. It was a magnet for white supremacists, among them the commander of the American Nazi Party’s Western Division, who lived there briefly in the mid-1960s, as did the Grand Cyclops of the state Ku Klux Klan.

Today, Glendale remains marred by scattered incidents of racist vandalism and hate crimes. But as with so many other things in Southern California, its old reputation as a racist’s haven is outdated. Glendale’s racist “shadow nature,” as a recent Glendale News-Press editorial put it, has not impeded the profound changes that the city has undergone in the past two decades.

The county’s third-largest city is no longer a homogenous, provincial place. Sixty languages other than English are spoken by students in Glendale’s schools. Even the Republican Party’s historical grip on the city may be easing. In 1992, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic presidential candidate to take Glendale since Franklin D. Roosevelt, though his margin of victory was a mere 93 votes. Still, Clinton’s ’96 campaign considers the city an important swing district.


There’s a bigger lesson here than the tale of one city’s transformation. A powerful and persistent regional myth holds that an impoverished, minority-dominated, inner-city Los Angeles is surrounded by a cluster of affluent, white suburbs that are essentially unchanged since the ‘50s. Quite the contrary. Glendale is one of many suburban cities in the region--Cerritos, Alhambra and Garden Grove, to name a few more--that have ethnically diversified in rapid fashion.

In the 1980s, Glendale’s population grew at a rate 60% higher than that of the county at large. It has absorbed more than 50,000 new residents in the past 16 years. These residents turned Glendale--current population: 193,000--into a denser, younger and more cosmopolitan urban center. Immigrant Armenians, Latinos, Koreans and Filipinos accounted for much of this growth. By 1990, Glendale was, proportionately, more immigrant than either the city or county of Los Angeles. Fully 45% of its residents are foreign-born.

Ironically, it was Glendale’s traditionally pro-business conservatism and development policies that broke the ground for this diversification. The City Council, mostly composed of businesspeople, long gave carte blanche to developers. In the 1980s, huge numbers of single-family houses on Glendale’s southside were torn down to make room for apartment and condominium construction. One result is that the city’s housing stock is now skewed toward apartments and condos. This transformation has had socioeconomic consequences: The city’s poverty rate increased by 50% in the 1980s and now hovers at 14%, slightly below the county average. Despite these many changes, Glendale continues to have among the lowest crime rates for California cities of more than 100,000 residents.

Glendale’s population explosion was accompanied by phenomenal business growth. Its proximity to Burbank, whose media district is saturated, and its business-friendly environment have attracted several entertainment companies in the last five years. Indeed, the entertainment industry has become the city’s top employer. Two weeks ago, Dreamworks SKG, Hollywood’s newest studio, broke ground on its 300,000-square-foot animation division in Glendale. Before mergers transformed California’s banking industry, Glendale was the third-largest financial center in the state. Today, the banking, finance and insurance industries are the city’s second-largest employers.

The only major California municipality that doesn’t charge a business-license fee nor levies a payroll or corporation tax, Glendale has become a favorite site for corporate headquarters. Its business district, once a chain of single-story storefronts broken only by the Glendale Federal office building, is filled with commercial towers. Much of the city’s economic growth is due to businesses relocating their headquarters to Glendale. Also, the 30,000 jobs created in the downtown area in the past two decades have diversified the city’s labor force.

Five years ago, Nestle International moved to Glendale from the mid-Wilshire district. Members of the company’s black-employee association voiced their concerns about the city’s racist reputation. City officials met with Nestle executives to assure them that all their employees would be treated fairly. Since the move, some of these black employees have decided to live in the city. Though still quite small, Glendale’s African American population increased nearly fivefold in the 1980s. Most of them reside in the city’s more well-to-do neighborhoods.

Glendale is 21% Latino and 14% Asian. The most dramatic and culturally significant ethnic shift, though, has involved the Armenian diaspora. With an estimated 40,000-plus Armenian residents, Glendale is the largest Armenian colony outside of Armenia. Starting in the mid-’70s, three waves of Armenian immigration--from Lebanon, Iran and the former Soviet Republic of Armenia--have turned the city into an important symbol for Armenians worldwide. In 1987, when the Soviet Union began relaxing its emigration policies, 90% of Armenian visa applications at the American Embassy in Moscow listed the Los Angeles area--most often Glendale--as the intended destination. Eight Armenian newspapers and four television programs are produced in the city.

Of course, the Armenian influx has not gone uncriticized. Longtime residents are divided between those who are proud of the city’s newfound sophistication and those who resent the inevitable effects of urbanization. Many complain about traffic congestion and the sometimes slipshod apartments built during years of unplanned growth. During the 1980s, developers also carved out large swatches of the city’s many hillsides to build oversized houses. Since then, the city’s zoning laws have been changed to slow this kind of rapid development.

Because Armenian immigrants are both well-off and poor, they are sometimes blamed for both the increased density in South Glendale and what critics call the “mansionization” in the hills. There is some evidence that at least part of the broad support for downzoning and the setting of a proposed population cap at 220,000 residents was fueled by anti-Armenian sentiment among longtime, mostly elderly Anglo residents.

But, according to planners, a new policy of controlled growth was needed in any case. The city is completely developed and cannot grow too much more without straining its infrastructure. Besides, after the city lost a high-profile discrimination suit in 1986, filed by a Latino police officer who was harassed and then passed over for promotion, city officials are hypervigilant of even the appearance of official bias. Armenian civic and business leaders, including Glendale’s most influential political figure, Larry Zarian, strive to both assuage Anglo fear of the city’s burgeoning Armenian presence and to make any potential scapegoating campaign politically unviable.

In Glendale, anyway, the past hasn’t proved to be prologue. “One thing is for certain,” says one longtime resident. “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”*