It isn’t over the rainbow, as one of its most famous residents sang, but in the shadow of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. Still, Lomita has managed to make a place for itself as the seventh-smallest city in Los Angeles County.
While other Southland communities acquired reputations as industrial leaders or celebrity playlands, Lomita remains as it has been for years: an enclave of tidy, affordable houses, home to about 19,000 along a bend of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Like many South Bay towns, Lomita got its start in the early 19th century with two ranching clans, the Sepulveda and Dominguez families. Over time, a spate of natural disasters such as drought and an infestation of grasshoppers forced the powerful families to sell much of their holdings.
In 1907, developer William Hollingsworth subdivided a piece of Lomita, meaning “little hill,” for a colony of German Baptists known as Dunkers. But instead of Dunkers came retiring sea captains; San Pedro was crowded, and the seamen wanted land for vegetables and livestock.
The large lots were ideal for celery and strawberries, and oil discoveries in the 1920s made Lomita prosper; it even had its own bank.
The town briefly gained a future celebrity in 1935 when vaudevillian Frank A. Gumm and his family moved there to operate the Lomita Theater, the town’s only movie house. His three daughters often sang at the theater. The youngest of the Gumm Sisters would soon change her name to Judy Garland.
In January 1944, Lomita was just trying to do its part in the great national effort to win World War II when the Victory Garden in the community, then known as the “celery capital of the world,” fell victim to friendly fire: A Lockheed-built P-38 Lightning on a test flight crashed in the field.
Army Air Corps pilot Merl Ogden was returning to the Lomita Flight Strip--now Torrance Municipal Airport--when the landing gear stuck and the plane ran out of fuel. He died in the crash. Army officer George Patik arrived with a photographer to investigate, just as Loraine Mettler arrived home next to the crash site with a bag of groceries in her arms. Her eyes met Patik’s. Even the photographer recognized their instant chemistry. After recording the crash scene, he captured the pair together in his lens.
The couple were married after the war, and the bride’s mother still lives in the same house.
The end of World War II brought a population boom to Lomita, as workers in the defense, refinery and harbor industries made the community their home. By the 1960s, Torrance had annexed one part of Lomita and moved to take another. “Incorporation” became a rallying cry, and in 1964 the city of Lomita, just under 2 square miles, was born.
But Lomita residents learned that the road to independence is no paved highway when it tried to secede from the huge Los Angeles Unified School District.
In 1989 and again in 1993, the city tried to break away, contending that it wanted more control over curriculum and spending. The school district twice said no.
Today, the city’s prized exhibit is a meticulously restored 1902 locomotive and caboose at the Lomita Railroad Museum. It is the legacy of a railroad buff who built the museum in the 1960s, right next door to her house--in a town where the trains never ran.
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By the Numbers
Incorporated: June 30, 1964
Square miles: 2
Number of city parks: 4
City employees: 40 fulltime; 40 part time
1996-97 operating budget: 8 million (capital expenditures excluded)
Black / Other: 9%
Average household size: 2
Median age: 33
MONEY AND WORK
Median household income: $36,222
Median household income / L.A. County: $34,965
Median home value: $296,500
Employed (16 and older): 10,775
Percentage of women employed: 63%
Percentage of men employed: 81%
Married couple families with children: 24%
Married couple families with no children: 24%
Other types of families: 15%
Nonfamily households: 37%
Total stores: 259
Total employees: 1,352
Annual sales: $164 million
Source: Claritas Inc. retail figures are for 1995. All other figures are for 1990. Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number.