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A Downtown Looks Back to Its Future

Times Staff Writer

At 82, Bellflower resident Muriel MacGregor -- “Mac” to her friends -- is as spry as the day is long.

The hue of her coiffed hair matches her purple outfit. Her rouged cheeks set off a pair of lively blue eyes. As a longtime resident and Bellflower’s town historian “since the bicentennial,” she can recite 50 years of city history from memory.

But what really gets her fired up is talking about her city’s future.

“It’s going to be great,” MacGregor said after a tour of ongoing changes to Bellflower Boulevard, the city’s main drag. “It’s about time!”

Change in Bellflower, a historic city left behind by history, was overdue, residents say.

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In its heyday, downtown was the main shopping district for small farming communities that dotted southeastern Los Angeles County. Bellflower Boulevard glittered with the flashing neon signs of furniture shops, restaurants, markets, department stores and movie theaters.

But when the Artesia Freeway was built in the mid-1970s, it cut downtown in half. Over the next two decades, as neighboring communities brought in big-box retailers and strip malls, Bellflower Boulevard stubbornly refused to do so and was drained of its vitality.

Now an ambitious redevelopment plan, 20 years in coming, is trying to capitalize on what used to be the city’s biggest liability: its past.

Like most small-town histories, Bellflower’s has as many versions as old-timers. But MacGregor’s tenacious collection of historic photos and personal histories over a number of years has made her version the most authoritative.

What started as a Spanish land grant in the 1780s became a thriving agricultural and livestock ranch in the 19th century, populated by Dutch and Portuguese dairy farmers who produced milk with the highest fat content in the region.

In an expanse of flat land with few trees, the defining feature was the San Gabriel River, which one early resident compared to “the Mississippi River in Tom Sawyer’s day, except not as wide.”

The city was founded by F.E. Woodruff in 1906, and quickly attracted residents from the Los Angeles area, which was flooded when the San Gabriel burst its banks.

The pioneer years were hard ones, with jackrabbits and roaming cattle eating crops until residents fenced off the land. Apple orchards thrived on the San Gabriel’s sandy banks and a French varietal, the belle fleur, lent the city its name.

By the time MacGregor arrived in 1949, Bellflower had grown to 50,000 residents. During the rise of regional shopping centers in the post-World War II boom, Bellflower clung to an active downtown while many neighboring Main Streets died from the inside out.

In the 1960s, Bellflower had, by some counts, the highest number of churches per capita in the United States, earning the city the tagline “51 churches and no jail.” Bellflower Boulevard became a magnet for cruising teenagers, causing police to crack down on what some residents called “a plague of locusts.”

But by the 1980s, competition from area malls was taking its toll. Downtown businesses were largely abandoned, replaced in some cases by street crime and prostitution. An effort to redevelop downtown was proposed, but voted down by residents.

“Three men in town started fighting it, calling all the old folks, saying, Don’t sign anything; they’ll take your home!” MacGregor recalled. “It got voted down, and we never got redevelopment.”

Bellflower’s slow decline became a slide.

Today, the city’s main street shows signs of making a comeback.

Last year, with the help of federal grants, Bellflower launched a redevelopment plan that is renovating storefronts and building five public plazas downtown.

The city has peeled away the fiberglass, stucco and aluminum facades of the 1960s and ‘70s to find a treasure trove of original wood and brick. Today, Art Deco tin awnings again shade storefronts -- part of a style that one city official calls “retro-vintage.”

The Victory drugstore is still here, and the old clock in front of Johnson’s Jewelers still keeps time. Then there’s the old Nubel Theater, the streamlined movie palace that residents fought to keep from becoming an adult entertainment theater in the 1980s. Now restored, it is home to Hosanna Chapel.

Just off Bellflower Boulevard, the 1950s tract homes have been gussied up and still carry proud names such as the Vogue and Belle Isle.

With the old have come some new additions: Japanese, Caribbean, Chinese, Ethiopian, Thai, Korean, Filipino and Mexican restaurants downtown reflect one of the more diverse area codes in the nation.

“People are rediscovering the downtowns,” said Brian Lee, director of the Bellflower Department of Community Development, which is trying to court Starbucks coffee. “The enclosed malls are having to catch up to provide that same atmosphere.”

The goal is to bring life back to the boulevard and create a feeling of Main Street USA amid a sea of suburban sprawl.

In June, the antique car show brought back the days of teenage cruising and drew about 5,000 visitors. Still more people are drawn downtown by the new summer film series that shows free outdoor movies every Tuesday and Friday night.

Local real estate agents say they are renting empty storefronts at a brisk pace, and the Chamber of Commerce says its membership has jumped over the last year, with 25 new members in June alone.

“No other town has shows and activities like this,” said Sergio Figueroa, 42, in Spanish. Figueroa and his brother opened a discount store in an abandoned storefront in June, and sell wrenches and rubber bands, batteries and birdseed, crackers, creamers and curling irons.

MacGregor, who has watched the changes with glee, says soon Bellflower will be restored to the glory she found when she arrived in 1949.

“I think we’ll have a place again where people want to go to,” she said.


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