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El Monte is down on its luck

The boy found it hard not to think about getting bonked with a baseball as he played a game of catch with his father in a park in El Monte. It was early in the evening, but in the fast-fading light, Jose Rocha, 9, said the baseball looked like a wad of paper.

“It’s kind of hard to see it,” the boy said in Lambert Park.

Anxious to find savings as city coffers take a hit, El Monte turns off half the lights in all its parks.

“We used to play till 8,” the boy’s father, also named Jose, said. “Not anymore.”

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In El Monte, the fear these days is about backsliding.

The city pool has closed, after-school programs have been cut, and El Monte’s nearly 400 city employees were told to either take a 10% pay cut or see colleagues lose their jobs. Seventeen police officers were laid off. Violent crime is up 16% while crime is dropping elsewhere in L.A. County.

The recession has hit El Monte hard. The city has improved in the last two decades thanks in large part to revenues from car dealerships. Auto sales provided 60% of El Monte’s revenue, helping the working-class city give its employees raises, beautify streets, hire more police officers, staff a $14-million aquatic center and build a network of after-school programs.

But in the last nine months, three of the city’s eight largest car dealerships have closed. The rest struggle. The city’s tax revenues have plummeted. And El Monte is now faced with some tough choices. To longtime residents, the reversal of fortune is bringing back memories of the bad old days, when gang violence plagued the streets and the city had a reputation for being run-down.

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“Please, you guys,” one woman pleaded at a council meeting. “Think about it: This is El Monte, not Pasadena. We need our officers.”

Maria Bascunan, an elderly Chilean immigrant, said she remembers when she couldn’t walk past the driveway of an apartment building she managed without being confronted by a throng of loitering gang members.

“It was bad. There were a lot of gang members hanging around. There were a lot of robberies, people fighting in the streets,” Bascunan said.

That began to change as the Police Department started receiving enough funding to combat the crime problem and as after-school programs started keeping children busy.

Mayor Ernie Gutierrez, whose family moved to El Monte in 1937, said the reversal is a humbling experience for a tough-luck city that was trying to leap forward.

“When times are fine, you’re drinking Champagne,” the 74-year-old said. “Before you know it, you have to start drinking Kool-Aid again.”

‘Suburban sprawl’

El Monte, with a population of 126,000, never had it easy. In 1971, a national magazine described the city as a “blur of suburban sprawl.” Most of the citizens were “unskilled or semi-skilled workers from the South and the Midwest.” But the Mexican and Mexican American community was growing fast, with many leaving the barrios of East L.A.

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In the 1950s and ‘60s, the still mostly white city was a hangout for country music fans, with clubs like the Nashville West. In the late 1960s, the American Nazi Party opened a headquarters on Peck Road, which caused regular demonstrations. A leader of the group was later killed in front of the offices after an argument with other party members.

“El Monte had a fighting reputation,” Councilwoman Patricia Wallach said. “It was a kind of rough and tumble town.”

At one time, it also had a main street that boasted the kind of department stores that gave the town the appearance of middle class. But it would never quite achieve that status, unlike neighboring Temple City, Arcadia and Rosemead and nearby West Covina.

“It was a neat little town, a real nice little town. Working class,” said Janice Wiggins, 71, who has lived in El Monte since 1948.

By the 1970s, El Monte’s white population was in flight and the city became a hub for immigrants from Latin America. The city’s population exploded while its median household income declined. Crime remained a big problem, along with graffiti and general urban blight. Many of the mainstream retailers left, including stores like J.C. Penney.

Wiggins said she was working at Cal State L.A. at the time when a co-worker asked where she was from. “I said El Monte, and he said, ‘Oh my God. I bet that’s depressing,’ ” she recalled. “I told him, ‘Well, I never thought that before.’ ”

But even if some retailers refused to take a chance on El Monte, car dealerships found it ideal. Located near the junction of the 10 and 605 freeways, the city was centrally located, able to draw from the San Gabriel Valley, the Inland Empire, Los Angeles and north Orange County.

El Monte spent millions in redevelopment money to lure auto dealers to town in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. The city created social, sports and other after-school programs. In the late 1990s, the FBI ranked El Monte, then with a population of more than 115,000, as one of the country’s safest cities for its size. The Police Department created a well-regarded community policing program that won a national award in 2006.

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“You noticed that things got a lot better,” Bascunan said.

Portrait of struggle

Rafael Moran, 42, runs a small shop in an indoor swap meet at the Valley Mall. By selling insurance policies and wiring money to Latin America he used to be able to make a nice, if modest, living. But business has tanked so badly, he went to an insurance business in Downey to apply for a job.

They expected him to sell 16 policies a week, he said. But as he sat and filled out an application, he realized the phones weren’t ringing, no one was walking in, and he couldn’t even hear the sound of employees tapping on computer keyboards. Sixteen policies a week? The month before, he sold only two insurance policies at his store, Moran said.

“I just walked out. They try to brainwash you into thinking you can sell that many. But right now, you can’t,” he said, adding that he’s not sure how long his business can survive.

Kathy Lindoro, 31, waits tables seven days a week at Hometown Buffet and works at Food 4 Less to make a living for herself and her five children.

She got married young and dropped out of high school, and now she spends four days a week at Rio Hondo College to get an education so she can better help her children with schoolwork. She is going through a divorce.

Days at Lambert Park offered a break from a working-class existence that had become harder to sustain as her job hours dwindled because of the economy. Six days a week, just before work, Lindoro would take her children to the park to play sports or participate in other activities. It was a rare reprieve into a kind of middle-class life. But most of those programs have been cut.

“There used to be so many activities for the kids,” she said. “They’re cutting everything. . . . I want my kids here. It keeps them from the streets. They learn a lot of things and do exercise, and they learn to be responsible in groups.”

Arturo Saenz recently stood before the City Council to tell his story. A local young man, Saenz talked about turning down full-time police positions in other cities and taking less pay as an El Monte reserve officer so he could work in his hometown.

But he thought it was going to pay off. Two years ago, he finally got hired full time. With his wife, he bought their first home, in El Monte. And they had twin girls. As Saenz addressed the council, as many as 17 officers were facing layoffs unless fellow officers agreed to take a 10% pay cut, which the city’s other employees had done. Saenz already knew he would be let go unless that happened. His number, literally, would come up.

“I’m number nine of 17 officers you threaten to lay off,” he said before the council. “Is it fair? Do I deserve this?”

In the end, with city officials and the police union unable to reach an agreement, Saenz and 16 other officers lost their jobs.

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hector.becerra@latimes.com


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