Belying its exotic moniker, the site that became Hawaiian Gardens was originally a marsh that local farmers called “the Delta,” according to the city's official history.
The Delta drew a steady stream of locals and passing travelers looking to water their horses at its murky pools, and in 1927 an entrepreneur — whose name is lost to history — erected a roadside food stand to serve them.
It was by all accounts a modest structure, at the corner of present-day Norwalk Boulevard and Carson Street, consisting entirely of a bamboo shed and two outhouses. The proprietor draped them in palm fronds and dubbed the place Hawaiian Gardens.
As a dining experience it may have been wanting, but its alluring name and appearance proved effective at drawing thirsty farmhands and cowpokes. It may have also helped, in those days of Prohibition, that the Hawaiian Gardens was said to have a ready supply of bathtub gin, for those who wanted to take the edge off the dusty ride home from the Delta.
The restaurant eventually closed but the name stuck, bequeathing what was then a literal backwater with an appellation that described exactly nothing about it.
Granted, the people of the little burg, which had only one paved road through much of the 1900s, had little else to hang their hats on.
A regional oil boom briefly drew the interest of speculators who hoped that the Gardens harbored petroleum deposits.
They snapped up acreage at exorbitant prices only to see land values crash when it became apparent that Hawaiian Gardens was one of the very few places in the Los Angeles Basin without oil.
The prospects for the town seemed dire, but the stock market crash of 1929 unexpectedly gave the area new life. Desperate settlers from across the West scraped together the 10 bucks needed to buy a lot in Hawaiian Gardens, and the population began to grow.
After staving off annexation attempts by Artesia, Long Beach and Lakewood, Hawaiian Gardens incorporated in 1964 and set about paving roads, building a water and sewer system, and generally bringing itself into the 20th century.
The new city — at one square mile, the smallest in Los Angeles County — found that its independence came at a cost, as its lack of commerce and a meager tax base made keeping the roads paved an increasingly dicey proposition.
In 1997, the city struck a deal that allowed for the construction of a casino in exchange for jobs and tax revenue. The Gardens Casino is now by far the city’s largest employer and revenue driver.
Poker night in America: There are no one-armed bandits in the Gardens Casino, but for poker fans looking to live close to a card room, Hawaiian Gardens fits the bill.
A full (affordable) house: As is the case with many of the Gateway Cities, Hawaiian Gardens offers some of the lowest home prices in the basin.
Parks and rec: Hawaiian Gardens has only one park, but the city is next to the massive El Dorado Regional Park, which offers a variety of recreational activities.
All in: Cities that rely on a single employer are one corporate bankruptcy away from disaster, and when that employer is a casino with a checkered past, things become even more problematic. In 2016, the Treasury Department assessed the casino $2.8 million for various infractions, and in 2000 a state legislative committee accused the owner and then-city officials of misusing redevelopment money.
Peter Shaw of Power Realty & Investments has been selling real estate in Hawaiian Gardens since 2011. He said the city sees little new development because of its density, save for one massive exception: the dramatic 2016 overhaul of the Gardens Casino.
“It was definitely an economic booster for the community,” Shaw said. “It brought in a lot of work.”
The casino underwent a $90-million expansion, growing from a 60,000-square-foot tent to a 200,000-square-foot compound with a restaurant, bar and 225 gaming tables.
The casino funds roughly 70% of the city’s general revenue, which Shaw said the local government has used to renovate dilapidated buildings and help local businesses.
In terms of housing, he’s noticed that properties are languishing on the market longer than they used to. For prospective buyers, that means a wider variety of options.
In the 90716 ZIP Code, based on two sales, the median sales price for single-family homes in September was $433,000, up 14.4% year over year, according to CoreLogic.
All four public schools in the Hawaiian Gardens area scored above 700 on the 2013 Academic Performance Index. Ella P. Melbourne Elementary scored the highest at 812, followed by Venn W. Furgeson Elementary at 798. Hawaiian Elementary and Pharis F. Fedde Middle scored 751 and 729, respectively.