It’s a story of inexpensive housing in an isolated fringe area that was low on amenities and subject to a few freak weather disasters. From the start, it was called the Los Altos area of Long Beach.
The 1940s and early 1950s.
Gene Cuny, 84, has lived on the 1900 block of Litchfield Ave. since August of 1948. His 800 square feet home, purchased through the G.I. Bill, as were many of the homes in the area at the time, sold for $9,450. “The buyers were mostly G.I.s, we didn’t have any money, so the government gave us a loan, it was called Federal Housing and your payment had to be one third of our salary, including taxes. Whaley built 250 houses where we are in 1947 or 1948 and then he built across Bellflower Blvd., then past Palo Verde, then south of Stearns.”
George Riggins, 81, was one of the last buyers in his Los Altos neighborhood. “By November or December of 1953, almost everything was gone.” The house on the 2300 block of San Anseline St. was “bought directly from developer Lloyd Whaley” had 1,200 feet costing $12,500. “The Whaleys sold these houses out of a garage on the west side of Marwick and Rolanda Streets. It was very busy. We moved in on January, 1954.” Riggins recalled that the development was proximate to “bean fields cultivated by the Bixby Land Co. Bellflower was originally two lane, then four lanes and it didn’t cross the drainage ditch at Spring St. for a long time. In 1946, when I flew into the Long Beach Airport, you could not cross all the way though and Willow St. ended at Lakewood Blvd and didn’t cross Signal Hill.”
Family events and parks:
Restaurants and entertainment of any sort were in short supply in these early days. “In 1948, they started groundwork for Lady Of Refuge Catholic Church at Clark and Stearns, recalled Cuny. “That was where they had square dances on Friday night. The priest was a go-getter. He had a raffle there each weekend and they brought beer out and sold it there with sandwiches.”
Cuny also recalled “the girls in the neighborhood used to play volleyball, boys played baseball in a field where the condos are on Atherton St. and Clark. It was a vacant property, all that stuff set up.”
Pat Coleman, 65, who now operates his own calculator sales and service business, was 11 when his parents paid $11,500 for a 900 square feet deluxe model on Marber St. in 1949. As a youth, Coleman recalled that area was an official park with a clubhouse. “It had basketball courts, cross country and baseball diamonds. It was full of woods. I could run through woods, across the drainage ditch, into the Park Estates area where they were just building houses.” It was also while trying to jump from one tree to the next that Coleman broke both wrists.
It’s unclear when the Atherton and Clark parkland was taken, but in March, 1950, Whaley donated Los Altos Recreation Center to the city, which later became Whaley Park at Atherton St. and San Anseline St. In January, 1951, Los Altos Park on Stearns St. at Montair Ave. was deeded to the city by Home Investment Co. and Bixby Land Co.
For several years into the early 1950s, the area had no public schools. “My son was hauled by the school bus to Whittier School on Walnut St.,” recalled Cuny. Coleman was “bused to Fremont School, the buses would pick up kids where they waited on various corners. There were many spots, not just one or two central pick up spots.” Riggins recalled that “high school kids went to Wilson. Bixby School opened in 1956, then Millikan in 1957 and Stanford Middle School opened about a year later.”
Pauline Cuny recalled that in 1948, “Los Coyotes Diagonal wasn’t there and Clark St. and Stearns St. were one lane traffic with no traffic lights” where they intersected. With narrow and start-and-stop road, Mrs. Cuny recalled that when they moved in, “the closest store was Ralph’s at 10th & Cherry. There was nothing on other side of Bellflower Blvd. We had to go up Bellfower and use Seventh St. to get there, no other street went through. The east side of Bellflower was like going to the country.”
“Most of the women pushed their baby carriage or stroller to the store,” recalled Riggins. “Basically, it was young people, World War II vets, young families and almost all of them had small children.”
When Riggins moved in, “the only store was Thriftimart at the southeast corner of Stearns and Bellflower. When we moved in, a post office, a pharmacy, a children’s shoe store and Green Hardware was on the west side of Bellflower between Britton and Stearns. That was all developed in the 1940s. There was an Associated Gas station on the corner and where Target is was 40 acres of raw land, weed crop and all.”
Cuny remembered that that very site was “almost occupied by a Montgomery Ward Department Store. They had all the building materials delivered, they advertised it and then all of a sudden everything moved out of there and we never knew why. Later we found out it because Whaley wanted a percentage of the store’s gross. After they moved out, that area stayed vacant for a long time.”
Riggins recalled Whaley being rebuffed at a later date. “In the 1960s, when they put the savings and loan building in where the Edwards Paint is, Whaley wanted to put a helicopter pad in for his own use, but the neighbors objected and the FAA put the kibosh on it.”
Weather typical to rural areas could be troublesome. Coleman recalled that prior to the Thriftimart, “where the shoe store is now is where Dodd’s Market was. In 1949 or 1950, I saw it burn down in a thunderstorm lightning strike. I was riding my bike and I saw the strike. It knocked me off my bike and my mom says I was struck by lightning. It was scary. For some reason, they couldn’t rebuild it,. That’s when Thrifimart came in, or maybe it was in the process of being built.”
“In 1956, my son, Bill helped some people during the floods on Atherton between Clark and Bellflower in his sabot,” recalled Cuny. “Some of the guys couldn’t get to their cars, so they asked him to take them to their cars near Abbeyfield St.”
“In those days, coming down Bellflower around Christmas time, it was always foggy,” said Cuny. “When you went down that little grade south of Atherton, it was complete fog. Once on a foggy night, I turned onto a field. I figured I was on Atherton. About five cars followed me in and we all had to back out to find our way. We also used to see skid marks on the blacktop on Bellflower Blvd. south of Atherton. Everybody wondered why there were all those skid marks, but no accidents. I found out that brake shops on Anaheim St. used to take cars out to test their brakes.”
Celebrities Visit Los Altos
Coleman also recalled when Long Beach experienced a day of record heat. “It was 110 degrees in the summer of 1955. Thriftimart had a restaurant at the east end of the market and I was washing dishes at that time. On that day, the Al Jarvis Dance Party came into that parking lot, they were having a dance during the day with the kids.”
Craig Breit, a professor of communications at Cerritos College lived as a child on Palo Verde St. near Stearns St. since 1956 and recalls still another market “The Iowa Pork Shop was a full-service market at Palo Verde where the Del Taco is was where my mom used to shop. They had all kinds of things going. When I was about ten, Trini Lopez was out there signing autographs and I got to sit on his lap. I didn’t know who he was. Then the Weiner Mobile showed up and they gave out Weiner Whistles and I went down there to get that.”
Breit recalled the ribbon opening of the 405 Freeway. “I remember they finished it in 1964, when I was about eight years old. They took an elephant onto the northbound ramp from Palo Verde because they wanted to show the strength of the construction at the ribbon-cutting.”
Riggins recalled, “the state took out 20 feet on the back wall of houses that face south on the 5400 and 5500 blocks of Vernon St., between Stanford Jr. High and Bellflower. They decided they needed a bigger right of way than they thought they’d need, because they wanted to put in more access ramps than they planned for. The also took some property from Los Altos Methodist Church and the current parking lot on Woodruff Ave. and Willow St. was compensation for the church.”
It was largely a white bread community, just like in the movies,” recalled Breit. “Look at some of the clothes, look at Ronnie Howard on the old Andy Griffith Show, some of the clothes my mom at J.C. Penney were like some of his clothes. They bought there because of the schools, and it was all self-contained. They liked the fact that Cal State was just down the road. It was kind of a hometown, university town. The neighbors were good as far as I’m concerned. It was like Mayberry in those days.”
CB: It was like a little village or hamlet. I did go up to Thrifty’s, Quigley’s was one of my favorite stores, went to Atherton, liquor store sold great models of airplanes, used to cement to put together models.”
In the 1970s, they had a radio production class at Millikan taught by Eugene Gillam, it was all pre-taped on open reel tape decks, it was closed circuit to the cafeteria. I played country music. Allowed kids to play all kinds of rock & roll, there was no restriction on any kind of music. You could be tossed off if you said George Carlin 7 words.
GR: We went to the Lakewood Center or Walker’s and Buffum’s on Pine.
GC: Supermarket at S.E. corner, across the street, 3 or 4 little stores. One of our neighbors ran Glascox was their name, the children’s clothing store.
CB: Trini Lopez, where the Carpet place and the Del Taco, Catty corner was Ryan’s Drug Store, shoe shop still there, Goodie’s Barber Shop was there. Now it’s half and drug store and half a donut shop. Built in 1952. Dad was in office furniture sales for Eastman,
GC: No restaurants here,
Go to restaurant, had to go downtown. Only bar I know of was at Lakewood & Spring, the Bomb Shelter, they had the army-air force stationed at Redondo & Spring St., barracks on Willow & Redondo. Then one set of barracks became a TB hospital for the county.
GR: Plantation Club, a bunker on the airport runway, on Palm Drive from Hathaway, supposed to be a very good spaghetti house, a decent place to go.
GR: We’d occasionally go to the Circle Drive-In, the Pacific theater came in shortly thereafter, was the Los Altos Drive-In.
GR: The Bomb Shelter, northeast corner of Spring and Lakewood. Runway ended at that intersection. It got leveled probably a couple of years before that. It was frequented by army-air corps people. Whaley was a big operator.
PC: Poole was a babysitter. I spent a lot of time down there, I was old enough to baby sit for little Donnie. Never saw Poole, worked nights, back in the garage practicing drums. Sylvia was a nice lady, nice looking young lady, worked at the Hilltop, worked when John played drums. Drugs at the time were secretive. They didn’t fit in with the Navy neighborhood. They had a little red Studebaker convertible. Nobody had any money. Donnie Poole used to be called “the mean little kid” – 6 or 7 when I was 13.
GR: The old Martin twin engines and Convair twin engines that United and Western used and they really shook the house, at least two complete cycles here. I knew what I was buying into.
GC: Whaley had built some apts. On the extension of Anaheim St., used for college.
GC: College – when you went up on Anaheim St., you’d see the kids, they built right next to the V.A. Hospital, you’d come in off. Everybody was happy, there’s going to be a state college there.