August 24, 2004

Immigrant community has roots in agricultural past

Copley News Service

The gardenias of Hawthorne already were budding in their greenhouse on Lemoli Avenue when Akira Okada and his wife, Shimazu, learned they would not be around to pick them.

It was March 1942, three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. government was ordering Japanese-Americans into internment camps scattered across the west.

"They posted it on the telephone polls," said 88-year-old Shimazu, a widow for three decades who goes by the name Sue. A resident of Torrance where the family established a new nursery business after the war, she professes no bitterness or anger at the memory.

"Anyone of Japanese ancestry, they posted it that you had to leave by a certain date," she said matter-of-factly.

When their nursery in Hawthorne ran into financial difficulties during their absence, the Okadas were unable to keep up with loan payments and were forced to sell it.

Over the past six decades, the area around Lemoli Avenue north of Rosecrans has shifted from nurseries to a bedroom community for defense industry workers to a destination for immigrant families who have crowded in, making it the most densely populated section of town.

The war that uprooted the Okadas and their two small children transformed Hawthorne into a land of lathes and drill presses and aircraft-assembly teams.

With a few cyclical ups and downs, the good times in the aerospace industry would last for nearly half a century.

During the Reagan-era defense buildup of the 1980s, developers swooped onto Lemoli and the surrounding streets, buying up homes, tearing them down and creating an apartment-building cluster so dense that current Hawthorne City Councilman Gary Parsons fumes at his predecessors for letting it happen.

"I think the council was looking for the best interests of developers that wanted to make a fast buck," Parsons said.

Parsons said the apartments' original occupants were mostly young aerospace workers, single or newly married, for whom the studio and one-bedroom apartments were a good fit.

But with the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the defense industry went bust. Parsons, an aerospace engineer at Boeing, saw his division's work force shrink to 4,000 from more than twice that many.

Then came the recovery of the mid-1990s, creating thousands of jobs in the South Bay's burgeoning service economy. Eager immigrants, especially Mexicans driven northward by the 1995 peso collapse, rushed in, filling the jobs and the empty apartments. Two families would double up to share the rent.

Harold Roth, Hawthorne's housing director, said the 6-square-mile city saw its population grow 17.8 percent -- adding nearly 13,000 people -- from 1990 to 2000.

"But we only added 415 housing units," he said -- a 1.5 percent increase.

Michael Goodson estimates that 10 percent to 20 percent of the garages in the city are being used as living quarters. The practice is illegal, said Goodson, but it's hard to confront.

"Somebody has to be looking over the fence and complain about it,'' he said.

One of Hawthorne's garage residents, who said he had emigrated illegally from Guatemala, described his living conditions in early May as he waited for a one-day-employer on the northwest corner of Manhattan Beach Boulevard and Inglewood Avenue. An impromptu day-labor center has formed there.

The immigrant, who gave his name as Julio, said he paid $150 a month for enough room to spread a bed cushion on a concrete floor that he shares with a floating population of other immigrants.

Hawthorne's demography has undergone big changes, along with its density.

The 1990 census found that blacks, whites and Hispanics represented about equal shares of the population. But 10 years later, the numbers had shifted to 44 percent Hispanic, 32 percent black, 13 percent white and 7 percent Asian.

Brizzia Romero's family came from Mexico. The U.S.-born 18-year-old Leuzinger High student, who wants to be a nurse, lives in a three-bedroom home on 135th Street with her father and brother, as well as an aunt and two cousins. But gangs have made life miserable for her brother, 15.

"My brother used to get jumped every day after school,'' Brizzia said.

And so, her family thinks of moving once again, much as before, in search of a better life.