El Monte was at risk of losing much of its ground gained during the Great Recession a decade back.
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The four auto dealerships that were closing down in this working-class suburb were all closed. The city government fired more than 100 employees, 17 of whom were police officers. They also cut youth sports and after-school programs.
These were painful blows for a tight-knit city that had become known, after a rocky period in the ’80s and ’90s, as one of the safest of its size in the country.
El Monte managed to come back and was thriving again until the pandemic. This caused some development projects to be halted and affected Latino residents and essential workers.
Most recently, on June 14, two El Monte police officers — homegrown boys — were shot and killed while responding to a domestic-violence call at a motel on the city’s south side.
Bisected by the 10 Freeway, El Monte is the kind of place that most people drive past — unless they’re headed to Longo Toyota. The city’s partly empty shopping centers are not a draw for outsiders.
El Monte is a small town for 115,000 people. People meet for breakfast to plan Easter egg hunts, talk about ways to improve the environment, carpenters help build libraries for children, and residents who have lost loved ones call the mayor to ask for help.
“They’ve reached out to say they miss El Monte,”Mayor Jessica Ancona, a daughter of Mexican immigrants, said that she has received calls from all over the country since the officers’ deaths. While the city is often portrayed to be a place for newcomers it can also be a place where bonds can go back decades.
Ancona and Victoria Martinez Muela were both part of the El Monte Fillies Softball team. The city is proud to have police officers who grew-up in El Monte and still reside there.
This sense of community was displayed at Saturday’s candlelight vigil for Joseph Santana (El Monte native) and Michael Paredes (both officers). Santana, 31, had been on the job for less than a year; Paredes, 42, was his training officer and came up through the department’s cadet program.
Sources told The Times that Justin Flores, 35-year-old, was killed in a gun battle with other officers at the Siesta Inn parking area.
“Knowing that this is my department, and I’ve worked and seen them in the halls, it really hurts me a lot,” said Montserrat Sanchez, 17, who spent three years in the El Monte Police Department’s Explorer program for students. She was among hundreds of people at Saturday’s vigil outside the police station, holding candles and bringing flowers.
The city’s true legacy is one of resilience, said Romeo Guzmán, a Claremont Graduate University assistant professor and an editor of the book “East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte.”
He said that El Monte’s perception is a battle that dates back decades and is reflected in the mythology of the Santa Fe Trail.
The city seal depicts the city. horse-drawn covered wagon with the phrase “End of the Santa Fe Trail.”Named after the route, a large shopping center and a city park are named after it. Students at El Monte learn that their city was the last stop along the 19th-century corridor across America West.
In fact, Guzmán said, the commercial and migratory route stretched only as far as Santa Fe, N.M. — hence the name.
“When you buy into the Santa Fe Trail history, you are denying your own history,” Guzmán said.
He said that El Monte should be praised for its Chicano writers, poets, and artists, such as Toni Plummer and Salvador Plascencia, as well as the immigrant workers who have moved to the town to work in small businesses along Valley Boulevard and Garvey Avenue, among other thoroughfares.
The Siesta Inn is located on a stretch Garvey that is dotted with car dealerships and stucco strip malls.
The mom and pop stores hint at the city’s evolution: panaderías You can find restaurants that serve pho and music schools that cater for the growing Asian immigrant population. Census data shows that El Monte residents are roughly half from other countries. They are split roughly equally between Asia and Latin America.
Residents living in nearby single-family homes or apartment buildings have described this area of Garvey’s Garvey as a hotspot for prostitution, gun violence, and drug dealing. While there is a fair amount of gang activity, most violence isn’t directed at bystanders, said Heidy Lopez, 27, who moved to El Monte three years ago from South Los Angeles.
Lopez, her husband, and their two children live in a one bedroom apartment about a quarter mile from the Siesta Inn. Lopez, who came from Nicaragua to California, said she has made friends with Central Americans living near her.
“I’ve felt safe here,” Lopez said. “We are part of a community, and we look after each other.”
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Six homicides occurred in El Monte last year, compared to eight in 2020, and four in 2019. according to the L.A. Times Homicide Report.
The city’s success at diversifying its economy and reducing its reliance on auto dealerships, including the sprawling Longo Toyota facility, has been patchy.
Several major employers — a Japanese food importer, some e-commerce warehouses and a factory for a U.S. military contractor — have moved in. Walmart, a big-box business, has committed to the city but then pulled out. The pandemic also complicates efforts. These shifts and the possibility of a recession have put working-class residents on edge. They are struggling with rising gas prices, rising rents, and inflation.
Cosme, a retired telephone repair technician from Mexico, moved to El Monte, California in 1965. There were outlets of Sears and JCPenney in the city, as well Thrifty drugstores.
According to U.S. Census figures, the once predominantly white town has quadrupled its size, going from 13,000 residents in 1960, to almost 70,000 a decade later. The current population is 63% Latino and 31% Asian.
“People wanted to move to El Monte,” said Jimenez, 77, as he sipped a lemonade at Denny’s. “Now we’re having trouble getting businesses to come and stay.”
The El Monte Shopping Center’s many vacancies are proof of the city’s struggles to attract investment, he said.
A vacant storefront behind the Denny’s bears an old but legible imprint: “Sears Outlet.” Other big names, like Kmart and Dearden’s, came and went.
While Pasadena has the Rose Bowl and Temple City its iconic camellias, El Monte’s pride is Longo Toyota, Jimenez said — an anchor in the city since 1967 that is often called the biggest car dealership in the country. He said the dealerships. “have been keeping the city going.”
“It always feels a bit like we’re waiting for that financial shoe to drop — something in the economy that sets us back,”Andre Quintero, El Monte’s mayor for eleven years, said this. “We laid a good foundation for where the city could be, but there’s a lot more work that needs to be done. We’re in transition.”
El Monte must plan for about 8,500 new units of housing — nearly 1,800 for very low-income residents — by 2029, according to the Southern California Assn. of Governments.
It’s a logical place to build, some argue. Downtown Los Angeles is easily accessible by the 10. Residents can also catch the Silver Line bus or Metrolink’s San Bernardino line.
“There is a lot of potential here,”James Acevedo, founder of Grapevine Development and chief executive, said that the company is building a housing- and retail development near El Monte Transit Center. This transit center is the busiest bus station west Chicago. “You just have to stick with it.”
Acevedo’s company is betting on young professionals moving to the area. However, there are concerns about gentrification among some residents who depend on their income to make ends meet.
Nearly 6/10 city residents are renters. According to U.S. Census Bureau data about 17% of the population live below the poverty line and the median income at $54,000 is approximately two-thirds of the county average.
“You may leave El Monte, but it never leaves you,”Joe Torosian, 57 years old, is a Burbank Faith church of the Nazarene pastor. He was born in El Monte, and was the editor for the high school athletics website Mid Valley Sports.
Torosian stated that he was the lone child of the mid-1970s. “half Armenian Protestant kid”A street of Mexican Catholics was where children were able to become Catholics. “El Monte tough,”The bonding of families through Boy Scouts and Little League as they build a life together.
The humble two-bedroom Kings Court home where his single mother raised three children. Children was bulldozed more than a decade ago to make way for the 114,000-square-foot Santa Fe Trail Plaza — a strip mall that includes Petco, Superior Grocers and Ross Dress for Less.
Torosian still feels close to his El Monte roots, even after the destruction of his family home.
“I have friends who live in other states now and across the country who always identify as being from El Monte,”Torosian stated. “It’s who we are.”
Grace Toohey, Times staff writer, contributed to the report.