South Gate Gardens

Click image to read the “building restrictions” reference to racial covenants

It’s hard to imagine Los Angeles as it had been before we imposed this haphazard city upon it’s landscape. The indigenous people of Los Angeles, the Tongva/Gabrielino (Great Chengiichngech! Which is the proper term?) had the right idea in regards to the local geography: small villages located near running bodies of water and plenty of nearby sustainable food sources, like wild greens, roots and acorns for foraging and small game like fish, deer and rabbits. Yes, they too altered their environment, but in a sustainable and harmonious way, what’s sometimes called “paradise by design.” I try to imagine this Los Angeles when traveling through my Lincoln Heights neighborhood (home to one of these original settlements): small villages surrounded by wild rambling vines of berries, meandering creeks and in the distance roaming bears scavenging and clawing up the rich clay soil while hunting for rodents. Unfortunately, the asphalt and concrete often suffocate my imagination and I abandon my daydreaming. Once in a great while though, my mind can conjure up the ghostly images of long-gone leafy green alisos and for a brief moment this supersedes the vista now taken up by beige stucco apartment buildings and car repair shops. I’m romantic like that.

I tried to use this same sense of imagination to see the southeast city of South Gate as the edenic, fertile plain described in the memorial booklet South Gate 1776-1976 a publication produced by the city of South Gate to commemorate their 1976 bicentennial. By the way, the 1976 date is a bit of a stretch, it commemorates European settlement. The official date for cityhood is 1918. Prior to 1864, the land had been part of Rancho San Antonio owned by Don Antonio Lugo (a mural depicting Lugo’s Old Californio lifestyle can be found at 7141 Pacific Blvd. Huntington Park). Before Señor Lugo came riding in with his vast hordes of cattle, the area was called “Tibahagna” and “Ahau” by local indigenous people.

Even using my astounding powers of visualization, it’s hard to imagine South Gate, this grid street city full of dusty industrial buildings, imposing power lines, cramped together cottages and never-ending thoroughfare traffic as a great silty flood plain yielding an extraordinary amount of fruits and vegetables on idyllic farms that stretched for as far as the eye could see. The farms didn’t last too long though, the above South Gate Gardens promotional ad documents how they were slated to be replaced by housing developments for up and coming (white) middle class families to live with “wonderful soil, cheap water, gas and electricity, cement walks and curbs, street work, fine schools and stores, good neighbors and pleasant surroundings.”

The city of South Gate is pretty familiar to me, my mother was a teacher at a local elementary school and I spent lots of time in the area including helping out at the graduation ceremonies. These chaotic parties were more like three ring circuses, in addition to helping keep the children focused enough to sing “Pin Pon es un mueñco hecho de carton…” I double-dutied as snack table security to keep señoras from filling baggies with take home food before everyone else got a chance to eat. Despite the fun and liveliness of these festivities and the charm of it’s adorable children, South Gate did not impart an equally charming impression.  Perhaps it was the looming power lines that towered over the neighborhood on my drive home from the school often leaving me with a feeling of uneasiness, the density of everything or maybe it was because the conservative white folks that made up the majority of the residents until the early 1970s have been mostly replaced by conservative brown folks from Mexico (also notably from Cuba and Central America). However, doing this research has inspired me to look at this city with new eyes. Next time I head south, I’ll remind myself the buzzing power lines supposedly don’t cause cancer and somewhere down below the concrete is an edenic prairie, tainted by the toxins of a modern society, but rich in fertility nonetheless.

According to the commemorative booklet, the first house constructed in South Gate was the above Tope cottage at 8116 Commercial Place in 1917. Stucco, vinyl windows, decorative facade rock, and an imposing wall have obscured the original features of this historic residence.

Maybe the current owners of the Tope Cottage were trying to keep up with the neighbors? This row of homes is right across the way.

Official history of South Gate along with a handy FAQ at this site.

Recommended book: My Blue Heaven: Life and Politics in the Working-Class Suburbs of Los Angeles, 1920-1965 by Becky M. Nicolaides. Excerpt from the book summary “As the citizens of South Gate struggled to defend their segregated American Dream of suburban community, they fanned the flames of racial inequality that erupted in the 1965 Watts riots.” Oh!

For more information on Los Angeles’ First Peoples, check out the excellent book, The First Angelinos: The Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles by William McCawley.

To read more fascinating descriptions of the pre-European Los Angeles landscape  see the piece The Los Angeles Prairie by Paula M Schiffman in the book  Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles edited by William Deverell and Greg Hise.

17 thoughts on “South Gate Gardens

  1. Chimatli, I’ve also tried to look at our neighborhoods by way of the same imagination. And in parts, here & there, I can see remnants of what was; parts that have not totally been paved over. But as I look at the hills around I wonder at how much of the flora is actually native, since I know there have been so many invasive plants that have taken over.

  2. There are many natives plants still around but a good chunk of the plants aren’t. In the Northeast hills there is a lot of castor bean plants which are not only ugly and obtrusive but super poisonous. Mustard was brought with the Spanish, eucalyptus comes from Australia, most of the grasses are not native etc. California Black Walnut is native and so are the oaks and it’s against the law to chop them down anywhere (even on private property) without approval.
    One of the main problems with the ecology of the hills is that they must be cleared of brush due to fires and the only reason they don’t want fires is cause of the houses. So I say no houses or development in the hills we have left! But I read that we will never really be able to return to a pre-European Los Angeles because we no longer have bears.
    “The grizzly bear’s mulitfaceted interactions with its environment (as a generalist carnivore, herbivore, and soil disturber) meant that it was a keystone species…The extinction of an animal of such extraordinary ecological importance means that we will never truly understand the nuances of historical ecosystem dynamics in the Los Angeles region.” from the essay The Los Angeles Prarie by Paula M Schiffman

  3. Great article.
    About your comment about grizzlies:
    Check out the novel Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, part of it is about what taking predators out of an ecosystem does to it, among other things, of course.

  4. Nice story.Ispent 12 years in southgate .I watched the whites move out every year.The Lugo house use to be on gage in bell gardens.I got to go inside the house once before it was burned down.I use to have a copy of the 1976 book.

  5. we will never really be able to return to a pre-European Los Angeles because we no longer have bears

    And we can’t have bears because the antelope are gone, too.

    As for Gabrielino/Tongva: The Spanish named the natives after the mission in their area, i.e., “Gabrieleño” at San Gabriel, “Fernandeño” at San Fernando, “Luiseño” at San Luis Rey, and so on.

    “Tongva” is what people of the LA Coastal Plain called themselves. The modern-day tribe calls themselves the “Gabrielino-Tongva tribe.”

    Almost all of the neophytes at Mission San Gabriel were Tongva, so the names are pretty much interchangeable.

    (The Fernandeño, on the other hand, could be Tongva or Chumash or Tataviam, and the Mission padres don’t seem to have been very good at telling them apart.)

    Local place names like”Kawengna” and “Topangna” and “Tuhungna” and “Hahamongna” – transliterated by the Spanish as Cahuenga, Topanga, Tujunga, and Hahamonga – are Tongva names – the -ngna ending is a Tongva-language suffix indicating a place name.

  6. Map Nerd,
    I hadn’t realized until I started that there were some issues amongst the Tongva. I’ve always used Tongva in the past and not Gabrielino because politically and culturally it seemed the right thing to do but then I read on another website that some folks don’t like Tongva and I became unsure of which to use. So I linked both websites and
    Also, the place names “Tibahagna” and “Ahau” were mentioned in the commemorative South Gate booklet and I assume the names are from the Crespi journals. They aren’t mentioned in The First Angelinos book.
    By the way, do you know where I can find information on Tongva ceremonial sites? I’m researching a particular place in Northeast LA but have not had much luck with finding info.

  7. I think the SG Tribal Council group would be the ones to ask. I believe they’re the activist group who occasionally reach out to the various peace groups for support, and do various cultural projects.

  8. As a SG resident, a big thanks for the post! It comforts me to know that my 1928 home was built “Covered by the usual provisions as to race…sufficient to insure a high grade residence place”.

  9. This is a great turn to the past. Thank you for informing the community and people of Los Angeles and about the facts of the Native Indians. The Village from which I live is called…. ‘OTSUNGNA’ meaning the Place of Roses. The community I live in is currently called Rose Hills and was the largest of the the Villages in the entire Tribe. It was the only Village between Yangna and Sibingna which is relative to Olvera Street and the San Gabriel Mission. You will notice it also carries that natural name as those others described.
    I am currently preparing a report and the finding will show how prominent Rose Hills holds as a distinctive community in the City of Los Angeles. ‘OTSUNGNA’ was later called ‘Arroyo Rosa de Castilla’ and then ‘Rancho Rosa de Castilla’ and now it is called Rose Hills. It is great to find history and archived facts the prove the truth about history. Keep in mind that we still hold the distinctive reference to the Rose, for thousands of years.

    Rose Hills Review,
    Anthony Manzano

  10. Thanks all for the comments! I was curious to hear back from SG residents. I don’t know if SG has it’s own website somewhere…I wish more neighborhoods took up LA Eastside’s approach to their respective neighborhoods.

  11. South Gate does indeed have its own web site: It has a modest history section as well, though it’s not very inclusive.

    It’s good to see a post of a city in my beloved southeast LA. As a Bell native and South Gate resident, we hardly hear anything about this part of the city aside from crime and crooked politicians. When people hear “East LA”, they think Boyle Heights. While our peeps certainly have more history in places north of here (like BH), we are very much present and alive here in South Gate. Maybe I should start a blog…!


  12. If you’re looking for El Chavo’s “Two Minutes” scheme extended to the extreme, check out MASTERUDY’s page on YouTube ( Lives in South Gate and actually records a ton of stuff in South Gate, Downey, Huntington Park, etc. Here’s an example:

    And while it would be nice for there to be more coverage of South Gate and the rest of the area in the media, it’s just not going to happen. South Gate is a little city full of little people leading little lives.

  13. Surely your little people, little lives comment was made in jest Soledadenmasa! 😉
    Part of the point of my post was that there are stories everywhere, so many Los Angeles neighborhoods and cities are full of all kinds of interesting things, mundane things maybe, but fascinating nonetheless. And I realized this with Southeast LA, my perceptions were skewed by superficial judgments but I finally realized there’s much more there. Narratives hiding between the wood frames and the stucco. Under the pavement, the beach! Or so it’s been said. Tell us some stories!

  14. The “little people, little lives” is somewhat in jest. I think the point is better explored by D. J. Waldie; when I say it, I mean it along his lines.

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