Alhambra High graduate and Iraqi war veteran Michael Orozco was fascinated with his hometown’s history. The self-proclaimed “urban archeologist” approached Arcadia Publishing about writing a book when he discovered the Alhambra Historical Society had a trove of documents. The result is Alhambra, a book full of photographs and facts from the city’s founding until the present that he hopes will get young people excited about local history.
I recently visited Orozco, 35, at his Los Angeles home. As I looked at the scores of history books stacked on the shelves and he told me about Alhambra — from the first immigrants to the previous airport to the destruction of the movie theater on Atlantic — I realized that he was the perfect person to write a book about our city’s history.
Obviously, Alhambra has a pretty diverse ethnic make-up. Can you briefly describe some of the major immigration waves that have occurred throughout the city’s history?
During World War II you had a lot of people come from all over the country for the arms industry, to support the war effort. There were a lot of aircraft manufacturing plants here on the west coast, plus the Los Angeles harbor, which used to hold the LA Naval Weapons Yard. After the war ended there were a lot of people who decided to stay.
One of the biggest immigration waves that happened after the war was that a lot of the Italians started migrating to Alhambra. They were in the Downtown area, in what is today Chinatown, but when they built Union Station in 1939 and relocated Chinatown to Little Italy, the Italians started migrating eastward, toward Lincoln Heights, and finally to Alhambra. In the 1960s a lot of the Mexican immigrants started arriving, and then the biggest influx came in the 1970s and 80s, when Taiwanese and Chinese immigrants started arriving, which really changed the demographics.
While looking through your book, one of the most surprising things that I discovered was that Alhambra used to have its own airport. Where was that, how did it function, and what happened to it?
The airport was actually located on Valley Boulevard, around where the Big Five is, and was there until just after WWII. It was the Occidental Airline Hangar, which was actually the biggest hangar in the world for a short time period. It was used by Western Airlines until about WWII, when the military took it over. The military used to fly in aircrafts, disassemble them, and ship them overseas to the Allies during the Lend Lease Program. Unfortunately, the noise was so great for residents of Monterey Park that towards the end of the war, when the war effort was winding down, they effectively shut down the airport and sold it to a private businessman. He started manufacturing small aircrafts, but that didn’t work out too well, so they shut down in 1946 and sold it for business and commercial redevelopment.
Aside from the WWII-related migrations, what other processes contributed to the development of Alhambra?
One thing that really helped develop Alhambra were the Alhambra tracts that Benito Wilson and De Barth Shorb developed in the 1880s. Another thing that really helped was the Pacific Electric Rail Line, which Henry Huntington brought, helping to promote the real estate around Alhambra.
That ran across Huntington Drive, right?
Yes, that ran across Huntington Drive and it also split off right where Main Street branches off from Huntington. It went through Alhambra all the way down to Temple City. There was also another line where the train tracks are in the middle of the 10 Freeway. That used to be known as Ramona Parkway. That was the San Bernardino line, and those used to go all the way down to San Bernardino. Those scurried the southern part of Alhambra and the Main Street line was along the northern part.
Speaking of trains, I’ve always been interested in the rail lines that run through Alhambra along Mission. Do you know much about that line’s history?
That rail line has been there since 1873, when the Southern Pacific built it all the way to Los Angeles. We had two passenger train stations in Alhambra, one on Garfield Avenue and one on Date Street. Those were on the surface, but with all the grade crossings it was a nightmare, and when people started buying more cars, traffic started backing up more and there was more likelihood of fatalities. So in about 1977, Alhambra decided that they would have tracks dug into a ditch to avoid all these fatalities and all the traffic back-up. However, in putting the tracks into the ground they basically killed the passenger rail service. Unfortunately San Gabriel didn’t do this, and they regret it obviously, but now it costs too much money to do it.
What would you say is one of the city’s most interesting historical relics that visitors can still see?
Unfortunately, here in Southern California, and especially in the LA area, we have a bad habit of tearing down a lot of our history. We’re not like the east coast where they keep things. If it’s 20 years old, it’s old, and they want to tear it down. For example, the theater on Atlantic and Main Street that was built in the early 90s, which they recently tore down. So, I would say the most historical things that can still be seen are some of the houses, especially the houses just below the South Pasadena borderline. Many streets between Fremont and Atlantic Boulevards, above Alhambra Road and below Huntington Boulevard, have great examples of the historical homes in Alhambra.
Do you have any predictions about how the city will change over the next 10-20 years?
I think there’s going to be a demographic shift. There have been many shifts and there’s no reason to think this will be the last demographic shift. I think it’ll become a little more of a melting pot over the years, as Alhambra becomes more developed and as more people start to move back into the inner cities. One reason being that people are getting tired of commuting. As you can see in Alhambra they’re starting to develop a lot more condominiums on Main Street, which I think is evidence that people are starting to move back closer to the area.
Interview has been edited and condensed. Photos have been reprinted with permission from Alhambra by Michael Orozco. Available from the publisher online at www.arcadiapublishing.com or at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Vroman’s.