Chapter 4: Birth of a city

Lakewood had thousands of homes, a booming population, and a gigantic retail center. What Lakewood didn’t have was its own city government.

For three hectic years, the Lakewood story had been dominated by three developers – Louis Boyar, Mark Taper, and Ben Weingart – building what Time magazine called the largest housing development in the world. By mid-1953, construction was beginning to wind down and what had once been rows of newly built houses was now a thriving suburban community with over 70,000 residents.

During this period of tremendous growth, Lakewood was administered by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, five men who were 25 miles distant from the day-to-day concerns of the new community.

The residents of Lakewood faced a complex series of choices at this point.

Tomorrow's city today bumper stickerLakewood wasn't a city at all, only an unincorporated part of Los Angeles County.

Lakewood could remain unincorporated county territory and continue to be served by county agencies and special districts. Or Lakewood residents could annex themselves to the city of Long Beach and pay Long Beach taxes for city services.

Or Lakewood residents could risk incorporation, become an independent municipality, and set their own tax policies and goals for the future.

Each solution to the Lakewood problem had its proponents. Skeptics, including the publisher of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, argued that it would be safer for the young residents of Lakewood if older, larger, and wealthier Long Beach were to annex the Lakewood area. Long Beach’s treasury was full of revenue from the city’s tidelands oil fields.

Some Lakewood residents, wanting to avoid the risks of cityhood but not willing to become part of Long Beach, insisted that nothing needed to be done. Lakewood as an unincorporated community was doing just fine.

Supporters of Lakewood independence warned that Long Beach would run out of oil money when the oil was gone. They insisted that Lakewood’s homeowners (who often described themselves as "young progressives") did not want to be part of Long Beach, mocked unfairly as a retirement haven for elderly Iowans and a destination for sailors on shore leave.

As the Lakewood Taxpayers Association ruefully pointed out, if Lakewood joined Long Beach, “Lakewood … would have to take the good with the bad without much control over the proportion of good to bad.” Most Lakewood residents responded to LTA concerns that the future of their neighborhoods would be taken out of their hands if Lakewood annexed to Long Beach or remained unincorporated.

Future concerns

Worries about Lakewood’s future had begun in mid-1951 when Long Beach city officials described an ambitious plan to annex Lakewood bit by bit. As John Todd, recalled in his 1969 memoir:

In July of 1951, the city of Long Beach released a 130-page document with exhibits and supporting data entitled “An Analysis of the Advisability of Annexing All or Part of the Lakewood Area to the City of Long Beach.” This plan was written by John Budd Wentz, Administrative Assistant to the city manager of the city of Long Beach.

The plan supposedly studied the feasibility of the Lakewood area remaining unincorporated, being incorporated, or annexing to the city of Long Beach, and concluded that economically, socially, and geographically the Lakewood area belonged to Long Beach and should be annexed to Long Beach.

Budd Wentz contained within his report maps and diagrams suggesting the step-by-step, piecemeal annexation of Lakewood. He advocated dividing the Lakewood area into small individual increments, trying to obtain a sympathetic majority in each increment and proceeding to elections almost on a daily or day-by-day basis. By this method, the opposition would be divided; it would be difficult to oppose day-by-day elections, and annexation to Long Beach was certain, he reasoned.

But they underestimated the people of Lakewood. They fought, and how they fought. Their success under such odds was overwhelming.

City officials in Long Beach had set the stage for the city's expansion long before 1951. The Lakewood area was already surrounded on the north, east, and west sides by 500-foot-wide, uninhabited “shoestring strips,” as well as by a wide “shotgun strip” along Carson Street that bisected the neighborhoods developed by the Lakewood Park Corporation on the south. (Video: Annexation threatens Lakewood)

The city of Long Beach had purchased the “shoestring strips” from the Montana Land Company decades before to prevent the southern expansion of Los Angeles and to put the land of the Montana Ranch within Long Beach’s eventual political control. The "shotgun strip" provided Long Beach access to the aquifers beneath Lakewood.

The Wentz Report in 1951 laid out an annexation plan that served Long Beach's political and economic future, including expansion of city-owned water and gas utilities, but Lakewood residents were undecided if annexation would be the answer for their future.

As the Long Beach Independent newspaper reported in February 1952, “A whopping majority of the residents questioned by Independent reporters during the past month said they were not ready for a change in local government – at least for some time to come. Thirty-six percent had no opinion at all on the subject. Of those who were ready ‘to speak for the record,’ 58% voted in favor of keeping their county-type government as it is.”

Only 16% favored incorporation. “What Lakewood wants more than anything, is to keep its civic identity and to have considerable authority in its local level of government,” concluded the Independent.

Keep Lakewood Free bumper stickerAnnex or not? Lakewood residents were undecided in 1952.

But annexation to Long Beach still seemed like a good idea to some when they were given the opportunity. They were in 1953. The Lakewood Plaza Citizens Improvement Association urged voters to choose annexation to Long Beach with an appeal to their pocketbook.

"Total savings by annexing to Long Beach would be $25.00 a year” compared to county taxes, the association’s pro-annexation flyer predicted. Long Beach also had its oil wealth (from the city’s tidelands oil fields) and the advantage of its excellent police and fire services. These arguments worked for the two Lakewood Plaza neighborhoods south of Heartwell Park. They voted to join Long Beach.

Worried that further annexation would strangle the rapid growth of Lakewood Center, Ben Weingart briefly explored the option of incorporating the shopping center and a few blocks of homes around it as a separate city.

A year later, issues of identity and authority seemed more pressing than taxes in the remainder of unincorporated Lakewood. In March 1953, the Long Beach City Council enabled the Greater Lakewood Annexation Committee to add three more Lakewood neighborhoods to the four already in progress toward annexation elections. (The city council had rejected an earlier plan, proposed by the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce, to hold a single, Lakewood-wide vote.)

By April, there were nine annexation areas – from South Street in the north to Willow Street in the south – heading toward an annexation election. According to John Todd, the Lakewood Taxpayers’ Association was being tom apart by a nearly equal division of those in favor of and opposed to annexation.

The battle expanded in May with the creation of the Lakewood Civic Council (LCC). Organized expressly for the anti-annexation fight, LCC members included attorney John Todd, attorney Angelo Iacoboni, realtor Gene Nebeker, Don Rochlen, Guy Halferty, Lee Hollopeter, Francis Veeder, Jacqueline Rynerson, Los Angeles Times reporter William Burns, Ed Walker, and Jim Knox, among several others. (Rynerson began nearly 40 years of public service as the secretary civic council.)

The Lakewood Park Corporation brought in three executives whose involvement would be crucial. Lee Hollopeter had been a Montana Land Company employee who was retained by the Lakewood Park Corporation to manage the Lakewood Water and Power Company. Hollopeter would serve as a liaison between Lakewood's three developers and Todd's growing circle of incorporation advocates. (Video: John Todd and incorporation)

Guy Halferty was retained as a community organizer by the Lakewood Park Corporation and the Southern California Gas Company. He would become the office manager of the incorporation committee in 1953 (and eventually become Lakewood's spokesman).

Don Rochlen was the public relations representative of the Lakewood Park Corporation. He would have the most visible role in the anti-annexation and pro-incorporation movements.

Don Rochlen giving radio interviewDon Rochlen (center), working for the Lakewood Park Corporation, helped organize Lakewood residents.

The anti-annexation (and later, the pro-incorporation) movement benefited from at least $70,000 in corporate funding, mostly from Lakewood’s developers, although both the Southern California Gas Company and Prudential Insurance had an interest in preventing annexation by Long Beach and may also have aided in financing the two campaigns.

Pro-annexation support largely came from the Long Beach Press-Telegram in the form of editorials and in the opinion columns of the paper’s regular columnists. The Press-Telegram then – and for decades after – represented Long Beach’s political power structure and was closely allied with Long Beach business interests and the downtown department stores that faced competition from Lakewood Center.

Conservative in outlook and comfortable with segregation, Long Beach's municipal politics were closed to the Jewish developers of Lakewood and unwelcoming to the socially and culturally diverse community of young men and women who were moving into Lakewood homes.

With annexation elections just weeks away, John Todd had an idea to outfox Long Beach’s piece-by-piece annexation scheme. Under state law, Todd said, petitions to hold an annexation election in a tract had to be circulated among the property owners before an election could be scheduled. To be valid, the annexation petition needed signatures from 25% of the area’s voters. But if 50% of the property owners in an annexation area protested the election to the county Board of Supervisors, the election could not be called, and another attempt at annexation would have to wait an entire year.

The problem was time. Opponents of annexation would need time to compile the names of property owners in the annexation area, prepare a protest petition, set up a neighborhood organization, and circulate protest petitions so that they could be signed. Despite these limitations, Todd concluded that state law actually gave anti-annexation protesters a huge advantage.

Todd asserted that “anytime after the proponents had published the Notice of Intention to circulate annexation petitions, the protest petitions could be circulated.” Under state law, the proponents of annexation had to wait 21 days after the publication of the Notice of Intention before they could circulate their annexation election petitions. That gave the anti-annexation organization nearly a month to circulate their protest petitions before pro-annexation petitions were circulated.

Long Beach city officials rejected Todd’s novel legal strategy. The Long Beach City Council began holding annexation elections despite protest petitions filed by the LCC. In response, Todd struck back with a lawsuit.

“On August 7, 1953, Judge Frank Swain, presiding in Department 34 of the Superior Court, rendered a decision that had a more profound effect upon my legal practice than any other decision,” Todd wrote in his memoir. “Judge Swain held that our protests were valid and that the city of Long Beach had invalidly refused to consider our protest, failed to give us a fair hearing, and that the annexation (election) … was void. Our procedure therefore was valid. Everything I had gambled on had succeeded.”

Todd and the LLC used the same procedure in the following weeks. “Prior to the annexation election, we would go to court and obtain an order in Judge Swain’s department invalidating the Long Beach election. As a matter of fact, it got to the point where we were invalidating elections that probably really had been validly held by the city of Long Beach. We just couldn’t seem to lose.”

The drive to incorporate

Many neighborhood annexation attempts were defeated by protest. Not all neighborhoods resisted, however. In a hotly contested election, Lakewood Village decided to join Long Beach in August 1953. The residents of Lakewood Village chose annexation to Long Beach by just 79 votes.

But the threat of annexation remained for other neighborhoods, since a new round of annexation petitions and elections could begin the process all over again, with no assurance that Lakewood residents would be willing to fight the same battles twice. To the LCC, the incorporation of Lakewood seemed to be the only sure alternative.

Opposition to annexation flyerIn 1953, Lakewood faced "piecemeal annexation," a tactic that was opposed in court and at the ballot box.

To unite Lakewood residents, the backers of incorporation, which included the Lakewood Park Corporation, the Southern California Gas Company, and the Los Angeles Daily News, highlighted the positive outcomes of incorporating in a report that Lee Hollopeter of the Lakewood Water and Power Company commissioned from Boyle Engineering.

The report, issued in December 1953, laid out in detail the concept of “contract government.” The report analyzed the services a city needed and pointed out how a specific service might come from the county, a special district, or from private industry. By showing that taxes could be kept low by contracting for these services, the pro-incorporation forces hoped to persuade Lakewood residents who favored remaining unincorporated that successful cityhood was possible.

The Boyle report recommended that the proposed city of Lakewood contract with the county for road maintenance, health, and sanitation services and remain in the county’s Sewer Maintenance District. The report also suggested that the new city contract with the Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services, contract with the county for building and planning Services, and remain in the county’s Public Library district.

The report further pointed out that the Mosquito Abatement District, Flood Control District, the Lakewood Park, Recreation and Parkway District, and local school districts would continue as they were regardless of incorporation.

As a result of the report, according to John Todd, “The incorporation movement was catching fire. The surge started with the annexation battle but had now become a tidal wave. Joining and working almost day and night with the committee were Bill Burns and Bob Baker. They had the task of preparing and coordinating the circulation of incorporation petitions. In one of the most fabulous petition circulation feats of all time, the incorporation committee in a period of fourteen days obtained the signatures of over 37% of the property owners of the proposed City of Lakewood: 11,128 names.”

Under the direction of co-chairmen Joe Covas and Clarence Smickel, the incorporation committee organized 600 neighborhood volunteers and collected twice as many signatures as needed to call for a vote of the residents.

Map of planned cities of Lakewood and South Lakewood Incorporators sought to form two cities -- Lakewood and South Lakewood -- that would eventually be joined.

Don Rochlen, the Lakewood Park publicist, remembered that “we just … went door to door and asked people to help and they did. Bob Baker, for example, was mowing his lawn and his wife was carrying the petitions. She was ill, so he finished carrying them. He did such a good job we asked him to carry some more. In fact, he became a city councilman.”

Baker's recollection was that his neighbor William Burns had asked him to come to an incorporation meeting one Sunday. Having forgotten about the meeting, Baker was painting his house on Sunday, but his wife told him he ought to honor his commitment. That meeting led to Baker's participation in the incorporation fight.

Both Baker and Burns, neither of whom had had political aspirations, went on to become members of Lakewood’s first city council in 1954.

Members of the incorporation committee went to the offices of county officials in late 1953 with news of the petition drive and their proposal for contracting with county for all the services that unincorporated Lakewood currently received.

Todd recalled the county’s reaction. “Lee Hollopeter, Guy Halferty, sometimes accompanied by Clarence Smickel, Floyd Damman, or other members of the committee, and I visited various county department heads to discuss with them whether or not … they would contract with us for municipal services. We saw all the county people affected and received the assurance of each and every one of them. Those visited included General Fox, County Engineer; Sam Kennedy, Superintendent of Streets; Milton Brievogel, Director of Planning; Peter Pitchess, Undersheriff; and Keith Klinger, County Fire Chief. All of these people were strong supporters and encouraged us.”

Read John Todd's own account of Lakewood's fight for cityhood.

Incorporation supporters got rebuttals from Long Beach. Editorials in the Press-Telegram pointed out that the new city would have no industry and only limited property taxes to pay for the services to be provided by the county. The paper also trumpeted Long Beach's wealth from the city's tidelands oil fields, which, the paper said, would build parks and playgrounds for Lakewood's youth. (Ironically, only days after the Lakewood incorporation election, Long Beach lost the right to much of its oil revenue, including funds the city had set aside for major infrastructure projects in 1955 and 1956.)

The opponents of incorporation were right about one aspect of incorporating. Lakewood’s limited revenue would not be enough to keep the new city afloat unless Lakewood found lower-cost ways to provide city services.

Grassroots politics

Community organizing around the issues of annexation and incorporation in 1953 forged a sense of solidarity among the young families of Lakewood.

Jacqueline Rynerson, who moved into her Lakewood home in 1952 with her growing family, recalled how she became involved. “The community newspapers were talking about this movement on the part of Long Beach to annex this Lakewood area and I was curious about it,” she told the city’s oral history project in 1978.

“Then this Avon lady (a door-to-door cosmetics saleswoman) came to my door – everybody came to your door, they were selling everything – and I asked, ‘Do you happen to know what this (annexation business) is all about?’ And she said, ‘Well, my brother-in-law is part of the group that is opposing annexation and they’re going to have a meeting. Why don’t you go?’ So I did and that was it.”

Lakewood residents had different reactions to the anti- and pro-incorporation issues. Ginny Fairfield remembered “We weren’t too sure whether we were for it or not when they first started talking about it. And the first (person) that came around was John Todd … going door to door with a petition.”

John Rae recounted the strong feelings on both sides of the issue. “I was working at Douglas Aircraft and we’d fight everyday over there about whether we should go in with Long Beach or have our own city. One guy said, ‘Oh, you’ve gotta go with Long Beach. They’ve got all the services.’ And I would fight the other way and say, ‘Yeah, but they wouldn’t give us any good services out here. It would be more to our advantage to have our own city.’”

Joe Covas and Frances Veder tally pro- and anti-annexation home owners in western Lakewood in 1953.Joe Covas and Frances Veder tally pro- and anti-annexation home owners in western Lakewood in 1953.

Ruth Smith summed up the feelings of many Lakewood residents. “I wanted to have a separate town for my family. I don’t remember why we were anti-Long Beach. It wasn’t that so much. We were just for a new community.”

Recognizing that Lakewood was a community of young families who came from all over the country and were still in the process of getting to know one another, Lakewood Park Corporation publicist Don Rochlen came up with the idea of holding meetings around kitchen tables and in living rooms to encourage neighbors to discuss the issues behind incorporation.

Although many men were active in the campaign, Rochlen recalled, "In those days, these meetings were mostly women because the man worked … and the woman stayed home."

“We had a series of coffee klatches – meetings about every two blocks – where we would come and talk to the people and show them a movie we had made about Lakewood and serve coffee. Nestle gave us the coffee and the chocolate chip cookie mix. Then we went door to door. When you’re young, you have energy. We would get somebody in a block area to invite all their neighbors over to see the film.”

Let's Incorporate! bumper sticker

The film Rochlen showed was The Lakewood Story, financed by the backers of incorporation to promote the idea of Lakewood's cityhood. The film was shown at more than 300 of Rocklin’s coffee klatches. The Lakewood Park Corporation donated twenty film projectors for the campaign. (Watch The Lakewood Story)

Women joined the incorporation campaign as door-to-door petitioners. Rynerson recalled that “the volunteers would gather up their babies, lay them out on the biggest bed in the house and then begin work … I had a wonderful husband. He babysat.”

Don Rochlen was one of the most colorful characters involved in the campaign. According to Rynerson, “Rochlen was like an agent provocateur. He’d go around from group to group and keep everyone informed of what was happening. He had a lot of enthusiasm, great ideas. He might end up at your house at one o’clock in the morning with a quart of ice cream and some exotic food and sit down in your living room and talk some more. We'd be in bed and pretty soon you’d hear this noise, a little gravel or something he’d pick up and he’d say, ‘Hey, let me in. I’ve got something to tell you.’ It made you feel as if you were part of this big adventure. You’d also see shadows behind trees sometimes, things like that. A plot here, a plot there.”

As Election Day in March approached, Rochlen was hoping for a big turnout. “We were nervous. We had arranged so that every house was covered. Either they were phoned or somebody went by to see if they needed transportation to the polls. It was illegal to tell them how to vote, but we could get them to the polls. These same houses where we’d have these little coffee klatches were the neighborhood headquarters for making sure that people did get to the polls.”

Of the 39 candidates for city council, only one was a woman, Virginia Dixon, whose designation on the ballot was "Housewife." The other candidates were mainly accountants, engineers, salesmen, teachers, and clerks.


On March 9, 1954, nearly 12,400 Lakewood voters (more than half of those eligible to cast ballots) approved cityhood by a 2,600-vote margin. A new city was born.

Newspaper headline: Incorporation Voted By Lakewood

As it became apparent that night that Lakewood would become a city, a joyous celebration broke out in the incorporation headquarters on Lakewood Boulevard.

“As the election results came in, the incorporation office on Lakewood Boulevard became a bedlam,” Todd reminisced. “People were screaming and yelling and more and more people were crowding in to get in on the celebration.”

Todd later reflected on the significance of Lakewood’s incorporation. “No one ever thought (the city) would be formed. I think one of the things that the old politicians in Long Beach didn’t realize was that Lakewood developed mostly with young people like me, and we were mostly war veterans. We didn’t want to be part of an old city with all of its problems. We had new ideas. The fact that a lot of young people could get together and do something, form a city very successfully, who had no experience in that area ... we didn’t have any politicians guiding us, we were strictly on our own. We showed it can be done.”

Rynerson reflected similar views. “It was really an opportunity to see if the basic ideas of the government could really work and they really could. I think that’s part of what made this community unique. People decided they really wanted to have their own city and their own government.” (Video: How a new city was born)

The voters also decided which of the 39 candidates would be the new city’s first council members. The voters made Robert W. Baker, William J. Burns, Angelo M. Iacoboni, Gene Nebeker, and George Nye, Jr the top vote getters.

Iacoboni, a native of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, had come to California after serving as a Navy navigator aboard cargo and troop transport ships in the Pacific during World War II. Nye, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, had settled in California after serving in the Army Air Corps. They were among thousands of young veterans and their wives who migrated to Los Angeles County and purchased homes in the Lakewood area in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

As a sign of their relative youth, the average age of all adults in Lakewood was 29 in 1954.

Already well known as president of the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce, the Exchange Club, and the Sons of Italy, the 35-year-old Iacoboni, received more votes than any of the other candidates. He was followed in the tally by 32-year-old real estate broker Gene Nebeker; 41-year-old newspaper reporter William Burns; 33-year-old George Nye, a high school art teacher; and the youngest of the group, 31-year-old engineer Robert Baker.

Angelo Iacoboni campaign photographAngelo Iacoboni was chosen as Lakewood's first mayor when the city council met on April 16, 1954.

Long Beach's political and business interests weren’t gracious in defeat. One last editorial in the Long Beach Press-Telegram offered to take Lakewood back through annexation, once the folly of incorporation was given up. The paper wrote:

With the warmest neighborly feeling, we extend our best wishes to the new City of Lakewood.

Our opinion of the wisdom of incorporation for the Lakewood area, which voted for it yesterday, has not changed overnight. But we respect the voice of Lakewood people and the finality of the ballot box.

Whether formation of a municipality was a good course for the areas concerned is something that will be told by future developments.

However, it is up to Lakewood citizens, regardless of their views before the election, to close ranks now and do everything possible to make the new city a success.

hose who headed the incorporation drive now have much to prove, and they must share equally the responsibility as well as the success of the election.

If the pre-election warnings by incorporation opponents turn out to be true, and the new city becomes an impractical financial burden on homeowners, none should want to stand stubbornly behind a vested opinion. If incorporation proves an intolerable disadvantage rather than an advantage, Lakewood should- and very likely will – seek again to change its status.

We hope the promises which were made will indeed materialize and the new city of Lakewood will thrive. If miracles are needed, the young and vigorous people of Lakewood are the type best fitted to bring them about.

Not every incorporation dream was realized in 1954, however. Plans to create a second city south of Carson Street between Clark Avenue and Studebaker Road, to be called South Lakewood, were abandoned later that year. The attempt to create two Lakewoods was forced by Long Beach, which controlled a strip of land along Carson Street called Heartwell Park.

This “shotgun strip” kept the southern neighborhoods from joining directly in the Lakewood incorporation effort. Had South Lakewood incorporated, the two cities would have sought amalgamation as a single city.

A new city born

On Friday, April 16, 1954, Lakewood officially became the 16th largest city in the state – larger then than Santa Barbara or San Bernardino. It was the first city in Los Angeles County to incorporate since 1939 and was said to be the largest incorporation in the nation’s history. (A closer look at Lakewood's government structure)

With incorporation made official, the first action of new city council was to name Angelo Iacoboni as Lakewood’s mayor. The Italian pronunciation of the mayor’s last name was YACK-aboni, but he accepted EYE-a-coboni for the convenience of residents trying to find him in the phone book.

Iacoboni, who had played tennis for his high school team, died of a heart attack at age 46 while playing tennis in 1964. “He was a tremendous example for the community,” said Father Donald Ruddy, assistant pastor of St. Pancratius Church, during Iacoboni’s funeral. Los Angeles County Sheriff Peter Pitchess and county Fire Chief Keith Klinger served as pallbearers.

Lakewood's first city council members are sworn inLakewood's first city council members were (from left) Gene Nebeker, Angelo Iacoboni, George Nye, William Burns, and Robert Baker

When Iacoboni and the other council members met for the first time, they took turns reading aloud the municipal codes and adopted each them in a marathon meeting that lasted from 8:00 p.m. on Friday until 5:32 on Saturday morning, when the meeting was adjourned to the following Friday evening. Looking over what the new council members had achieved that night with the support of Lakewood residents, Mayor Iacoboni called it “post-war democracy in action.”

The first Lakewood City Hall was located in a storefront in the Faculty Shops in Lakewood Center. A desk and a typewriter were placed in the front part of the room and a table and folding chairs were set up in the back.

City hall didn’t look very imposing. “There really was a question in those days of whether the city would go out of existence,” former City Administrator Henry Goerlick told the Long Beach Press-Telegram in 1961. (Video: Lakewood's first city council)

To staff the new city hall, the unpaid city council members appointed John Todd as city attorney and Nita Birch as city clerk and made Guy Halferty the city council's spokesman. Todd received a salary of $500 a month; Birch's salary was $400 a month.

In August, after working briefly as the city’s financial consultant, Robert Anderson became Lakewood’s first city manager, a post that he held until 1957. (Lakewood's mayors and council members, city managers, and city attorneys since 1954)

Contracting for services

John Todd’s many innovations in local government began with the idea that unincorporated communities didn’t have to choose between annexation by a big city or building municipal infrastructure from scratch. Instead of replicating all the departments of local government, Todd believed that city councils could turn to existing service providers to deliver the whole range of traditional municipal services through a system of contracts, mostly with county departments but also with regional public agencies, non-profit organizations, and private industry.

During the months before Lakewood’s incorporation, the idea of contracting for services had been embraced by the county officials who were already providing services – from trash collection to construction inspection – in Lakewood neighborhoods. Rather than creating its own municipal departments, the new city of Lakewood looked forward to contracting with county departments and other agencies to continue these services.

The joke – almost true – was that contracting would make Lakewood “a city without a payroll.” The first city budget, for fiscal year 1954-55, totaled $547,203 with more than 80% going for contracts with the county.

Cartoon of a simple organizational chartContracting meant a lean, lower-cost city organization.

Lakewood would also be a low-tax city. Before incorporation, John Todd had pointed out that unincorporated Lakewood would never benefit from gasoline and cigarette taxes collected by the state but shared only with cities and counties. Todd argued that when incorporated Lakewood’s received its share of state-collected local revenue the city would be able to lower the locally-set property tax paid by homeowners.

He was right. Lakewood’s property tax rate went down after incorporation. The Long Beach Press-Telegram declared in a 1956 editorial, “We doubt any other city in the state has had that experience.”

When cities began receiving a share of state-collected retail sales taxes in 1955, Lakewood was able to repeat property taxes reductions year after year. By the mid-1970s, Lakewood had one of the lowest property tax rates among comparable California cities and rates far lower than in Long Beach.

Another prediction of the pro-incorporation movement had come true.

Early achievements

During the first months of Lakewood’s cityhood, the city council worked to consolidate contracts for municipal services, adopt additional ordinances, and expand public facilities. By 1956, Lakewood had a new fire station, acquired the 18-acre Mayfair Park and pool from the County of Los Angeles, and bought three park sites for future development.

The council also adopted a master plan for a future Lakewood Civic Center where city hall, sheriff's law enforement, the county public library, and the county health department would be clustered.

Lakewood City Hall in 2020

City government today aims to preserve the quality of life in Lakewood neighborhoods.

Optimistic Lakewood adopted the motto “Tomorrow’s City, Today” and a city seal that expressed the community’s identity, with images of a church, a school, city hall, and a young baseball player at a city park. Lakewood consciously developed with these community icons in mind, becoming a city of parks and schools for its many young people and a community with a strong civic spirit.

Voters in 1957 gave the city authority to borrow $6.6 million to buy the Lakewood Water and Power Company. The purchase was completed in 1959. Lakewood voters in 1957 approved consolidation with the Lakewood Park, Recreation, and Parkway District, which had been self-governing since 1953. The district became the city’s Recreation and Community Services Department.

In 1958, champion Olympic diver Pat McCormick, a former Lakewood resident, dedicated the $200,000 Pat McCormick Pool at Bolivar Park.

Also in 1958, residents and city officials gathered to dedicate the new Lakewood Civic Center on Clark Avenue, marking a major step in Lakewood’s growth. The civic center – a handsome red brick structure (built without special taxes or debt) – featured an open plan that invited citizens to take part in their government.

Joining the civic center in 1959 was the Lakewood Sheriff’s Station. Before this, deputies had patrolled Lakewood from the Norwalk station. The new station was part of a complex that also included a county health department office and a new and bigger county library. A new post office joined the civic center complex in 1964, relocating from a smaller facility in Lakewood Center.

Emulating Long Beach, Lakewood did some annexing of its own in the 1960s. The city brought several unincorporated neighborhoods west and east of the San Gabriel River into Lakewood by 1966.

Contracting today

Today, contract services represent about 40 percent of the city’s annual operating budget.

Lakewood contracts with private firms for trash collection, traffic signal maintenance, street light maintenance, tree trimming, and street sweeping. By contract, Los Angeles County provides law enforcement, road repair, and building inspection. Parks, recreation and cultural activities, community development programs, a water utility, and general administrative services are provided directly by the city.

Greetings from Lakewood photograph boothLakewood has good reasons to celebrate its quality of life

Some city services are provided through non-profit agencies based in Lakewood or through contracts with other agencies that include Lakewood in their service area. Other services continue to be provided by county-wide districts, funded by property taxes and independent of the city.

These include the library and fire protection districts.

Lakewood remains predominantly a city of owner-occupied homes with about 85% of its housing units being single-family detached structures. Lakewood is 9.5 square miles in area and has about 150 miles of streets and 300 miles of sidewalks.

More than 26,000 trees line city streets and shade city parks. About 190 acres of the city are devoted to parks and other landscaped open space.