Chapter 6: Lakewood grows up

When the realities of economic upset and social conflict troubled California and the nation, the resilience of Lakewood was revealed.

In 1959, the City of Lakewood produced an updated version of The Lakewood Story, a film that showed the progress of the city during its first five years. The film highlighted the city’s innovative Lakewood Plan of contracting for municipal services. By 1959, one-third of all cities in Los Angeles County had incorporated as contract cities.

The film also showed the city’s growth after 1954, including the dedication of a new civic center and the expansion of the city’s parks and recreational opportunities. The film may be mostly nostalgic now – with its images of stay-at-home moms, cars with tail fins, and businessmen in dark suits – but the film’s makers were attempting to show how Lakewood had begun to realize the promises made to Lakewood residents when they chose incorporation.

Parks for Lakewood youth

In September 1957, Lakewood dedicated three new parks, all on the same day. Up until then, the city had only one major park – Mayfair Park - dedicated in 1951. 

Mayfair Park and pool in 1960Lakewood's only park in 1954 was Mayfair Park and pool.

The county planning commission had encouraged Lakewood’s developers to set aside three additional park sites in 1950. These sites had only been “dedicated,” meaning that sites still had to be purchased and developed as parks.

The Lakewood Park, Recreation and Parkway District (which up to that point had been under the governance of the county's Board of Supervisors) became a self-governing body in 1953 in part to gain the authority to buy the three park sites and develop them.

One of the first projects of the new recreation district was a survey of residents’ needs for leisure facilities. Residents almost unanimously called for more fields for youth sports. With that impetus, the district board expanded its original plan for three parks on the sites designated in 1950 and proposed establishing a park or recreational facility within a quarter-mile of every home in Lakewood.

In 1954, the new Lakewood City Council made park development its “highest priority” and joined the district and the county’s Department of Parks and Recreation in negotiations with the Lakewood Park Corporation, finally culminating in the purchase in 1956 of the three original park sites at a cost of $276,000.

In 1957, Lakewood voters chose to fold the recreation district into the city and make the city council responsible for the development of a park master plan with the assistance of an appointed advisory commission.

Pan American festival presentation of flagsEarly Pan American festivals included the presentation of flags from the member nations of the Organization of American States.

To honor Lakewood’s tradition of pan-American friendship, the three parks dedicated in 1957 were named after Latin American heroes: Simón Bolívar, whose armies freed half of South America from Spanish rule; José de San Martín, who liberated southern Peru and Chile, and José del Valle, who wrote a declaration of independence for Central America.

Garrett Eckbo, a nationally recognized landscape architect, was responsible for the design of four Lakewood parks, including Del Valle. The firm of Eckbo, Royston and Williams designed hundreds of projects including residential gardens, planned community developments, urban plazas, and college campuses.

In 1964, the city boasted of its “almost unparalleled park development program,” bringing the total to seven. The four additional parks acquired were: Biscailuz Park, dedicated in honor of Los Angeles County Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz (1959); Monte Verde Park, a day-camp facility (1961); Mae Boyar Park, dedicated in honor of the late wife of Louis Boyar, one of Lakewood’s developers (1964); and Bloomfield Park, acquired from Los Angeles County (1964).

As Lakewood’s park system grew, the city became nationally known for its recreation programs. As just one example, city parks were fitted with custom-made, adjustable basketball backboards (which the manufacturer had developed specially for Lakewood) that could be used by both adults and children.

McCormick Pool plaque unveilingMcCormick Pool was named in honor of Olympic diving champion Pat McCormick in 1958.

In 1958, the city added a second community pool – Pat McCormick Pool at Bolivar Park – named in honor of the four-time Olympic gold-medal diver. The following year, Del Valle Park received a new piece of playground equipment: a Douglas F3D-2 Skyknight jet fighter.

Del Valle Park was designated as Lakewood’s space-age park. Playground equipment featured a rocket climbing structure and another structure in the form of a flying saucer.

In 1967, a 26-foot-tall climbing structure in the form of a “monster” robot debuted at Mae Boyar Park. Giganta the Robot soon became a fixture of after-school play.

A growing city

When Lakewood ended its first decade of cityhood in 1964, residents and city officials celebrated with a birthday party at city hall. But 1964 also was also a year of mourning, for the city had lost its first mayor, Angelo “Jack” Iacoboni, who died of a heart attack while playing tennis at age 46. The county library in the civic center was rededicated in his honor.

Also in the early 1960s, the city began annexing five unincorporated neighborhoods east of the San Gabriel River, bringing the city to its current size of 9.5 square miles.

Recreation for the newly annexed neighborhoods became another city priority. Development of Palms Park – the city’s largest supervised park – began in 1969 with further expansion in 1971. In 1979, using federal Community Development Block Grant funds and a grant from the Weingart Foundation, the city opened a new community center and library at Palms Park.

(Despite efforts by neighborhood residents and the city council, the county library closed the Weingart branch in 1993 during a wave of library budget cuts.)

The city acquired the use of the power line right-of-way on the east bank of the San Gabriel River in 1968 to create River Park, which was dedicated in 1975. The 35-acre park was rededicated as Rynerson Park in 1990 in honor of Jacqueline Rynerson, a member of the city’s first Parks and Recreation Commission and a former city council member.

The city’s park dedication ordinance, adopted in 1968, set aside developer fees to pay for additional park improvements. Many new facilities were added to Lakewood’s parks as a result, including ball diamonds, game courts, sports lighting, playgrounds, and picnic shelters.

Seniors in an exercise classAs Lakewood's population aged, recreation programs expanded to include senior activities.

In 1973, the Parks and Recreation Department became the Lakewood Department of Recreation and Community Services, reflecting its expanded functions. The city also began more teen-oriented programs, including job fairs, opportunities for teens to work as Youth Sports Program officials, résumé classes, community activities in conjunction with Lakewood high schools, and computer classes.

To kick off the Bicentennial Year of 1976, two Lakewood High Schools – from Lakewood, California and Lakewood, New Jersey – combined forces to produce the second largest marching band ever to be featured in the history of the Tournament of Roses Parade. Two days earlier, the combined bands had paraded at Disneyland as the largest marching unit in the amusement park's history.

The William J. Burns Community Center on Clark Avenue, built with the help of the Weingart Foundation, was rededicated in later that year to honor another member of the original city council. The Burns Center has been home to many community services over the years, including the Mothers at Work children’s daycare center, which continues to provide childcare for children two to five years of age.

In 1976, the Lakewood DASH program (Dependable Accessible Senior Handicapped transit) began offering free transportation for elderly and disabled residents. The DASH para-transit service continues to make about 20,000 round trips a year.

In 1981, the Weingart Senior Center opened to serve Lakewood’s older residents. The center today offers a busy calendar of social and cultural events, wellness clinics, human service programs, recreational activities, a fitness center, and a lunchtime senior nutrition program. To better meet the needs of seniors, the Weingart center was expanded in 1988 and renovated in 2001.

Both the Burns and Weingart centers have earned awards for their excellence of design and operation.

The Centre at Sycamore PlazaThe Centre at Sycamore Plaza is Lakewood's prestige destination for every sort of celebration.

In 1980, the Weingart-Lakewood Family YMCA, funded with a gift from the Weingart Foundation, was dedicated. The foundation provided additional funding in 1983 for the construction of The Centre at Sycamore Plaza.

Opened in 1985, The Centre features a 7,000 square-foot assembly room for receptions, cultural events and banquets; meeting rooms totaling more than 5,000 square feet; a 2,500 square-foot arts and crafts studio; the 2,500 square-foot city council chambers; and the 2,000-square-foot CityTV video production facilities.

The city also acquired the land along the eastern bank of the San Gabriel River near Carson Street that had formerly been the Spiller Stables. In 1980, this became the Lakewood Equestrian Center, a boarding facility for horse owners and a training center for riders and their mounts. When Rynerson Park expanded, the equestrian center became part of the park.

Rynerson Park’s $1.4 million expansion project in 1990 included jogging paths, picnic shelters, and an outdoor fitness center, earning the city an environmental award from the California Parks and Recreation Society. Also in 1990, the Mayfair Park activity building was demolished and the John Sanford Todd Community Center and Swim Pavilion, honoring the city’s first city attorney, were built.

Among Lakewood’s most innovative park renovations was Monte Verde Park, which reopened in 2001 with the new S. Mark Taper Foundation Vista Lodge.

The Vista Lodge at Monte Verde ParkThe Vista Lodge at Monte Verde Park hosts day camps and city events.

From the lodge, park visitors can hike an interpretive trail that meanders among mature trees and ecological niches that tell the story of Southern California’s regional landscapes.

The San Gabriel River Parkway Nature Trail began construction 2002 using mostly grant funding. Planted with indigenous trees, low maintenance meadow grasses, and California wild flowers, the trail recreates the landscape that once flourished along the river channel. Expansion in the following years has extended the nature trail along the entire length of the river in Lakewood.

Lakewood's housing stock also continued to develop through the 1960s and into the 1990s, gaining its first tract of two-story homes in Pennswood Square in 1965. In 1968, the Cherry Cove housing tract in western Lakewood opened. Recognizing the need for more multi-family housing, the city created a multi-family residential zoning ordinance in 1972 that spurred the building of condominium and apartment units in eastern and western Lakewood.

To provide housing for Lakewood’s seniors, the Candlewood Park senior housing project opened in 1988. Other affordable senior housing projects followed in eastern Lakewood.

Older person with child and dogLakewood continues to celebrate the "great ideas" that sustain community life, as this 55th anniversary banner proclaimed in 2009.

In 1992, Lakewood’s last large tract of undeveloped land became the Westgate development of two-story homes.

In 2004, new city entrance signs – both freestanding signs in street medians and pole-mounted signs – celebrated Lakewood’s these achievements in community building. The familiar city symbol remained prominent on the new signs, but it's now accompanied by text that celebrates Lakewood as a Tree City USA and a Sportstown USA.

The new signs also carry another reminder of Lakewood's history: “Times change. Values don't.” This motto, first used in 2004, brackets the community symbol – a literal embrace of a community vision that has endured the test of time. The shape of the entrance signs is symbolic, too. The peaked cap of the new signs recalls the roofline of a typical Lakewood home – shelter for Lakewood families as well as Lakewood values.

In 2009, colorful banners went up on city streets with the motto of Lakewood’s 55th anniversary: “Great ideas last for generations” to celebrate 55 years of innovation in local government. In 2014, Lakewood celebrated 60 years of incorporation with the motto "60 Years of Success" and a display of nostalgic photographs at The Centre.

Eastern neighborhoods

Lakewood neighborhoods east of the San Gabriel River were built in the late 1950s and early 1960s without the master planning that characterized the development of western Lakewood. When these neighborhoods were annexed beginning in the mid-1960s, they lacked the uniformity of design that distinguishes much of Lakewood.

These differences have driven a series of efforts by the city to strengthen the quality of life in Lakewood’s eastern neighborhoods.

With annexation, the city acquired the 15-acre Bloomfield Park from the county and later purchased the site of Palms Park. The city also leased the Edison Company right-of-way on the east bank of the San Gabriel River, the start of what is now Rynerson Park.

Road workers laying asphaltEastern Lakewood was the first area of the city to have 100% of its residential streets repaved.

Improving the infrastructure of eastern neighborhoods was a top city priority in the 1980s. Street trees and sidewalks came to neighborhoods where none had been before. When the city began investing in residential street reconstruction in the early 2000s, eastern Lakewood was the first area of the city to have 100 percent of its streets repaved. In 2004, the city council adopted an updated neighborhood improvement strategy for the eastern areas of the city.

Partly because of these efforts, housing values significantly increased in eastern Lakewood between 2001 and 2008.

Political challenges

Lakewood’s first city council members were all men. In the first city council election in 1954, the list of 39 council candidates published in the Long Beach Press-Telegram included only one woman. She finished 16th.

Sheila Pokras was elected as Lakewood’s first councilwoman in 1972. She lost a bid for reelection in 1976 when three incumbents were swept from office. Voters in that year were unhappy about a new law that required city inspectors to check houses for violations of the building code before they could be sold.

The three new councilmen joined forces with Councilwoman Jo Bennitt, who had won a seat on the council in 1974. They named Bennitt as Lakewood’s first woman mayor. Bennitt had been Lakewood’s city clerk from 1957 until 1973.

Bennitt and her three city council allies forced City Manager Milton Farrell to resign. Farrell had defended the plan to require pre-sale inspections to ensure that home repairs and room additions had not violated city building codes. Home sellers and real estate agents had complained that they were forced to correct violations for which earlier owners had been responsible.Farrell also supported the controversial expansion of the city's redevelopment agency.

Bennitt served as mayor for one year. Her successor was one of her allies, Dan Branstine, who at age 22 became the youngest mayor in Lakewood’s history. He proudly told voters that he had been born in 1954, the same year the city had been born.

Bennitt's stay on the city council was short. She left the council in 1978 when she ran unsuccessfully for Congress. Branstine lost his council seat in 1980, when he ran for reelection as a councilman while at the same time running for a state Assembly seat, which he lost as well.

Another ally of Bennett in the 1976 election, Don Plunkett, became the only Lakewood council member to be recalled. Plunkett, who owned rental properties, had often clashed with the city over building code violations.  His critics said Plunkett disrupted council meetings, filed lawsuits against fellow city officials, and continued to flout zoning ordinances. After 13 months of turmoil and division, the voters told Plunkett to pack his bags. 

Lakewood schools

Lakewood’s youth population in 1951 was a big problem for neighborhood schools. Original resident Ginny Fairfield recalled that her son Ryan saw the increase in students daily. “When he went the first day, Ron came home and said, ‘there was only five kids in our class today.’ He’d come home the next day – ‘well, we got three new kids’ – or five or seven each day, and before the end of the year, they were on double sessions.”

As Lakewood’s young people grew up, high schools were needed. The city lobbied the Long Beach Unified School District to change the name of the new high school planned for Lakewood from Hoover High to Lakewood High. Lakewood High School opened in 1957.

Lakewood school district signLakewood residents have sought repeatedly since the 1960s to form a citywide school district, so far unsuccessfully.

At a cost of $1.6 million, Mayfair High School in the Bellflower Unified School District opened on Woodruff Avenue in 1959. Lakewood gained a third public high school in 1967 when the city annexed the area near Artesia High School. This area was served by the ABC Unified School District headquartered in Cerritos. St. Joseph High School, a private high school for girls, opened in 1964.

In 1962, the Long Beach Board of Education proposed transferring a part of the Lakewood High attendance area to Jordan High in Long Beach. After 1,700 residents signed protest petitions and the Lakewood City Council went on record vigorously opposing the transfer, the board agreed to compromise, allowing parents to get special permission for their children to attend Lakewood High.

The controversies over school governance that erupted in the 1960s didn’t go away. They fueled a lingering hope among parents that a single school district might replace the four school districts that divided the Lakewood community. The boundaries for those districts had been drawn when Lakewood was only dairies and beet fields. Their persistence after Lakewood’s incorporation seemed arbitrary.

The accumulating frustrations of the city’s fragmented educational structure led to several attempts to create an independent school district, none of which was successful.

In 1996, community volunteers began a new effort to establish a single school district. The four school districts opposed them. A county panel in the summer of 1998 recommended against the plan, but rejected contentions made by some school district officials that creation of a new district would leave Lakewood schools racially unbalanced.

Disappointment and frustration accompanied the news in early 2001 that the State Board of Education in Sacramento had turned down a petition signed by 14,000 Lakewood-area voters again calling for the creation a Lakewood school district. City council members and residents felt that the State Board of Education should have let democracy work. School district governance, they felt, was an issue that demanded public debate and action by voters.

Denied again the opportunity to consolidate Lakewood’s schools in a single district, the school district organizing committee turned to improving classroom teaching. Through the Lakewood Education Foundation, community supporters raised more than $230,000 between 2003 and 2014. The foundation distributed the funds as grants to teachers for supplies and equipment for their Lakewood classrooms. 

Shopping trends

In 1964, on the tenth anniversary of Lakewood’s cityhood, a Los Angeles Times headline read: “Lakewood Heads Growth Rate for Los Angeles County Cities.” The story noted 14 percent growth in the city's commercial development, much of it at Lakewood Center.

Development at the shopping center boomed in 1964 when Buffums, Bullocks, and Desmond’s department stores opened, followed by Penney’s in 1967 as the anchor store of the mall’s southern wing. Montgomery Ward’s opened in 1975.

The biggest change for Lakewood Center came in 1975, when the Macerich Company bought the entire center and announced plans for its enclosure. Although longtime residents expressed nostalgia for the open-air mall, almost everyone grew to appreciate the new look of the enclosed Lakewood Center.

Mall expansion concept image from around 1976Lakewood Center went through several phases of expansion after 1976

In the 1980s, the Lakewood Center expanded several times. Among the improvements were a third wing of stores in 1983 and an $8-million face-lift for the 36-year-old May Company in 1988.

Lakewood Square opened in 1982 with 183,346 square feet of retail shops on the west side of Lakewood Boulevard.

In 1993, Bullocks closed after 29 years and was demolished in 1995 to make way for a Home Depot and a supermarket. Buffums was the next department store to close.

Strained relationships between Long Beach and Lakewood troubled the early 1990s. The cause was the end of the Cold War, but the issue was sales tax revenue. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, military bases Southern California began closing. Among the closed facilities was the Long Beach Naval Hospital on Carson Street.

Long Beach city officials sought the hospital property for a new shopping center with the goal of expanding Long Beach’s sales tax base. Lakewood and nearby cities argued that the redevelopment of federal property should benefit the entire region not just one city.

A compromise was reached in late 1995. Long Beach agreed not to put a traditional department store at the site or provide taxpayer subsidies to the shopping center’s developer. The Long Beach Town Center, as the 82-acre project is called, opened in 1999.

In 2000, a 130,000-square-foot Wal-Mart came to Lakewood despite being courted by other southeast cities.

Naval Hospital agreementConflict over redevelopment of the Long Beach Naval Hospital site was resolved in 1995.

Lakewood experienced a retail renaissance in the early 2000s. This revitalization has been crucial to Lakewood Center’s health in the face of an increasingly competitive retail market.

Lakewood Center grew to more than 2 million square feet of retail space in 2001. The expansion included 38 mall shops and specialty retailers. A two-story Target department store opened on October 7, 2003. In 2009, Costco completed a 160,000-square-foot, single-story store adjacent to the main mall in Lakewood Center.

Kohl’s department store opened on Carson Street in 2003.

In 2011, Lakewood mourned the passing of Mace Siegel, chairman of the Macerich Company, owners of Lakewood Center. Siegel had led the renovations and expansions that generate the sales tax revenues that help to pay for city services. Siegel also was a key supporter of many Lakewood community organizations, including Meals On Wheels, Project Shepherd, Lakewood Special Olympics, and the Lakewood-Weingart Family YMCA.

Retail and commercial developments in other parts of the city also modernized. In 1985, the 310,000-square-foot Lakewood Marketplace was built, replacing the dilapidated Dutch Village shopping center. Smaller neighborhood shopping centers also improved and in some cases expanded their offering of goods and services. 

CityTV looks at Lakewood

Since 1984, CityTV – Lakewood’s 24/7 cable and online video service – has produced over 2,000 programs and won more than 200 awards from local and national organizations.

CityTV coverage of issues such as crime prevention, transit, water conservation, and flood control helps viewers identify the challenges facing their city.

CityTV video production studioLights! Camera! Action! CityTV is Lakewood award winning video production unit.

Cable series include Community Digest, Cafe 5050, Ticket to Ride, and Game of the Week. CityTV also produced documentaries such as Two Days (exploring 48 hours at the Lakewood Sheriff Station) and Savage Cycle (an award-winning program that explains how domestic violence affects families).

CityTV staff also innovated new ways of presenting Lakewood, from producing the very first local government music video – Trash: Past, Present and Future – to creating mini-sitcoms and documentaries.

New technology expanded CityTV’s reach in the 2000s. City programming - including live coverage of city council meetings - can be seen by cable subscribers, subscribers to FiOS TV, and online. Segments from CityTV’s programs also are posted on the city’s website and on Vimeo.

Flood threat returns

Lakewood residents had had their fill of flooding in the 1950s before the Los Angeles and San Gabriel river flood control systems were completed. But flooding concerns returned in the 1990s when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) sought to put almost half of Lakewood in a “flood-hazard zone.”

FEMA’s decision sent shock waves through Lakewood and other cities deemed likely to flood. The cities feared a moratorium on new construction while the Army Corps of Engineers completed improvements to prevent a disastrous flood. Homeowners faced mandatory flood insurance premiums, potentially costing each family upwards of $400 per year.

The Lakewood City Council took several steps to remedy the situation, including seeking early federal funding for flood control improvements. To the relief of many residents, the city also completed a flood survey that released hundreds of homes from federal flood insurance requirements.

Construction of a massive storm drainDespite the city's massive storm drain system, completed in the 1960s, Lakewood faced new flood threats in the 1990s.

In 1995, despite the objections of some in Los Angeles who opposed the construction on environmental grounds, the Army Corps of Engineers was given a green light to start work in flood control restoration. In 2002, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works completed the restoration project.

After nearly a decade of worry, Lakewood families breathed a collective sigh of relief when FEMA finally removed its flood insurance mandate.

New shocks

During the Arab Oil Embargo in 1979, Lakewood drivers waited in long lines for gasoline. In response, a city ordinance established a citywide information system to tell drivers which service stations were open.

In 2001, as the state’s power crisis worsened, blackouts rolled over California and the wholesale price of power increased by nearly 1,000 percent. Lakewood city officials acted again, drawing up a plan with the Lakewood Sheriff’s Station to protect the community in the event of a blackout.

Mother and daughter holding a candleLakewood's Patriot Day observance remembers those who lost their lives om 9/11 and those who serve today to defend America from the threat of terrorism.

No one in Lakewood was ready for the greatest shock of all, when terrorist attacks on New York and Washington led to the deaths nearly 3,000 victims.

After the attacks on September 11, 2001, Lakewood residents gathered at Sycamore Plaza for a “Lakewood Believes in America” rally. More than 1,200 residents came together in a candlelight service of remembrance and a proud show of patriotism. Banners were hung along city streets to show their faith in America.

The recession years of 2998 and 2009 rocked the local economy and made everyday life in Lakewood more precarious. Homes were lost and some businesses closed. The city council adopted bare-bones budgets but kept parks and senior programs going. No cuts were made in essential law enforcement services.

COVID-19 became a worldwide tragedy in 2020, sweeping through cities and suburbs. Lakewood was not spared. Through it all, the city's first responders and health care providers acted with extraordinary heroism.