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How an Exclusive Los Angeles Suburb Lost Its Whiteness

How an Exclusive Los Angeles Suburb Lost Its Whiteness
Jordan Segall

More than a year ago, the Los Angeles Times reported that San Marino, a suburb with a population of about 13,000, was the only residential community in Southern California where housing prices actually rose during the recession. The Times attributed this to high-performing schools, luxurious housing stock, and a "small-town ambience."

It also mentioned a final factor: the constant and reliable demand for housing there among Asians:

But [San Marino] also has something else going for it, real estate experts say: an influx of money from Asian home buyers and investors.  "If you go to mainland China and someone asks, 'Where do you live?,' San Marino represents that you are wealthy," said YanYan Zhang, a real estate agent whose clients include overseas buyers looking for homes here.

San Marino is an extreme exemplar of a larger process in the region, one that’s accelerated in the past 30 years: the development of massive suburban enclaves of Asian immigrants in Southern California’s San Gabriel Valley.

At first glance, San Marino is just another San Gabriel Valley suburb in transition. But it’s no ordinary suburb. For one thing, San Marino is wildly affluent; 70.5 percent of all homes in the city are worth $1 million or more. The median household income is $154,962. In Beverly Hills, it’s $83,463. (Another subtle indication of affluence: the city’s 63-page Residential Design Guidelines require, among other things, that private tennis courts be surrounded by tall hedges or trees. Houses in its most affluent section look palatial.)


A house in San Marino. Photo by Jordan Segall

San Marino isn’t just affluent, it’s exclusive—and it always has been. For much of its history, San Marino’s exclusivity was both economic and racial. The city’s moneyed gentility masked a potent undercurrent of racially tinged conservatism. In 1970, it was 99.7 percent white.

Today, by contrast, only 49.8 percent of households in San Marino are headed by whites. In a few decades, the total population of one of Los Angeles’s most elite and most monochromatic suburbs has become majority-Asian.

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The story of San Marino’s transformation begins in 1903, when California railroad magnate Henry E. Huntington purchased a large estate in the area. This land was incorporated as San Marino. From its inception, it attracted the wealthiest families from nearby Pasadena’s well-heeled upper class. George S. Patton, Sr., and the patrician father of the famed American general, served as the city’s first elected mayor.

The city remained small and fiercely protective of its elite character. Its population and number of residential parcels were effectively stabilized by stringent minimum lot size requirements. San Marino’s limitations on new development meant that anyone who wanted in had to buy in—and pay dearly for the privilege.

In the early Cold War years, San Marino became renowned for its conservative institutions. The far-right John Birch Society established its western headquarters there in 1959. In the 1966 California gubernatorial election, San Marinans cast only 778 votes for Democratic candidate Pat Brown, compared to 6,783 for Republican Ronald Reagan.

During the 1960s, San Marino residents expressed deep concerns about threats to the racial homogeneity of their community. At a 1966 gathering of the San Marino Republican Women's Club, Republican California State Senate candidate Howard J. Thelin spent the bulk of his speech responding to the "vicious charges" that he "favored and supported the Rumford Act," a 1963 law prohibiting racial discrimination in sales or rentals of housing. Thelin boasted:

I never voted for the Rumford Act in committee. I voted against the Rumford Act on the floor of the Assembly. I have always voted against such measures including the [Fair Employment Practice Commission] law, the Unruh Civil Rights Law, and the Hawkins Fair Housing Law.

Later that year, the San Marino Board of Realtors published ads alerting local homeowners that "a drastic Federal forced housing law now being considered by the Congress would destroy your basic rights—unless you act now!" The federal legislation in question would eventually become the Fair Housing Act. "Exercising preference," the ad warned, could result in "payment of unlimited damages."  Into the mid-1980s, gardeners racially self-identified in classified ads.

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Amid this climate, how did San Marino come to look the way it does today?

Despite the sometimes-overt racism of some prominent residents, Asian immigrants, particularly those of Chinese descent, began to play an increasingly visible role in San Marino in the 1970s. By the end of the decade, the only grocery store in the city occasionally advertised “Foods of the Orient.”

It wasn’t until the 1980s, however, that San Marino’s Asian population truly exploded. By 1986, the student body at San Marino High School was 36 percent Asian, up from 13.5 percent just five years earlier. The transformation sparked sometimes-violent confrontations between white and Asian students. One of the worst occurred at the end of the school year in 1984, when a 17-year-old Chinese youth was peppered with racial slurs and suffered a brutal attack at the hands of three white teenagers at Huntington Middle School, where he was playing tennis.

San Marino residents addressed these episodes cautiously, expressing optimism about the possibility of racial harmony and writing racial conflict off as an aberrant consequence of rapid demographic change. As one Tribune editorial put it:

The increase in the number of Orientals in the community has come about so rapidly that even the students of the ’60s and ’70s would have had a problem adjusting to the change … ready-or-not, however, integration is here, and with it have come problems that appear to be escalating.

The paper called on students to develop constructive solutions to racial tension, but stressed that “the Oriental students have responsibility, too. An olive branch extended is of no value until accepted.”

City officials, meanwhile, attempted to tackle the perceived problems of racial integration head-on. In 1984, the City Council formed an “Ethnic Harmony Commission” to study how best to "deal with the issues relating to the sudden change in the city’s ethnic makeup."

The Commission emphasized finding ways to force San Marino’s Asian population to participate in traditional city institutions. San Marino residents slowly accepted that Asianization of their community was inevitable and that hostility was futile. They turned instead to a program of "harmonious" incorporation designed to inculcate new arrivals into the city’s firm traditions. Local organizations even started organizing events designed to attract the interest of San Marino’s Asian population, such as bringing lecturers on Chinese history to the city.

On occasion, the harmony rhetoric broke down. In 1988, Caesar Wu, manager of Golden Acres Realty, placed two Chinese characters on the awning above his office. The new sign prompted, in the words of Mayor Paul Crowley, a "staggering" volume of phone calls and letters to City Hall from residents complaining about the "defiling" of Huntington Drive, San Marino’s main thoroughfare. Vandals repeatedly stole the sign. Crowley lamented, “Our history of harmonious and cooperative assimilation of Asians has been exemplary, and the possibility of major discord over such a small item is disturbing to me in the least."

Most whites, though, eventually came to accept Asians in the community, provided they were willing to rapidly “assimilate”—or at least give the appearance of assimilation. To some extent, whites had little choice. Ill will was powerless to stem the rate of Asian immigration, which remained high. By 1990, 23.7 percent of San Marino’s households were Asian, and a second wave of Taiwainese immigration brought that figure to 40 percent in 2000.

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Still, white residents undoubtedly could have adhered to a "gentlemen’s agreement" to refuse to sell their houses to Asian buyers. Given San Marino’s history of resistance to change and racial inclusion, why didn’t they?

A Los Angeles Times article from 1984—in the midst of the fastest period of Asian immigration in San Marino’s history up to that point—offers some preliminary clues. City real estate agents related that “Asians, mostly Chinese, are buying one of every five or six homes on the market in San Marino, often paying cash for houses priced at $500,000 or more.” Property values in San Marino skyrocketed in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly due to the public schools’ superb reputation. As values rose, the temptation to sell often proved irresistible, and wealthy Asians were willing buyers, frequently prepared to pay in cash at or above asking prices.

The aging white population may also have spurred the demographic transformation. Asian San Marinans tended to be younger than white ones. Buyers with children likely found willing sellers among aging white residents looking to cash in on several decades of sustained home equity growth.

Finally, our research also explores the possibility of price discrimination. Did white sellers, sensing high Asian demand, hike up prices in response?

In the end, San Marino’s transformation resulted from the felicitous interplay of economics and assimilationist paternalism. Whites hoped that San Marino’s Asians would work to assimilate rapidly into their adopted community by learning to speak English, participating in civic activity, donating to local institutions, and raising behaved, academically elite children. Shared bourgeois values produced a functional relationship between residents and newcomers and relative racial harmony.

Whatever peace exists, however, may mask underlying tensions, aggravated by familiar and new concerns about Chinese hegemony, tiger mothers, immigration, and indomitable academic competition. The demographic change in San Marino’s schools over the past few decades has been particularly jarring, as the following chart shows:

Moreover, for whatever reason, Asian students in San Marino continue to outperform their white peers:

 

As last year’s contretemps over Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother showed, schools are a particular source of anxiety for many white parents and students, and San Marino is no different. In 2005, the Pasadena Star-News published an article that opened with the travails of a white student and her inability to win election as “social chair” of her San Marino High School class. Said her mother: “I know she can do it, get good enough grades, so it doesn’t bother me. But to hear her say she can't win an election because Asians vote for Asians that bothers me."

At the same time, Asian immigration has been an economic boon to San Marino and the San Gabriel Valley more generally. Persistent demand for housing, along with sky-high academic achievement, has buoyed home values, even amid the recession. Whether this will eventually plateau or continue for decades onward is uncertain.

There is also the additional possibility of some whites leaving or avoiding the area if the Asian majorities and near-majorities continue to grow. Will too much Asianization of suburbanization result in white resentment that then lowers demand and depresses home values? We won’t know for a while. But it might be worth pondering that last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that San Marino’s median home price declined again, “erasing gains of the previous two years.” Stay tuned.

Merlin Chowkwanyun is a Ph.D. student in History and Public Health at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is an Institute of Education Sciences fellow. All posts »

Jordan Segall is a Ph.D. student in the sociology department at Stanford University. He also holds a J.D. from Stanford Law School and is currently a law clerk for the Honorable Richard A. Paez of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. All posts »

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