Monterey Park Seeks Harmony

As California city tips from Anglo to Asian, goodwill gets upper hand over confrontation. HUMAN RELATIONS: ONE CITY'S TRAVAIL

AT first glance Monterey Park seems a serene and well-kept middle-class suburb. But beneath its calm exterior are rumblings of confrontation, adjustment, accommodation. The reason: Over the past 15 years, the city's population mix has gone from 85 percent Anglo to more than one-half Asian and nearly one-third Hispanic. Its commercial districts appear utterly Far Eastern, with Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese bakeries, restaurants, real estate offices, supermarkets, and video stores. It has five Chinese newspapers and a Chinese-language movie theater.

``In learning how to deal with increasing diversity in race and ethnicity, and struggling to find common vision from differing ideas, [Monterey Park] is a reflection of what's to come for America,'' says Linda Wong, a resident of the city of some 60,000 people and executive director for California Tomorrow.

People of Chinese origin comprise more than half Monterey Park's population; they own 60 percent of its land and 60 percent of its businesses. It is the second-largest enclave for Asian immigrants in the United States, after New York's Chinatown.

Monterey Park's experience is by no means unique. ``Minorities are becoming majorities not only in places like California, but in the center of the country,'' says John Horton, an associate professor of sociology at UCLA. ``The lessons of Monterey Park will be repeated elsewhere,'' he says.

Those lessons - that clashes over language, development, education, and quality of life can bring conciliation through accommodation - are still in process here. But after a long period of almost daily confrontation, which produced headlines in the local and national press, there is evidence that city is coming to terms with its transformation.

Monterey Park's dramatic change began in the 1970s at the hand of a Taiwanese developer named Frederich Hsieh. After buying up large parcels of land, he promoted the town to wealthy businessmen in Taiwan and Hong Kong as a Chinese Beverly Hills.

``It became a haven for big-time Asian investors,'' says Frank J. Arcuri, publisher of a local investigative quarterly. ``They came in and tore down what was here and built their own, Chinese style.'' Resenting the replacement of American-style grocery and clothing stores by all-Asian shops, whites peppered the press with comments that the town no longer resembled anything ``American.''

Mayor Barry Hatch castigated immigrants, claiming they didn't care about American culture, traditions, and history but rather were ``here to make money. Monterey Park's present mayor, Judy Chu, says: ``It was definitely a period of severe racial tension.''

One City Council resolution declared that English should be the official language of the US. Major businesses, including a car dealership that was the largest taxpayer in town, pulled up stakes. They were replaced by an influx of all-Asian stores.

From City Hall to the parks and malls, different cultural norms and expectations clashed - on store and restaurant hours, school curriculum, and on language and development issues. Anglos, Hispanics, and Asians vied for influence through every venue possible: City Council seats, neighborhood associations, civic coalitions.

The two-year study just finished by Horton documents the outcome: recognition that restrictive, containment policies aimed at immigrants did not solve underlying issues such as unplanned residential/commercial development, population growth and congestion, and recession.

There was a shift in local politics from confrontation to pragmatism.

``People saw that a leadership prone to divisive scapegoating of one ethnic group or another was not dealing with underlying problems,'' says Horton.

Last April Mr. Hatch's tenure on the City Council was ended by the voters. He lost in each of the city's six precincts.

A Chinese immigrant, Sam Kiang, was elected to the council, and two-term member Judy Chu, a Chinese-American, was selected as mayor by her colleagues.

Jose Calderon, an eight-year resident, says Hatch's frequent extremist and racist outbursts were a lightning rod for public dissent, which has dissolved in his absence. ``We spent all of our time trying to deflect that kind of thinking,'' recalls Mayor Chu. ``Now nobody's interested in making negative comments about ethnic groups in the city and we are moving ahead.''

Quality-of-life issues such as development and traffic control have headed the agenda. The building of dense, low-quality condos in one area of town - an outgrowth of Chinese cultural perceptions on how to utilize urban space - were blocked with stringent measures.

``Mansionization,'' the overbuilding of additions and giant homes - a predilection of many wealthy whites - is also being addressed in a so-called ``view'' ordinance.

Traffic problems exacerbated by the different habits of Asian drivers, have been assuaged with synchronized lights, extended turn lanes, and additional stop signs.

Civic groups have worked together to expand community celebrations such as the Fourth of July to include symbols of the different cultures: tacos and egg rolls as well as hot dogs and burgers - and entertainment; Mariachi bands and Chinese dragon dances as well as traditional brass bands.

What has followed is a gradual change in attitude, manifested in such local initiatives as an Asian Youth Center, church and elderly socials, sport clubs, and even Neighborhood Watch committees both run and membered by all races.

``The emphasis became on counting our multiracial diversity as an asset to be preserved rather than a detraction,'' says Chu, who also is pursuing formal community activities that will encourage residents to actively appreciate other cultures. For example, a city-sponsored ``Harmony Week'' of essay contests on how to live in a multiracial community.

Cross-ethnic house visits and roundtable discussions on community problems are planned as a way of promoting civic unity.

Craft exhibitions will draw children into weaving, Japanese origami, and Chinese calligraphy.

Still, some residents argue that Monterey Park's relative calm is only a measure of the eliminated opposition. ``I'm conciliatory, I don't dislike Asians, but I don't like being segregated in my own community,'' says publisher Arcuri, who calls himself an ``American of Italian heritage.'' He adds: ``Foreign-language signs segregate a community.''

Arcuri sees the schools as the best hope for assimilation. There, the children have constant interaction and second-generation immigrants learn to embrace the new culture. But he says the buy-out of local homes and businesses will continue, fueled by the hugely inflated prices Asians are willing to pay.

Jose Calderon says that although it is not a given that Monterey Park's problems will work themselves out, ``solving them depends on the type of leadership that can eventually influence state, regional, and national policy on such things as affordable housing and development funding.''

One in a series of occasional articles on life in the United States.

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