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Girls dressed as reindeers in a 1951 parade in Hawthorne.
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Hawthorne’s deceptively sunny history

“The most beautiful suburban town” wasn’t so idyllic

It’s the late ’50s in picture-perfect Hawthorne, the “city of good neighbors,” in LA’s South Bay. In the garage of a cozy-one-story tract house, a group of clean-cut young men, led by a Hawthorne High School football player named Brian Wilson, soon to be internationally known as The Beach Boys, are singing songs inspired by their idyllic Southern California town. Nearby, a girl plays with the newest sensation—the Barbie doll—the creation of Hawthorne’s very own Mattel, Inc.

Experimental planes, so essential to our Cold War safety, take off from the Hawthorne Airport. Soon it will be time for the annual summertime Kiwanis Parade, televised nationally, featuring celebrity guests like Jayne Mansfield and the little boy from Lassie. Could there be a more perfect post-war American town? It’s wide-eyed, working class, and white.

Hawthorne was named by founder Benjamin Harding’s daughter, Laurine, after her favorite author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom she shared a birthday. Just like the colony in Hawthorne’s masterpiece, The Scarlet Letter, the town of Hawthorne appeared to be a religious, upstanding community. But its prejudices and casual cruelty would cast lasting shadows.

In 1906, Harding and H.D. Lombard, who called their development company the Hawthorne Improvement Company, founded the new settlement of Hawthorne. It was made up of 80 acres of barley fields and previously planted eucalyptus trees on land halfway between Los Angeles and Redondo Beach.

Hawthorne was billed as “the most beautiful suburban town,” ideal for hardworking families looking for a simple, child-friendly way of life. Chicken and vegetable farmers were recruited, and lots were offered for reasonable rates. According to the Los Angeles Times:

As an inducement to sell lots, the Hawthorne Improvement Co. built several factories and promised work to those who bought property. There was the… furniture factory- making mission and willow-ware furniture, an overall factory, a glove factory and a leather factory.

By 1908, the nascent town included a grocery store and an all-purpose community building housing a church and school house. Small wood frame homes sprang up on plots of land improved with chicken coops and gardens.

By 1914, Hawthorne was a thriving little village. Most of the townspeople were farmers or employees of the thriving Hawthorne Furniture Company. But, in 1914, Hawthorne’s growth was abruptly stunted when the company’s factory burned to the ground and other industries left town.

Hawthorne struggled on and was officially incorporated on July 25, 1922. It was to this rural outpost of a few thousand people that the Robertson family, recent immigrants from Scotland, arrived in 1923. Douglas Robertson, then only 13, would recount his first impressions of their new home years later in the memoir Portrait of a Memory:

With the exception of the clatter of an occasional streetcar, there was nothing to disturb the stillness. Hawthorne Boulevard was almost devoid of cars, but I noticed a few parked in the vicinity of Bill’s Lunchroom on the corner. Between our dilapidated dwelling and Wise’s Billiard Hall, there were two other houses of similar construction—crude California boards. The house next door was vacant but the other seemed occupied, and a miniature lawn even adorned the narrow lot near the cement sidewalk.

A home on North Freeman Street in Hawthorne, photographed in 1925.
USC Digital Library

Developers employed ingenious tactics while attempting to sell the community’s many vacant lots. In 1925, the Hopkins-McNeil Investment Company, in the style of popular evangelical preachers like Aimee Semple McPherson, threw weekly Hawthorne “revivals.” These events, featuring singing and speeches, drew upward of 1,000 people:

In a huge tent at Acacia Avenue…the gospel of civic progress is being preached every Wednesday night by speakers…who are pointing out the great future in store for Hawthorne. It is a typical camp meeting scene each Wednesday evening and the fervor is as high-pitched as that of the religious revival… Frank Merriam, Speaker of the California House of Representatives…was the speaker last Wednesday night. He pointed to Hawthorne as one of the future great industrial and home centers of Los Angeles County because of the city’s strategic location between the ocean and the city of Los Angeles.

Eager to spread the gospel of Hawthorne to a wider swath of potential homeowners, in 1926, the Hawthorne Chamber of Commerce sent out an advertising car on an eight-month trip to the Midwest and East Coast. The side of the car read: “Hawthorne Cal: A thriving city of homes twelve miles from Los Angeles. Sunshine all year.” Closer to home, Robertson recalled being approached by representatives attempting to sell lots in a new subdivision:

A representative of the developers rounded up a group of boys from downtown Hawthorne. “Would you like to make a little money?” he inquired…We were to take up positions on Inglewood Avenue near the development and flag down passing motorists and advise them on the terrific real estate opportunity.

Any boy whose lead led to a sale would be given $2. Robertson, eyeing the barren, parched land of the subdivision, declined.

In many ways, the town was as idyllic as Mayberry. Many settlers were originally from the Midwest, friendly and helpful. A number of Japanese farmers worked immaculate gardens and ran vegetable stands. An Italian immigrant named Mr. Baldo herded goats in the surrounding hills and owned businesses in town. The Kiwanis Parade started small, to give the local children something to do. “The kids would decorate their bikes and form the parade and the Kiwanis would give them awards for the best decorated,” according to the LA Times.

But there was an evil undercurrent running through the bucolic village. Hawthorne was a sundown town—meaning all black people were not only barred from living there, they were expected to be out by dark—or else they could be thrown in jail, beaten or worse. Thousands of sundown towns were all over America in the first half of the 20th century, and Southern California was not immune to this cruel racism. To make the town’s position clear, during the 1930s a sign was posted reading: “N*****, don’t let the sun set on YOU in Hawthorne.”

Aerial view of Flying Wing planes at the Northrop plant in Hawthorne in 1949.
Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

While Hawthorne was mostly made up of single-family cottages and small yards, there was one grand estate that captured the imagination of area youngsters. This was the “House of Surprises,” owned by sculptor and metal worker Felix Peano. Here, Peano created a home “of lavish tastes and renaissance splendor.” It was famous for its gardens, which a reporter for the LA Times described in rhapsodic detail:

A day spent among its marble columns, ornate statutes and grape arbors would read like the diary of an Italian countess. Milady would awaken on a sleeping porch which is trellised high above a pool- a dive over the side for her morning dip would refresh her with a 200-foot swim through underground tunnels to neighboring ponds... Guests both welcome and unwelcome, are attracted to the home by the life-sized statues and ornate landscaping.

The reclusive Peano was consistently tormented by unwelcome visitors. Faced with the hardscrabble reality of life in Hawthorne, one can hardly blame his young neighbors for wanting to see the beautiful fairyland Peano had created.

Hawthorne struggled throughout the ’20s and received another blow from the Depression, with almost half of the town receiving government assistance.

Hawthorne’s most famous resident, Jim Thorpe, the first Native American to win a gold medal, was not immune to financial woes. The hero of the 1912 Olympics and a two-sport superstar in both the MLB and NFL, Thorpe found himself in Hawthorne with a family to support and no money in the bank.

Hawthorne Parade on Veterans Day, 11 November 1961
USC Digital Library

“I’m working with the paint crew for Standard Oil at Hawthorne,” he told a reporter in 1930. “Yep, had to go to work at most anything. Can’t keep the wife and kids in food on ancient glory.”

While Thorpe was on the sidelines, an even more famous figure was growing up in the humble home of Albert and Ida Bolender. Born Norma Jean, the little girl who grew up to be Marilyn Monroe spent eight formative years as a resident of Hawthorne. “They were terribly strict,” Monroe would say of the dour Bolenders. “They didn’t mean any harm—it was their religion.”

Norma Jean loved to watch the Red Cars as they rode through town, and she was thrilled when Mr. Bolender let her keep a dog, named Tippy, that she had found near the tracks. Unfortunately, Tippy annoyed a neighbor one night, and he shot the dog. The lifeless Tippy was found by a milkman the next morning. It was a story Monroe would tell for the rest of her life.

Like most of the country, it was the threat of war that pulled Hawthorne out of the Depression. In 1939, aerospace innovator Jack Northrop opened the Northrop Corporation in Hawthorne. Within two years, the plant, which would become a major aircraft supplier during World War II, employed more than 2,000 people. Toy maker Mattel and other military-industrial companies soon followed, and with them more working and middle-class families to house and clothe and feed.

With the influx of families and cash, the once careworn village transformed into a preppy, All-American suburb. The Hob Nob, once a popular gambling hall, was turned into a non-denominational church ministering to “constituents” rather than parishioners.

Teenage boys, building their own teen community clubhouse dubbed the Gunga Din, were fed homemade meals by high school girls calling themselves the “Gunga Dears.” The youth of Hawthorne flocked to The Sweet Shop, owned by a man named Pop West. According to Hawthorne historians Walt Dixon and Jerry Roberts:

If teens argued or caused a disturbance, Pop would order the offenders from the establishment and bar them for 24 hours. All the other kids upheld the respect for Sweet Shop etiquette by agreeing not to speak to the offenders for the same 24 hours.

While the kids were cruising the 120th Avenue, Felix Peano, now 87, brooded over his failing health in his “House of Surprises.” In 1948, he put a gun to his mouth and pulled the trigger. He left his estate to the nearest Eugenics Society, so that they could work “toward the creation of supermen.”

As the ’50s dawned, Hawthorne was confident in its identity as an ideal post-war suburb. An ad put out by the Chamber of Commerce boasted that the city had 23 churches, five hospitals, four newspapers and an airport:

To you who are planning to move to Hawthorne-now or in the future- we say HOWDY and WELCOME! …you’ll find Hawthorne’s location is ideal for fostering and promoting the home loving, home owning community spirt.

Hawthorne prospered in the ’50s, when these photographs of the city’s flags and signs were taken.
USC Digital Library

By 1953, the population had swelled to 21,098, a 29 percent increase in three years. It was in this atmosphere of plenty that the Wilson brothers, future Beach Boys, grew up with their abusive salesman father. While youngest brother Carl obeyed, and Brian escaped into his music, middle brother Dennis acted out, earning the nickname Dennis the Menace.

Singer and Congressman Sonny Bono also spent his teenage years in Hawthorne with his mother, who owned a local hair salon. She had escaped Bono’s abusive father and remarried. To help with the bills, Bono worked at the local Wonder Market.

Prosperity continued throughout the early ’60s. “You find a rare intangible quality that underlies action here—spirit,” Hawthorne Mayor Raymond Creal boasted in 1963. “There’s an eagerness to build and improve that is more pronounced here than in any city I’ve seen.” The LA Times reported:

The thriving community of 40,000 people has a business population of some 150 firms producing aircraft, toys, electronics, cosmetics, furniture, technical publications, plastics, machine tools, mirrors and dresses.

Brian Wilson’s senior yearbook photo, 1960, at Hawthorne High School.

The ’60s also marked an end to the legality of sundown towns. In 1948, the Supreme Court had ruled racially restrictive covenants not legally binding. However, it was not until the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 that these atrocious practices were officially outlawed.

But the legacy of being a sundown town had lasting ramifications on Hawthorne.

Throughout the ’70s and especially ’80s, Hawthorne experienced a huge demographic shift, with thousands of Black, Latino and Asian families moving into town. During this time, many white families left Hawthorne for outlying suburbs. Working and middle class people of color moved into inland South Bay towns, including Hawthorne.

But the town’s power structure was slow to change. In 1984, for example, only four out of the 80 Hawthorne police officers were black. In 1987, the Hawthorne Police Department launched an internal investigation, after a black police officer and two other employees reported that racial slurs were commonly used at the station.

Minorities working for the city of Hawthorne also complained of discrimination within City Hall. Things came to a head that year, when persistent accusations of systematic racism led the city to sign a non-bias accord meant to demonstrate that the city had a “serious commitment” to improving working conditions and hiring practices for minorities.

Problems persisted. In the early ’90s, only four of 152 teachers at Hawthorne High School were black. A series of lawsuits concerning racism and unfair hiring practices in the public schools rocked the Hawthorne School District throughout the first half of the decade. In Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism, sociologist James W. Loewen writes:

Sometimes having been a sundown town can poison the atmosphere even after a school goes majority nonwhite. In 1991, Pam Sturgeon, who is Anglo and was president of the school board of Hawthorne… said, “When I went to Hawthorne High, Hawthorne was a sundown town. All Blacks had to be out of town by sundown or be in jail.”

By 1991, Hawthorne High was majority black and Hispanic with considerable conflict between these groups. The teaching staff was still largely Anglo, including many holdovers from its all-white days, and some of them contributed to the problem by refusing to teach works by authors such as Richard Wright and Maya Angelou. Sturgeon referred to the sundown legacy. “A lot of adults in my age group are fighting that bigotry within themselves.”

The economy of Hawthorne also took a hit during this time. The end of the cold war signaled the loss of many aerospace jobs. A failed attempt at economic redevelopment put the city in debt. Gang violence became a serious problem. Even Mattel left, moving its headquarters to El Segundo.

Over the last few years, Hawthorne, now a majority-minority city of around 80,000, has had something of a rebirth. New companies have come to town, Space X and Tesla Motors Design Center are located at the Hawthorne Airport. A plaque memorializing The Beach Boys marks where the Wilsons’ childhood home once stood (it was torn down in the ’80s to make room for the 105 freeway). Across the street, a diverse, friendly neighborhood thrives. Children ride by on scooters, and old men water their lawns. It’s an inspiring, All-American neighborhood.

Editor: Jenna Chandler

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Carl Wilson was the oldest of the famed Wilson brothers. He was, in fact, the youngest of the three boys, Brian, Dennis and Carl.

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