Los Angeles County
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
There's a town in this string of communities running east away from northern Los Angeles along the San Gabriel Mountains and old Route 66 that I've become quite fond of. It's not the largest nor is it the prettiest. Its name is Irwindale, and I think it's probably the Rodney Dangerfield of this group of suburbs. Not known for upscale Craftsman-style homes on the one hand or for gat-wielding spray-painting gangbangers on the other, it is a huge string of gravel pits and industrial parks containing, incidentally, 1,422 citizens as of the last census.
To folks who live in rural Mississippi or the sleepy adobe pueblos of New Mexico, a town of over 1,400 might seem not only decent-sized but practically metropolitan. But here in the middle of a county of nearly 10 million souls, Irwindale, surrounded by neighbors with populations ranging from 25 to 75 thousand each, is small indeed. Small in permanent residents, that is, but great in the stuff of which the very infrastructure we take for granted is composed. For starters, a large percentage of the aggregate that goes into the concrete on the freeways of Los Angeles County comes from the quarries of Irwindale. And it is rich as well in other amenities, the sorts of things that folks who live on the florid avenues of nicer places disdain, but without which they couldn't drive home to spend sweet evenings among their roses and jacarandas.
Turning big rocks into little ones is certainly the most conspicuous of Irwindale's industries, with the ubiquitous Vulcan Materials pits and their long elevated Rube Goldberg apparatuses for carrying and sorting stones. But the streets of Irwindale are replete with small businesses and warehouses and distribution plants, tucked between which are numerous tiny, oily shops devoted to transmissions, auto electric systems, and new and used tires. Sprinkled throughout are places whose names contain that wonderfully reassuring morpheme "chem," their yards piled high with pallets of 55-gallon drums containing God knows what. And Irwindale is home to a company called Holy Spirit DME, Inc., catering to all your needs for durable medical equipment and incontinence supplies. In the name of the Lord. Plant nurseries also line a long stretch of Arrow Highway. And last but not least there's the massive MillerCoors brewery up by the freeway.
On the map Irwindale appears as a gerrymandered piece of real estate, probably just left-over spaces its neighbors didn't want. It was only incorporated in 1957, having previously been county land. So what the hell do I like about Irwindale? Well, all of the above for starters. My readers know I love urban blight as much as I cherish the unspoiled wilderness. In large part it is the sheer grey ugliness of Irwindale that attracts me. People drive through on the 210 or the 605 hardly knowing where they are, looking down on a vast lunar landscape of stone and craters. But also I love the fact that here is a place where shit can be obtained, and where shit gets done. It's comforting to know that if I need a used tire or a rebuilt transmission, or for that matter a huge container of industrial lubricant or a thousand tons of trap rock, Irwindale is there for me.
But there's one more thing. Just above the northern end of Irwindale is where the San Gabriel River comes tumbling cleanly down out of the mountains of the same name. This waterway, fed by snow melt and runoff from the hills, is mostly dammed up to form reservoirs for drinking water for the surrounding towns and for flood control. Along the often dry river bed, now returned in an unnatural way to its natural state and filled with native desert plant species, runs a terrific bicycle path, south out of mighty Irwindale itself, through Covina and El Monte and far beyond to the Pacific Ocean. After decades of industrial despoliation, I have no doubt, someone cleaned up the place and transformed it into a recreation area. The nicely paved path starts just off Foothill next to the entrance to the main Vulcan plant at Irwindale Avenue and makes its way up onto the Santa Fe Dam, a flood control barrier that cuts west across the riverbed just north of Arrow Highway. The dam is made of earth and rocks, no doubt quarried in the immediate vicinity. Riding across the top of it high above the city you have a beautiful view of all that makes Irwindale what it is--the roofs of the warehouses and factories, the gravel pits, the endless procession of little places featuring piles of rusting car bodies and engine blocks out back--the wretched refuse of the teeming shores of greater Los Angeles. It is a sight to behold.
I've been unable so far to find out anything about Irwin the man, or woman, after whom the city was named. Rumor has it that over the years Irwindale's employees have dabbled in corruption, blowing municipal money on junkets to New York and the like. But with so few people, how serious can it be? Most of the population are probably not property owners themselves. I'm assuming the lion's share of the city's tax money comes from the beer and stone and chemical companies and a few absentee landlords. What's a little graft among friends of that ilk?
In any event, on a clear evening the view of the San Gabriel Mountains from the center of unprepossessing Irwindale is just as beautiful as it is from the gleaming white Spanish colonial town center of Azusa or the bustling modern condominiumed boulevards of Duarte. Its roads are decent. It is refreshingly empty of fast food joints and expensive coffee shops and big box retailers. If you're looking for a truck body from the 1950s or a used radiator or a wiring harness for a 1975 Cadillac, look no further, Irwindale is the place for you.
And a river runs through it.