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Ten Things You May Not Know About Torrance

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A firetruck sprays water at revelers during the Armed Forces Day Parade in Torrance. (Photo by mark6mauno via the Creative Commons on Flickr)
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You might say that Torrance is stuck in a geographical limbo. The main artery leading into the neighborhood is the 405, which means that access may be a chore. And while it's kind of a coastal town, only a small stretch of its borders touches the beach. So what's the draw of this South Bay neighborhood?

For one thing, the city itself is a bit of a curiosity, as it never seemed to agree on its own aspirations. What started off as a worker's utopia (founder J. Sidney Torrance built the city on the idea that every local employee should have a nice pad), became a field of looming oil derricks. And when the real estate boom finally happened, there were claims of discriminatory housing practices, though the city would also become home to one of the largest populations of Japanese-Americans in the U.S. Torrance, it seems, has always been a city in flux. This may explain the wealth of (seemingly) unconnected trivia about the city that gets overlooked. Here are some of our favorites.

The Layout Was Designed By The Same Guy Who Worked On The Jefferson Memorial And The White House Grounds

Founded in 1912, Torrance got off to an auspicious start by securing some top-grade talent to lay out its blueprint. Irving Gill, who practically wrote the book on modernist architecture in Southern California, was hired as the city’s principal architect. Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son of the man who’d designed Central Park in New York City, was brought on board as a landscape architect.

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Olmsted’s M.O. was to draw a connection between man-made structures with the natural settings that surround them. The idea was to evoke greater awareness of the location at large. His design motif can still be experienced today in Torrance; as noted at The Daily Breeze, the median strip on El Prado Avenue is not only imbued with plenty of green space, it’s also built at an angle to direct your attention to the palatial mountains in the horizon. While Olmsted blurred the lines between concrete and nature, he also drew distinct borders between industrial and residential spaces. It was a purely calculated move; according to KCET, he'd put the residential and industrial districts within walking distance of each other, so that workers had easy access to their place of employment, and he'd stipulated that factories be built downwind from homes, so that families wouldn't be treated to a constant billow of pollution.

While Olsted’s achievements in the South Bay are formidable. He’s perhaps best known for his work out in D.C.; Olsted also left his mark on the White House grounds and the Jefferson Memorial.

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An Irving Gill-designed home on Gramercy Avenue, which had likely been altered since it was first unveiled in 1912. (Via Google Earth)
Gramercy Avenue Was One Of The Birthplaces Of Modernist Homes In Southern California

Speaking of Gill, he'd made attempts to imbue Torrance with his ideas on modern architecture, which were nothing short of revolutionary.

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When he was hired on as the city's chief architect, his tasks included designing the Pacific Electric Railroad Bridge, churning out a number of professional buildings, and overseeing design submissions from independent developers. He was also tasked with designing a number of model homes on Gramercy Avenue—these were expected to set the tone for a large swathe of Torrance as planners had hoped to replicate the design and build a hundred of them, reports Curbed LA.

The problem, though, was that Gill's idea of "modernist" wasn't a formalized thing at the time; it was mainly a theory of design that the architect was experimenting with. In the early 1900s L.A. was still growing out of its Victorian phase, which saw a dominance of fussy, ostentatious homes that look like something out of a Vincent Price movie. As noted at The San Diego Union Tribune, Gill was laying down modernist buildings in Southern California "more than a decade before the master of minimalism, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, would start construction on Villa Tugendhat in the Czech Republic and 40 years before Los Angeles architect Pierre Koenig would hang a glass box over the Hollywood Hills in the celebrated Stahl House."

As such, people weren't all too happy when Gill's first homes were unveiled on Gramercy Avenue in 1912. While the homes afforded plenty of space, and while they were almost revolutionary in how cheaply (but efficiently) they were made, people were put off by the squat, austere appearance of the homes. Gill even had to defend his designs at a public meeting, according to Curbed. In the end, only 10 of these Gramercy Avenue homes were ever constructed, and only three of them remain today.

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Members of N.W.A. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
“Straight Outta Compton” Was Straight Outta Torrance

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Certainly, Compton has been well-represented in hip-hop lore. From Ice Cube to Kendrick Lamar, rap nobility has immortalized the community. Long Beach, part of which borders Compton, has also been repped by stalwarts such as Snopp Dogg and, more recently, Vince Staples.

Torrance, while just a 15 minute drive away from those neighborhoods, isn’t known as a wellspring of hip-hop talent. But, as noted at the Daily Breeze, the city plays an essential role in the formation of hip-hop’s base in Southern California. The neighborhood was where record seller Steve Yano set up shop at the Roadium Drive-In swap meet. Dr. Dre was among Yano’s customers; Yano would later introduce Dre to Easy E, and the two rappers went on to form N.W.A. Straight Outta Compton, the group’s seminal album (and one of the most vital musical works to come out of the late 20th century), was produced at the Audio Achievements recording studio that was formerly located at 1327 Cabrillo Avenue. The album would go on to sell more than three-million units, in spite of the fact that it got little mainstream exposure from radio and television.

Ice Cube, forming the supergroup Westside Connection after leaving N.W.A, would namedrop the neighborhood in “3 Time Felons,” a track off the 1996 Bow Down: “Suede Puma's as I walk down Florence. With warrants that don't go to court in Torrance.”

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Former NFL-er Tony Gonzalez. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
You Can Thank Torrance For Youth Soccer

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The Southland has produced some of our most well-recognized sports stars. This isn’t surprising to any degree, but Torrance stands out as having a weirdly high concentration of athletes who went on to world-wide acclaim. It’s the hometown to MLB pitcher David Wells (a two-time World Series champion), NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez (who’s probably a shoo-in for the NFL Hall of Fame), and figure skater Michelle Kwan (a two-time Olympics medalist). Also, Chuck Norris (Texas Ranger and Trump "A-lister") was raised here, and had started his first dojo in Torrance in the 1960s.

It’s Louis Zamperini, though, who takes home the award as the Most Legit Superhuman. The long-distance runner had competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, becoming the youngest American a the time to ever participate in that field. After the Games, he enlisted to fight in World War II and survived a series of trials that would have proved fatal for most mortals. When a plane lost power over the Pacific, Zamperini was left stranded at sea for 47 days, surviving off rainwater and drifting over 2,000 miles in the process. After he was discovered by the Japanese Navy, he’d go on to spend more than two years as a prisoner of war, enduring regular sessions of both physical and psychological torture. Zamperini managed to return to the U.S. and live until the age of 97.

Considering the city's legacy in sports, it's only natural that the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), which has overtaken America’s parks for the past five decades, was conceived in a Torrance garage on Talisman Street.

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Members of CORE in Torrance. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
It Was A Battleground For Homeowner Equality

L.A. has been a mixed bag when it comes to homeownership among minorities. In certain respects the city has been progressive—in the early 1900s, for instance, homeownership among L.A.’s black community was over 36%, the highest rate for any African-American community in the United States. On the other hand, L.A. had also been plagued by the stifling power of racial covenants up until the mid-20th century. These covenants were written into land deeds to retain the “respectability” (i.e. white possession) of the properties; they basically gave a seller permission to deny not only blacks, but to all ethnic minorities as well.

Aside from the covenants, there were also cases of old-fashioned discriminatory practices, and one of the most publicized cases involved Don Wilson, a major player in South Bay real estate (at the time of his death in 2001, real state experts believe that Wilson’s firm had built more than one-third of the homes in Torrance).

In the 1960s, Wilson was beset with allegations that his firm was rejecting black families. And in 1963 the California attorney general’s office would file a lawsuit, saying that a Wilson development in Carson refused to hand out applications to black individuals. When news of this arose, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) took to demonstrating at another one of Wilson’s major projects—the Southwood Riviera Royale development near Anza Avenue and Calle Mayor in Torrance. The daily protests ran through 1963, and they drew the ire of local residents, who pleaded with the city council to get rid of the demonstrators (to no avail). CORE announced at one point that, in 13 months of protesting, 3,500 people had participated, and 249 of them had been arrested. Even Marlon Brando showed up one day in a tie and checkered suit. He joined in with the protestors and, apparently, was informed by a policeman that he could get arrested for “blocking a driveway.”

There Was An IKEA Knockoff At The Del Amo Mall

The Del Amo Fashion Center first hit its stride in 1981, when several stores were consolidated to build a fortress of consumer bliss. And throughout the ‘80s it had the distinction of being the largest shopping mall in the U.S. (it was supplanted in 1992 by the Mall of America in Minnesota). Today, the sheer volume of the shopping center is no less spectacular, as it houses more than 200 storefronts. And even if you’ve never stepped foot in the space, it may have seeped into your subconscious through Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, where the mall got plenty of screentime as the scene of a botched tradeoff (above).

One slip-up in the mall’s history? It had once housed an IKEA knockoff. STØR, based in the City of Industry, was a blatant copycat of IKEA, what with its quasi-European name, and its maze of wall-to-wall furniture. The mimicry was so evident that IKEA sued the company (and bought them out completely later on).

STØR sold cheap and ready-to-assemble furniture like its Swedish counterpart. But this wasn’t the issue, claimed IKEA. What crossed the line was that, apparently, STØR straight-up adopted all of IKEA’s branding tactics. “The lawsuit is not about copying the concept - the similarity of the furniture is not an issue,” a lawyer for IKEA told the New York Times in 1992. He said that it was about “infringing the copyright of the catalogue and copying the visual appearance of the store's setup and display, to the extent that the person familiar with IKEA thinks that STØR is IKEA.” STØR even contracted the same German manufacturer as IKEA’s to make their shopping carts. The whole fiasco was later mocked on a 1992 episode of the Simpsons—"Lisa The Beauty Queen"—in which reporter Kent Brockman broadcasts from a “Danish superchain” called “SHØP”.

By 1992, all STØR locations were taken up by IKEA, including one outpost out in Houston.

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Madrona Marsh. (Photo via Facebook)
The Madrona Marsh Has Some Weird Bugs

The Madrona Marsh Preserve is a bit of an anomaly, as urban development has wiped out a great deal of wetlands in Southern California, according to the Friends of Madrona Marsh.

The marsh itself isn't the only aberration—within the marsh is a whole ecosystem of off-the-wall curio. According to a 2016 survey of the area, the marsh hosts a variety of rare insects that sound like something Roger Corman had dreamt up. They are so unheard-of, in fact, that many of them haven't even been formally named. The report notes that the remoteness of the marsh (a byproduct of the urbanization that happened around it) may have led these insects to bypass the development of flight, since there was nowhere for them to go. “The species that were sort of really surprising were flightless,” Emile Fiesler, a Torrance entomologist, told the Daily Breeze. “By some evolutionary history, they did not develop wings or they lost their wings and they are pretty much stuck there—they can’t cross Sepulveda or Madrona. Independent of all the farming and oil exploitation and the history of mankind building up Torrance, they are still there.”

Among the discoveries were Velvet ants, which are actually wasps that, apparently, have the terrifying ability to scream. Also discovered was the Solifugid, an arachnid that makes up a whole category by itself, as it is neither a spider nor a scorpion. Curiously, the report notes that the marsh is devoid of some of L.A.'s most common creepy-crawlies—researchers found no evidence of cockroaches or millipedes.

But let's backtrack a bit here: what, exactly, is a vernal marsh? As the Friends of Madrona Marsh inform us, it's a pool of water that exists in the lowest areas of a region; runoff from the slopes is collected here, turning the space into a watery ecosystem. These bodies of water have no natural outlet. The 2016 report noted, quite ominously, that 99.5% of the vernal pools in the southern parts of L.A. have been wiped out completely.

It’s Home To One Of The Densest Populations Of Japanese-Americans In The U.S.

As an outsider, you may have visited Torrance to drop in on the Mitsuwa food court. Or you may have stopped by one of the city’s vaunted ramen joints, which stand out in a Southern California that’s already glutted with great ramen shops. If you’ve suspected that there’s a big Japanese populace in the vicinity, your intuition is right. In fact, if we’re going by density, Torrance has one of the highest number of Japanese living outside of Japan, with nearly 10% of its residents having Japanese ancestry (in the contiguous United States, it’s only second to neighboring Gardena, where 11.6% of the locals have Japanese background).

There are several reasons why there’s such a large gathering of Japanese residents. According to Public Radio International, before World War II hit, Torrance was one of the few cities in Southern California that would lease land to non-U.S. citizens. Another factor was that a number Japanese farmers were intent on starting nurseries, and the South Bay was accommodating towards that goal, as a 1923 zoning code in the City of Los Angeles had banned plant nurseries from residential areas.

When the U.S. adopted the use of internment camps during World War II, the lives of Japanese-Americans were upturned in more ways than one. Upon release, they had to restart everything, professionally and socially. It was a big boon, then, that Japanese car manufacturing companies began setting up their American outposts in the South Bay. The companies were lured to the South Bay for the area’s proximity to LAX and the trade ports. The companies—ranging from Toyota, to Honda, and Nissan— offered jobs in manufacturing and various fields of administrative work, which meant they also offered a way for Japanese-Americans to re-discover their footing in a society that had broken their trust. By 1982, Toyota had moved its U.S. headquarters to Torrance. Honda followed suit a decade later.

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Oil field in Torrance. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
It Used To Be Covered With Oil Wells

Torrance had a hard time getting off the ground during its early days, despite the superstar team-up of Gill and Olmstead, and the utopian vision proffered by founder J. Sidney Torrance. Three years after its founding in 1912, the area still only had 350 residents, according to KCET. Then, in the early 1920s, oil was discovered deep within the ground of Torrance, and the city's population—coincidentally or not—began to boom.

The first "gusher" was struck sometime in late 1921, according to the Daily Breeze. And the oil boom would run through the 1920s, carpeting the region with wooden oil derricks. Initially, the oil came in at a rate of 2,500 barrels a day, and by the 1930s the wells were drawing more than 1 million barrels every six months. The Del Amo oil field alone had 1,492 wells, and it wasn't unheard of for families to have a well in their own backyard.

As residents kept pouring in, however, people started to regard the oil derricks as an eyesore. And, after World War II, the city looked towards real estate as a new source of wealth. In other words, the wells had to come down to make way for new generations of families, and by 1963 the city had torn down its last remaining derrick. Today, oil still plays a big part of the city's makeup, as the ExxonMobil refinery is among the biggest employers in Torrance. But even this single refinery has its detractors, and was the site of a big explosion in 2015, as well as recurring "flaring incidents."

Batman Faced Off With The Joker In A Surfing Competition In Torrance

Before Batman became a study in armchair psychology, and before Christopher Nolan had imbued it with his own brand of seriousness, the series was a technicolor mishmash of pulp weirdness. There was, of course, the ‘60s TV series starring Adam West, and no moment captured the spirit of Flower Power-era Batman better than a surf competition that pitted the Caped Crusader against the diabolical Joker.

In the episode "Surf's Up," the Joker (Cesar Romero) makes a power play for Gotham's affections by hatching a plan to become the best surfer in the city (don’t ask us how this makes sense). He uses a device to transfer surfing ability into his mind and body, and proceeds to demoralize all of Gotham's best surfers. Batman then steps in to challenge the Joker in a battle for wave supremacy, with Robin (Burt Ward), and a crowd of suntanned hipsters, looking on.

The beach scenes weren't filmed in Gotham, of course. They were shot on the sandy shores of Torrance. Was "Surf's Up" the city's finest moment in film and television? Perhaps not (that distinction likely goes to the aforementioned Jackie Brown), but the sight of West and Romero (who’d made his name in classics like The Thin Man and the original Ocean's 11) prancing around in board-shorts is something that will be cemented in the public consciousness, for better or worse, for a very long time.