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The Palm Trees of Westchester Are In Danger

Westchester, California by David J. Dukesherer

What would one day become Westchester, California, was not much more than farmland in 1929. The area surrounding what would become Loyola Marymount University produced just a few dozen homes, and only one improved road; Lincoln Boulevard, allowed access to the region. Just below The Bluffs, the Los Angeles “Red Cars” serviced the area with stations at Playa Del Rey, and a trolley car stop at Lincoln and Jefferson Boulevards; a short automobile or wagon ride away.

Local developers Fitz Burns and his partners at Dickinson and Gillespie Real Estate, joined forces with neighbor Harry Culver, and donated two large tracts of land to the Society of Jesus, and the new Loyola University Los Angeles was developed. Long before the area was referred to as the Westchester Bluffs, the land was known as the Del Rey Hills.

Burns and his partners had formed something called the Blankenthorn Syndicate to help develop the idea of a new “college town,” recognizing the successes of places such as Menlo Park, California, home to Stanford University. Essentially they believed that by building a college in the area, real estate demand would rise.

Unfortunately for Burns and his partners, the development of Westchester would not become a reality for eight or ten years. The stock market crash of 1929 and The Great Depression suppressed real estate growth for many years, but eventually the economy rebounded and the town would indeed be born.

Burns had developed Palisades Del Rey and Surfridge, California, known today as Playa Del Rey, and used many new innovations to support that enterprise. These included a weekly newspaper, lighted outdoor billboards, bi-plane rides, and the liberal planting of non-native palm trees. The palm trees not only gave the beachside community a tropical feel, but also could be seen from long distances and led buyers to the otherwise nearly tree-less new neighborhood.

Recognizing the even more stark and barren landscape surrounding the new Loyola University, legend says that palm trees were planted up Lincoln Boulevard and up and along 85th Street; then the only street leading easterly to campus, where it met at Loyola Boulevard. There was not yet an 83rd Street, and Fordham Road (Fordham Walk), was a footpath. Manchester Blvd. was still unimproved in those days, and was also a dirt road. The line of trees led the way to the new campus and fledgling town.

Another line of trees then led travelers back north to the new campus, and even more palm trees were randomly planted all over the new campus. The trees also led travelers
to and through the new development of “University Studio Center/Loyola,” where new homes were being built on newly laid out streets, named for Jesuit Colleges, such as Regis, Holy Cross, Creighton, and Georgetown.

The name; University Studio Center, was a neologism for Loyola University, and Harry Culver’s nearby Studio interests in Culver City, and is generally attributed to Fritz Burns
Fittingly, early Christians used the palm branch to symbolize the victory of the faithful over enemies of the soul, as in the Palm Sunday festival celebrating the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

Most of these trees continue to flourish on campus and are very well maintained by the campus gardeners. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for the trees that continue to line the streets outside of campus. Many of the trees have gone untrimmed for many years due to City budget cuts, and create havoc and a mess during windstorms, much to the displeasure of local residents. Recently at the intersection of 85th and Loyola, two of these original 1929 behemoths had to be cut down, and if you look carefully, many other trees along the route have met with the same fate.

Pruning palm trees is an important part of the care of palm trees. It is as atypical as palm trees themselves. Palms are monocots, which means palm trees do not have a continued outward growth in their trunks like a typical tree where new wood is being created. A palm's trunk may appear to grow like a tree but in reality it is an expansion of the tissue first formed. If palm fronds are yellow, brown or broken, they must be pruned.

The next time you are in the area, look up into the trees and you will see the dangerously high amount of dead fronds; dangerous to the health of the tree, and also dangerous to pedestrians. Also due to lack of care, evasive plants and shrubs are growing from the palm tree crowns.

It seems to me that this bit of local history is worth preserving, and the City of Los Angeles should get the job done.


LOYOLA UNIVERSITY LOS ANGELES, 1928. Scale model of the future campus of Loyola University of Los Angeles is displayed in front of the William H. Evans real estate agency as a sales promotion for homes and businesses in "California's new cultural district; University Studio Center." (Complements, Westchester, California; An Early History of Westchester & Playa Vista California, Author).

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