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Census snapshot: Lakewood finds that tolerance comes with diversity

December 8, 2008 |  8:41 pm

LakewoodNew U.S. Census data released tonight shows the growing integration of Southern California cities. The Times sent reporters into some cities that have seen greater diversity in the last few years to talk to residents and city officials. Here is a dispatch from Lakewood, a once predominately white suburb that has seen an influx of Latino and Asian residents.

Chhandena Sdoerng, 23, moved to the border between Lakewood and Long Beach about 13 years ago. He said he spends most of his time in Lakewood, where he works at a stand in the Lakewood Center Mall that sells betta fish, accessories and plants.

Sdoerng, who moved from east Long Beach because houses in Lakewood were more affordable for his Cambodian immigrant parents, said he's seen the number of Asians living in his neighborhood quadruple over the last 13 years. He also noticed that people's attitudes toward minorities have changed too.

"It's more diverse now," he said. "Ten, 12 years ago, when you walked into a grocery store, it was a little awkward. It was weird to find your own race in there. Now, it's more mixed. It's friendlier.

"Back then, there were four Asians on my city block including myself, one African American, three Hispanics. Now there's 20 Asians, probably 10 Mexicans, maybe five blacks," he said.

Gloria Chavez, who is Mexican American, moved to Lakewood three years ago to live with her daughter after her husband died.

"When I first started going to church here, it was all white," she said. "Now, there are a lot more Filipinos and Mexicans, in addition to whites."

Chavez said that her neighborhood is "more diverse than it used to be. It's a mixture, lately, of a lot of different races," she said, noting that her next-door neighbors are a black couple, and the woman who lives across the street is Filipino.

Tammy Sutton, 45, moved to Lakewood from Paramount 19 years ago. The merchandiser for American Greetings is biracial -- her father is black and her mother is white.

"When we first moved here, we were the only black family in the neighborhood," she said. "When my son started school, he was one of two black kids. Now, it's a mixture of everything."

On her block alone, there are two Hispanic families, two black families, a white family and an Asian family, Sutton said. "Over the 20 years, you just see more and more cultures living here," she said. "When I first moved here, it was mainly a white area. Now, it's everybody, and it's nice."

Donald Waldie, assistant to the city manager, said Lakewood has long been a place where new families could get a fresh start.

"The community is fulfilling its historical role. It's the kind of town where new families make new lives, and these days the people making new lives are overwhelmingly people of color," Waldie said.

The racial demographics of the city began to change dramatically in the mid-1980s, when more minorites began moving to Lakewood, he said. Between 1986 and 2006, a batch of Vietnamese, Korean, Cambodian and Japanese restaurants began popping up around the city as the face of the community changed, adding color to the existing cuisine at Mexican and American restaurants.

"Lakewood lives diversely and dines diversely," he said. "These are the kinds of businesses that reflect the immigrant entrepreneurs who often begin their climb up the economic ladder on a small family business."

The five-member Lakewood City Council has four white members and one Latino.

--Catherine Ho

Photo: City of Lakewood