Sunday, June 26, 2011

Once Upon a Brick --- A Simons Brick

I like to explore old maps of Los Angeles and its environs. And when I discover something I'd never heard of before, I'll often get in my time machine (OK, my car) and drive into the future of that map. Such it was when I saw an old map of the area that's now Montebello and the City of Commerce and I noticed a train stop and what looked like a town called Simons. If you ever drive through the area on I-5, it's north of the freeway and north of Telegraph Road, just a bit east of Garfield. There's a Home Depot close by that's pretty close to what was once called Simons.

It was a huge brick manufacturing company, but even more interesting was what I learned about how the owners created a self-contained little city for the employees --- almost all of whom had come north from Mexico to work there, live there, dine there, attend church there, go to school there and even watch movies in the theater there.

When I drove to the area, there was practically nothing left. The school that you'll hear about in the video below is still there, but not the original buildings. What was once a self-contained community is now one of those typical industrial zones with look-alike buildings. I found a few houses that may have been there to house employees. I'll have to do some public records searches to learn more.

Now, whenever I see building or sidewalks made of brick, I look for the distinctive "Simons" bricks. I first found one as part of the steps in front of Shakey's in Burbank. Then I discovered that my neighbors, Jan and Henry, had a couple of Simons bricks on their walkway. Most recently, I found Simons bricks adorning the front walkway in front of my friend Pat Hall's house in Hacienda Heights. OK, I'm hooked on the story of the Simons Brick Factory, better known as Simons Brick Company No. 3.

Today, I was pleased to find a wonderful video made by people who really know how to do the perfect oral history interviews. And they're pretty good at production, as well. I invite you to enjoy it.

And in case you didn't read the full description that goes along with it, I'm including it here:

An interview with Rosa Lemus Carlos who grew up at Simons Brick Company No.3 in Montebello, California.

Her father was a decades-long employee there. Simons Brick Company, established in the Los Angeles area before the turn of the last century, grew to become the biggest brick producer in the world, and to make the millions of bricks that were used to build much of Los Angeles, San Francisco and cities throughout the nation.

Simons imported thousands of Mexican workers and their families to Los Angeles in order to work and live at their 300 acre facility. Simons was almost literally a Mexican town, where generations of Spanish-speaking workers and their families were housed, worked, went to school, worshiped and shopped - and where they died. The work of making bricks was back-breaking and pay was low. But as Rosa Carlos's interview shows, their lives there (and that of their families) were centered around far more than just grueling work: Simons families' cultural and social life was multi-layered, multi-faceted and enriching in its own way.

The Simons Brick Company went bankrupt in the 1950s and closed after more than sixty years of existence, due to changing construction methods causing brick sales to decline drastically. The shanty homes of the workers and their families were condemned and demolished, along with the entire brick yard. Hundreds of Mexican residents saw their homes torn down and the debris set afire, but their memories of their lives at Simons lived on.

Rosa's interview excerpt, from the epic documentary film "Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles" is very moving and enlightening.

See more at

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The man who probably saved my life a dozen times

It was 50 years ago today that I learned of his untimely death.

I first saw him parked there on his motorcycle at the corner on Seventh Street and Verdugo Avenue. He was facing north. I was going south. I guess I didn't think the stop sign at Verdugo applied to me, so I ran it. The police officer pointed his gloved finger at me and gestured to where he wanted me to stop.

Then he wrote the ticket.

My first ticket.

Driver: Donald Ray

Age: 10

Vehicle make: Murray Bicycle.

Place of employment: Joaquin Miller School.

Occupation: Grammer School (That's right, he misspelled grammar, but I must confess that I wasn't the one who caught the gaffe).

Anyway, the punishment was mandatory attendance in the basement of the Burbank Police Building on a Saturday morning. It was traffic school for kids. And that same motorcycle cop was in charge.

Officer Joe Wilson.

Truth be told, all of us kids there were frightened when he first stood up in his motorcycle boots and stared us down.

I'll say this: we paid attention to what he had to say. And what he taught was the traffic code -- the rules of the road. It was Officer Joe Wilson who made it clear to us that we had to obey all of the same laws that drivers of automobiles on city streets had to obey. I mean, he made it perfectly clear, or else.

OK, so I was a slow learner. I think I learned them one violation at a time.

It seems that whenever I would find it more convenient to ride on the sidewalk or to give my buddy a ride on the back of my bike, Officer Wilson was watching me.

And he'd ticket me again. Another Saturday. Another lecture. It happened several times over the next couple of years. It got to where I could sing along with Jiminy Cricket in the bicycle safety cartoon Officer Wilson would show us at the end. Jiminy sang it again and again.

"I'm no fool. Nosiree. I'm gonna live to be 23. I play safe for you and me cause I'm no fool."

Of course, the next time he sang it it was 33, then 43 and so on until at least 93.

I believe that Officer Wilson singlehandedly taught an entire generation of young boys (and a few girls) how to drive safely -- for life. It was a time when the Burbank Police Department was willing to invest in a full-time traffic officer to teach young people the rules of the road -- and cite them when they broke those rules.
I wish they would do that today. I believe it would save lives.

There's no way to measure how many lives Officer Wilson saved over the last 50 years. I still think of him as a hero. And I have to believe that his lessons have kept me alive for five decades.

You see, when I watch impatient people drive through stop signs in their cars, or ride their bikes on the sidewalk or speed through intersections, I think about Officer Joseph R. Wilson.

And I think about the drunk driver who, on June 17, 1961, ran a red light and plowed into the police motorcycle that Officer Wilson was driving.

I cried the next morning when I saw it in the Burbank Review.

For many years, his lone photograph was on display in the lobby of the Burbank Police Department. The last time I looked, it was still on display, but there were photos of at least two other Burbank Police Officers who died in the line of duty.

A few years ago, I asked for the cooperation of the media relations officer at BPD -- I wanted to track down the wife and children of Officer Joe Wilson so that I could thank them for what their husband and father did for me. But the Public Information Officer turned me down. Privacy restrictions.

Then I went through the old news clippings at the Burbank Leader (formerly the Burbank Review) and was able to get the details I needed. I pulled Officer Wilson's death certificate at the County Recorder's office to learn more details -- details that might help me find his children. I cited the California Public Records Act in a records request I filed with the Burbank City Attorney's office. They ignored my request to be put in touch with the Officer Wilson's wife or children. I'm usually pretty good at finding people, but I wasn't that lucky this time around.

Maybe it wasn't meant to be.

Officer Joseph R.Wilson died a day or two before Father's Day.

This Father's Day, I honor Officer Joseph R. Wilson, 50 years later.

I believe that he cared about me the way a father would. And he cared about scores of other young Burbank kids the same way.

If somehow this message reaches the children of Officer Wilson -- they'd be in their 50s now -- please know that your father has surely saved countless lives, including mine.

I'm certain.