It’s hard to talk seasons when discussing Southern California. After all, the running joke is that we only have one. But there’s something about spring here. The city feels like it was made for these months. There’s a certain buzz in the air. Spring is when everything comes alive here — especially the flowers.
Los Angeles County has some of the world’s most fertile soil. In the early 1900s, we held the distinction of being the No. 1 agricultural county in the entire nation. The flower district in Downtown Los Angeles today remains a strong echo of that agricultural past.
But much has changed since the Southern California Flower Market and the Original Los Angeles Flower Market opened their doors on Wall Street in the early 1900s to create the flower district in Los Angeles.
When the flower market first opened, it was teaming with local growers. Today, however, that’s not the case. Businesses businesses such as Muranaka Mums, Inc., run by third-generation growers and wholesalers Carolyn Toya and her brother Ron Muranaka, are now an endangered species.
Toya and Muranaka cut their flowers fresh each day and drive them downtown directly from their farm to the market, just as their grandfather did when he first immigrated to California from Japan in the early 1900s.
“He came as a houseboy and somewhere along the line he started to grow flowers,” Toya said. “He did it very simply. Then he used to come in and bring the product, like we still do, for whoever would buy it.”
The increasing price for resources, such as land, labor, water and energy, coupled with competition from cheaper importers, who can grow in countries with fewer regulations and more favorable growing conditions, caused many California growers to discontinue their businesses. Today, Muranaka Mums, Inc. supports 25 employees, many of whom live on its 12-acre farm, together with 22 greenhouses, which they have to heat in the winter and cool in the summer.
“We keep hanging in there, but it’s been tough,” Toya said. “It’s been tough for all the growers. The energy costs in California are tremendous. Some people actually don’t heat, but if you don’t heat, it takes a lot longer for the product to grow to harvest, so we do that.”
Paul Goldman of Allen’s Flower Market in Reseda, Calif., has a generational perspective on the flower district. He has been coming to the markets since he was a little boy. Flowers are in his family: Both of his brothers work in the business and his father was one of the first wholesalers to ship in bulk to supermarkets.
“As a kid, walking around with my dad, everyone knew each other,” Goldman said. “They’d curse and yell at each other and do their deals. It was really more of a fraternity. By six, seven in the morning, all the guys who worked there were getting ready to go to the racetrack. They were playing poker and gin rummy, and they were drunk. They were all drinking and carousing and playing dollar poker. The culture was a real good ol’ boy network.”
Today, much of that fraternity has faded away. The small local growers who traditionally sold their own product have been replaced by wholesale dealers who buy their flowers internationally. The opening of the market to the public in the 1990s has also caused many of the wholesale buyers to choose to buy their flowers directly from growers or importers.
Scott Yamabe, the general manager of the Southern California Flower Market, came to the market in the mid-1990s, when the district was already in transition.
“This place had it made back in the ’80s,” Yamabe said. “I mean the story had it that they put up ropes on all the entrances. At four o’clock, the bell would ring and the ropes would go down. This place would be jammed with [florists] and they would literally run in and try to buy flowers. By six o’clock, all the flowers on the floor would be gone.”
By the time Yamabe had entered the business, however, the district was making room for international business, from countries such as Mexico and Thailand.
“Up until the 1980s, the flowers in the U.S. that you saw were from California. It was that big of a business,” Yamabe said. “California still has a small grower population — you have some guys up in Santa Barbara, Ventura, the Oxnard area, some in San Diego, some up in Salinas, the Bay Area. But that’s pretty much it. The rest of them are importers. It’s really changed the business.”
Still, some traditions of the district have held on.
“Every Wednesday, my dad still comes down to the flower market, and I have breakfast with him and my brother,” Goldman said. “There’s still a few old-timers down there. One of them, this old Japanese guy, you always see him walking around the market and it looks like he’s drinking coffee, but it’s really whiskey.”
No longer will businesses like Muranaka Mums, Inc., however dominate the district. The floral business has changed and the clock can’t be turned back. Today, the future of the district’s traditions, set by its founding members almost a century ago, is uncertain. For the time being however, Toya continues to follow the tradition that her father and grandfather established: bringing fresh flowers directly from farm to market.
“We pride ourselves on the freshness and the quality of the product. That’s all we can really do. From my grandfather’s days, to my dad’s, to us. It’s always been that way,” Toya said.
Jackie Mansky is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column “City of Angels” runs Tuesdays.