Osborne is an amateur historian whose family came to Lawndale in 1909 and who lives in the city's oldest house, which was bequeathed to him by his grandmother. Drawing on a trove of old photographs and documents accumulated by his family over the generations, he has steadfastly maintained that Lawndale rightly dates to 1906, not 1959 when it incorporated as a city.
His efforts reached a culmination of sorts Saturday at the Lawndale Civic Center, where he and other like-minded Lawndalians marked the 100th birthday of their community with cake, punch and a display of civic memorabilia — a December 1913 issue of the defunct Lawndale Review newspaper, a 1918 letter of appointment to the town's first postmaster and a program from the Nov. 15, 1946, Lawndale Leuzinger High School-Inglewood football game.
Over three hours, organizers estimated, about 200 people attended the exhibition. The Leuzinger High School band stood outside the civic center and played "Happy Birthday," the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors sent formal birthday greetings and visitors shared a large cake decorated with "Happy 100th Birthday, Lawndale."
The affair was a magnet for residents whose tenure in the town long predates the visual amalgamation that overtook the separate cities in the area. Celebrating the history of Lawndale, no matter how anonymous the place might appear to an outsider, "matters a lot when you've lived here your whole life," said 70-year-old Angie Badalamente Borne, whose family came to the town in 1931.
Janice Givens, 66, a Lawndale resident since 1949, said "every town, big or little, should know what its history is, because we're all losing so much of it. When I see Lawndale, I see it as it was, not just as what it is."
Osborne fixed Lawndale's birth date as Feb. 25, 1906, because that's the day the Los Angeles real estate firm of E.L. Hopper and Son ran an ad in The Times that announced, "Opening Today … LAWNDALE … The New Town. A Home Community for Home-makers … " in the newly subdivided barley and wild oat fields southwest of Los Angeles.
Osborne, 47, a tall, lean, ponytailed man who is a public works supervisor for the city of Torrance, said the name Lawndale actually first appeared in an ad almost a year earlier, when the Hopper firm announced a sales campaign in which the barley fields were broken down into five- and 10-acre ranches. No one, however, responded to that ad, which prompted the firm to further subdivide the properties and have another go the following year.
"So you could say the actual birth of the community would be Feb. 25, 1906, because that's when people actually came here," Osborne said.
In teasing out the early history of his 2-square-mile hometown of 32,000 and compiling his recent self-published book, "Some Images of Lawndale's Past," Osborne came across a number of historical inaccuracies and omissions in earlier versions of the community's past.
The identity of E.L. Hopper, for example.
"For many years, people wondered who he was," Osborne said. "It turns out he was a woman.
"Elizabeth Hopper was an early businesswoman in Los Angeles. But the business was really run by her son Charles, who was really the founder of our community, and he was just a kid, 24 years old. He not only founded Lawndale, but Lakewood and South Gate, and was an early developer of Bel-Air. If you go to the official South Gate website, you'll find him listed as 'Hooper.' I think sometimes they got Hopper mixed up with a Hooper who was a druggist around here in the 1940s and '50s."
Similarly, accepted doctrine held that Lawndale got its name from the sight of the rolling fields of green wild oats that early visitors encountered. Osborne debunked that when he unearthed Charles Hopper's autobiography (only one copy of which is thought to exist), which stated that the name was borrowed from a Chicago subdivision founded in the early 1800s.
The Inglewood branch of the Los Angeles & Redondo Railroad (later acquired by the Pacific Electric railroad) extended through the barley fields, bringing with it potential emigrants from Chicago and southern Illinois, Osborne said, "and Hopper wanted them to feel at home."
In the century of the community's existence, change has barreled through Lawndale as in most other Southern California towns. The place went from barley field to sleepy farming community to white post-World War II working-class haven to heavily Latino-immigrant town.
Today, Osborne's small red farmhouse, built by his grandfather in 1909 on land that stretched to the horizon, cowers behind a tall hedge on Prairie Avenue, hemmed in by commercial buildings, stucco apartment houses and post-World War II bungalows.
Osborne said he wished Lawndale city officials had done more to promote the celebration, which did draw four out of the five City Council members and was mentioned on the city's website.
The question arises why people like Osborne and local history activist Sandy Suarez, charter members of the Lawndale Historical Society, which was formed last September, are so intent on preserving the history of a place whose history has changed so rapidly as to seem scarcely relevant.
For the 52-year-old Suarez, who has lived her entire life in Lawndale and has sent or is sending all 10 of her children to the city's public schools, it's a matter of giving younger people a sense of continuity in the place in which they live.
"Wherever you grow up, it's important to save some of what was," she said, as she arranged old copies of Leuzinger High's yearbook, "Pylon," on a table at the Civic Center. "That way our kids will have something to look back on."