Vernon is one of the 88 cities within LA County and is undoubtedly the strangest, perhaps in all of the country.
Today the legendarily corrupt industrial town is 5.2 square miles of concrete, steel, and smokestacks. A daytime drive through the city can feel almost post-apocalyptic—humans are scarce, ensconced as they are behind the walls of factories, adult toy outlets, or warehouses. Around 100,000 people work in Vernon every day, but only about 200 live there. It is almost unbelievable for the modern visitor to Vernon to believe, but a little over 100 years ago, this area southeast of Downtown Los Angeles was an idyllically agrarian stretch of land, known as “the garden spot” of Los Angeles County and “sweet Vernon, loveliest village of the plain.” It was a land of magnolias, lemon groves, palm, and pear trees. Citizens in Vernon described their community as a land of churches, cobblers, and chemists, and never-ending orchards.
By the 1890s, Vernon had been divided into east and west, and developers had begun to suburbanize vast tracts of land. Much of west Vernon was annexed by the city of Los Angeles and swallowed up into the ever-expanding city. Into these fast-paced times came a Basque businessman and merchant named John B. Leonis, who slowly began buying up land in what was left of the east Vernon farming district. Leonis had learned many tricks from his legendary, ruthless kinsman Miguel Leonis, “the King of Calabasas,” who he worked for until the latter was crushed to death by a wagon in 1889. He planned to control Vernon much like his uncle had once ruled Calabasas; it wouldn’t be a land of ranches and farms he oversaw, but a modern city of industry. Bemoaning the loss of Vernon’s beautiful farmland, a writer for the LA Times mused: “The irrigation water has been shut off, and the last of the old orchards and gardens are falling into the hands of the ruthless subdivider.” In 1905, the remaining citizens of Vernon voted to incorporate as a city. Leonis and his right-hand man James Furlong were installed on the board of trustees, which would rule the industrial hamlet for decades. 
The changes in Vernon were staggeringly swift. Leonis, William Stevens, Furlong, and his brother Tom controlled everything that happened in the city. They were accused of being underhanded and vulgar; laws were unenforced and criminals and drunks ran amok. By 1907, previously genteel Vernon was a town of saloons, gambling dens, and disreputable day-trippers from Los Angeles. The board of trustees overstayed their welcome, not holding the elections they were required to have every two years. The citizens of Vernon complained to no avail as the town became more and more disreputable. In 1908, a Vernon citizen filed a lawsuit against the board of trustees alleging that they “willfully and knowingly refused and neglected to pass any ordinance providing for the election of their successors.” Their backs against the wall, the trustees finally held an election on March 1, 1908. Suspiciously, the ruling trustees won by a landslide, but everyone in the county knew they were adept at “manipulating things to suit themselves.” Leonis leaned into Vernon’s reputation and set about to make it the capital of sporting events in Southern California, including an outdoor boxing ring, a tavern which featured a 100-foot-long bar and a minor-league baseball team playing in a custom-built stadium. There was also a scandalous “country club” where dancing girls solicited the company of city men. There were consequences to this booze-soaked atmosphere. The “country club” closed after 18 people were killed or injured in drunk driving accidents after leaving the club. A young boxer was accidentally killed in the ring at the Pacific Athletic Club. A deputy marshal was shot to death after an altercation in a saloon.

But these tragedies were a small price to pay in the trustees’ eyes. In 1915, a suspiciously fawning article ran in the Los Angeles Times, declaring that the “people of Vernon like the smell of factory smoke and freely admit it.” It was a good thing they did because the city was filling with oil refineries, slaughterhouses, and stockyards. There were beef companies, paper plants, iron works, and even a car wheel plant. And all this was thanks to President James Furlong, City Clerk “Uncle Tom” Furlong, and Trustee John B. Leonis. By the 1920s, Vernon was a thriving manufacturing center—in many ways America’s first “industrial park” triggering a flight of residents.” Those who remained rented their lodgings directly from the city leaders and therefore were expected to vote for them and cause no trouble. Leonis was the “uncrowned King of Vernon,” as legendary and feared as his kinsmen Miguel had once been. According to a local businessman: "Only 32 voters went to the polls at the last Vernon election. Leonis runs the Vernon government. In that town you do not file papers at City Hall. You simply hand them to John and he puts them in his pocket. If he is in favor of the proposition, it goes through, if he is opposed, that is the last you hear of it."
Descendants of the Furlong family would co-rule Vernon until 1974. The Leonis family would hang on until longtime Mayor Leonis C. Malburg (John’s grandson) was convicted of voter fraud and conspiracy in 2009; the family, its administrators and lawyers illegally having siphoned off millions of dollars. Rumors of corruption and connections to organized crime have clouded thereputation of the small town, which continues to be known as the “most business friendly city” in the country. One can only imagine what the Victorian residents of Vernon would think of their rural agrarian paradise today.
The best way to illustrate the absolute uniqueness of Vernon is this satellite map showing the ENTIRE city is industrial compared to the mixed use, working class cities of Maywood and Huntington Park adjacent to it. There’s just no place like it.

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