Indian-Americans, 'Horsetown USA' clash over building plans

In this Thursday, Aug. 4, 2016 photo, two women on horseback ride near downtown in Norco, Calif. The Southern California city has rejected plans for a proposed Hindu cultural center partly because officials say the large, domed building doesn’t fit in with its Old West-style motif. The decision last month by the city of Norco has riled some Indian-Americans who say the move was discriminatory. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

A Southern California city striving to preserve its rural, equestrian lifestyle has denied a proposal for a Hindu cultural center

NORCO, Calif. — The Southern California city of Norco markets itself as "Horsetown USA," and it's not unusual for cowboy hat-wearing residents to head out for lunch or run errands on horseback in its Old West-styled downtown.

Local leaders celebrate that rural, equestrian lifestyle and are protective of it. Those who build must ensure their property includes Western architectural features such as a metal roof or overhang.

But some Indian-Americans are questioning the sincerity of that standard after the City Council rejected a proposal for a Hindu cultural center on a hilltop partly on grounds that the large, domed building wouldn't fit in. They think the decision — which came after residents urged the city to keep its culture and questioned why proponents chose the site — is discriminatory.

Dr. Krupali Tejura, a radiation oncologist who grew up in nearby Corona and works at an area hospital, got involved in the debate because she was offended by those who argued the center didn't fit.

"How does a community or a city decide it doesn't fit in with their lifestyle? How far does this go?" she asked.

Mayor Kevin Bash rejected that assertion.

"We turn down a lot of businesses. If they don't want to have a Western theme, guess what? They don't get built," he said, adding the center also was too big for such a steep lot and there were drainage concerns.

Norco's 26,000 residents are tucked among the vast suburbs south and east of Los Angeles. Once overwhelmingly white, the area has seen a surge in Hispanics and, more recently, Asians.

Southern California's Indian population is relatively small — accounting for only 1 percent of the population in a four county-area spanning Los Angeles and its southern and eastern suburbs — and is spread out across different cities.

But census data show the community has grown in recent years, especially in Riverside County, where Norco is located. There is a Sikh temple in Norco inside a grange hall-turned-church and a Hindu temple in the neighboring county, and Indian movies are shown at a Corona theater.

The controversy over the proposed cultural center has focused attention on how Norco can keep its Western theme and rural lifestyle while incorporating newcomers, and how those who arrive in the city can adapt to their surroundings while retaining their culture.

Manu Patolia, who proposed the project, said he is willing to ditch the domes and revamp the design of the 25,000-square-foot Swaminarayan Gurukul center, which would host Indian language classes for children and yoga for the community at large.

"I went around and took some pictures in Norco, and I showed them: Please tell us which one is the Western one that we can follow," Patolia said.

Patolia started laying out the changes for councilmembers but was told a revised project would need to go back to city planners for review. He said he is now weighing his options for the property, which he bought in the hopes of building the center.

City officials said the project not only lacks Western-styled architecture but could cause drainage and parking problems. They note they've pressured businesses ranging from veterinarians to Bob's Big Boy — whose mascot dons a city-funded cowboy hat — to get Western or get out.

Maintaining that look and feel is critical to drawing visitors and investments in horse-related businesses, Bash said. Its rural vibe is what drew many residents to the Riverside County city in the first place. As the suburbs grew more crowded and urban, people sought a quieter place where they could ride horses and keep chickens in their backyards.

Bonnie Slager, president of the Norco Horsemen's Association, has nine horses and a rooster on the lot where she lives. The retired accounting professor said the Hindu community is welcome but a big domed building with potential drainage problems is not.

"Not that things have to look like a Western fort," Slager said. "We just really don't want things that are all glass and metal and look kind of like something from Disneyland's Tomorrowland."

What makes Norco a prime spot for any community center or hub is its proximity to freeways that cut across the region. The Indian-American community's diverse cultures and religious traditions add to the demand for centralized locations where people can congregate, said Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate dean of University of California, Riverside's School of Public Policy.

Since the vote, Tejura said she has been dismayed by residents' comments bashing Hindus in online community chat groups.

She remembers as a child being shuttled by her father more than 20 miles each way to Indian dance classes and taking Gujarati language classes in the back of an area bowling alley. Virtually the only local restaurant options were burgers and Mexican food.

Dave Vadodaria, who lives in nearby Orange County, said the center would help keep alive Hindu teachings and culture as the children of Indian immigrants grow up American. Born in Uganda, he said, he had to work to reconnect with his Hindu culture after attending school in England.

"People are mingling with different parts of the world. People are seeing different cultures. You can't just close your doors," said Vadodaria, who owns an electronics business.

"We are eating fusion food these days, Indian-Chinese, Indian with American. Everything is becoming fusion," he said. "Why can't it become a fusion community?"

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