As a lifelong Pasadenan, author Chip Jacobs thought he knew his hometown well. That is, until he started researching the real history of Pasadena and its “concrete queen,” the Colorado Street Bridge, for his debut novel “Arroyo.”
Published Tuesday by Rare Bird Books, Arroyo chronicles a fictional story that is rooted in historical fact. It takes place in 1912-13, when the bridge was being constructed, and 1993, during the bridge’s 80th anniversary celebration. While conducting extensive research on Pasadena’s history for the book, Jacobs discovered many sordid stories that didn’t comport with what he thought he knew about the Crown City.
“I tried to write an alternate version of Pasadena that doesn’t smear Pasadena’s name, but also tells the truth,” he said. “The majority of the information about the city is real. I took real incidents and built a story around them. Pasadena is very different from its coffee table canon. It is a glorious, accomplished city that has more culture, science and creativity than many other cities per capita, but it’s not perfect. I felt the weight of history on me as I wrote this book. I had to get it right. I’m trying to tell a story but also inform.”
Jacobs, a Pasadena Weekly contributor, is also the author of “Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles”; “The People’s Republic of Chemicals”; “Strange as It Seems: The Impossible Life of Gordon Zahler”; “The Ascension of Jerry: Murder, Hitmen and the Making of L.A. Muckraker Jerry Schneiderman”; “The Vicodin Thieves”: “Biopsying L.A.’s Grifters, Gloryhounds and Goliaths”; and “Black Wednesday Boys.”
“Arroyo” is his first work of fiction.
Jacobs will read from and discuss “Arroyo” at his book launch at 7 p.m. tomorrow (Oct. 18) at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd. Former Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard will emcee the event, which will also feature a Pie & Burger truck (a restaurant that plays a role in the book) and wine and beer (an ode to Busch Gardens, an estate owned by Anheuser-Busch founder Adolphus Busch and one of the main stomping grounds of the book’s characters). In fact, Vroman’s Bookstore’s founder, A.C. Vroman, figures into the plot as well.
The book’s characters also interact with historical figures such as Teddy Roosevelt, Rose Parade founder Charles Holder, newspaperman Charles Lummis, aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe, muckraker Upton Sinclair and others. Major scenes take place at Cawston Ostrich Farm, Mount Lowe Railway, Hotel Green (now Castle Green), the Raymond Hotel, Busch Gardens, the Doo Dah Parade and other local landmarks.
Jacobs will also present his book on Nov. 7 at Flintridge Bookstore & Coffeehouse, Nov. 21 at the Pasadena Museum of History and Jan. 16 at the Pasadena Central Library.
Bridge to the Past
It’s rare for a book to make one laugh out loud, but Arroyo, written in clever, funny prose, does that several times. Th.e book includes fantastical scenes such as the main character, Nick Chance, racing a brand new Ford Model-T while riding an ostrich from South Pasadena’s Cawston Ostrich Farm in an early, offbeat test of machine versus animal. To find out who wins, you’ll have to read the book.
The book includes an origin story for the green parrots that fly over Pasadena to this day. There are several rumors about how the parrots got here, including that a pet store burned down in the 1970s. But in Jacobs’ telling, an excited boy chases Chance riding a Cawston ostrich, which freaks out and runs through the Arroyo, slamming into a cage holding 37 green parrots. The cage crashes open and the parrots escape, much to the chagrin of two shifty characters who intended to sell the exotic birds on the black market to wealthy patrons. In those days, feathers were all the rage in women’s fashion.
“Arroyo” takes place during the Progressive Era, a time when the Raymond Hotel still stands, when Busch Gardens (once dubbed the “eighth wonder of the world”) hadn’t yet been overrun by residential development, and when automobiles hadn’t yet overtaken horses — or in this case, ostriches — as the primary mode of transportation.
Chance starts out as an assistant manager at Cawston Ostrich Farm and then, when he gets fired from there, as a worker on the budding Colorado Street Bridge installing solar lights that he invented. But the bridge and the universe have bigger plans in store for him and his clairvoyant dog, Royo, who saves Chance from an explosion on South Fair Oaks Avenue.
The book also highlights a rarely told story about a fatal collapse of part of the bridge on Aug. 1, 1913, just weeks before its highly anticipated grand opening, albeit a story told by Jacobs himself in an article in the Pasadena Weekly published on Sept. 18, 2003, titled “Bridge to the Past.” In fact, that story was the initial seed of the idea for this book.
“It was my story in the Weekly about the bridge that galvanized this novel,” he said. “Three people got killed in the collapse. It feels like I have to get angry before I start a book, and I was angry when I walked on the bridge for the story and saw a plaque exalting the Pasadena Board of City Directors [now City Council members], the contractor who died in a car accident before the bridge even opened and the designer who wasn’t on speaking terms with the city because he was so infuriated that they added a curve to his bridge design. But they didn’t give even a mention of the three people who died during construction. It was appalling. That fueled me to write this story, and it touched a nerve.”
In that story, Jacobs wrote that the mold for the top of the ninth arch of the bridge “buckled, creat[ing] a thunderous pancaking action that snatched three workers — and almost eight more — in a violent, plunging mass. Hundreds of tons of wet concrete, scaffolding and machinery came crashing onto the floor of the valley, kicking up dust and pandemonium.”
The other catalyst for Jacobs to write this book was the continuing trend of people leaping from the 150-feet high bridge to their deaths in the Arroyo Seco, establishing its unfortunate and tenacious moniker, “Suicide Bridge.”
“It made me feel almost like the bridge itself was getting a bad name,” Jacobs said. “I felt like I needed to defend her. She’s a benevolent force. She’s been trashed and almost destroyed by the wrecking ball numerous times — thank God for our preservationists who value it. Somebody needed to be her biographer. That’s what I’m trying to do, to tell her origin story.”
Well over 100 people have used the bridge to end their lives, going back to the bridge’s earliest days and then the Great Depression. The first actual suicide wasn’t on the bridge itself, but rather a little way down the Arroyo, when a judge who was despondent about the death of his wife intentionally overdosed on laudanum, a Progressive Era opium tincture. One of the first jumpers, Jacobs wrote in his 2003 PW story, was the “ill wife of a Los Angeles tie maker.”
One of the most shocking incidents occurred in 1937, when Myrtle Ward, a young, depressed mother who had just lost her job, threw her baby off the bridge and then jumped herself. The baby landed in a tree and survived; her mother did not.
“I felt a little callous even writing about suicide, because what do I know? Think about somebody who lost a loved one there and they have to drive by that bridge every day,” Jacobs said. “I tried to keep the suicide part only a consequential element of the book, not the driving force.”
The city of Pasadena still struggles to this day with how to prevent suicides while maintaining the historical and aesthetic character of the bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In May, the city hired Donald MacDonald Architects to develop a proposal to address the issue. On Sept. 26, the city held its first community meeting for its Colorado Street Bridge Suicide Mitigation Enhancements Project to present the design of a vertical barrier with end treatments and gather feedback and ideas from the public.
“I don’t know the answer, but I’m sure some kind of barrier can coexist with the original magnificence of the Colorado Street Bridge,” Jacobs said. n