I made up my mind to move to Pasadena in 1989, shortly after I signed my first book contract. At the time I was living in Silver Lake in a cottage so drenched in charm that I was willing to overlook the owner’s eccentricities. But with the publisher’s advance, I decided to get away from crazy landlords. It didn’t take long to find the perfect place: another one-bedroom cottage, this one built in the late ’20s and maintained in immaculate condition. There were peg-and-groove floors, a wood-burning fireplace, high beamed ceilings and the original octagonal terracotta tile flooring in the kitchen and dining room (complete with French doors leading to a small patio area). A fountain splashed outside my tall living-room windows, and there was a charming arch of mullioned glass panes near the top of the slanted 15-foot ceiling of the dining room, which I decided to use as my office. The rent was $700 a month and dogs were welcome. I signed the lease, called Bekins and started to pack. I lived happily in that small cottage and wrote four books and a number of magazine features there until 2010, when the rent, which had been raised at reasonable intervals and at impeccably fair rates, suddenly zoomed up by $200 a month. My Mister didn’t waste a moment: he moved me, my beloved service dog, Bobbie, and all our stuff into his much larger apartment (large but equipped, sadly, with gray polyester wall-to-wall carpeting and low ceilings sprayed with a substance that appears to be cottage cheese). But, hey — I was damn happy to be with the Mister and to be made to feel so welcome.
Now it’s six years later and we’re looking to buy a condo. Not so easy, it turns out.
On a whim, we decided to take a look in downtown L.A. — and I mean the real downtown — you know, Spring Street, Broadway, like that. The first place we saw had a beautiful lobby: marble floors and bronze lighting fixtures. We were stoked. Then we saw the advertised “loft” — there were wood floors, all right, and one might have been able to see the grain if the years of accumulated dirt were sanded off. The sleeping area faced (by inches) the grubby windowless kitchen, and what few windows there were afforded a riveting view of the brick wall of the adjoining building.
The price for this inviting piece of real estate? More than 550,000 bucks. We trudged on. The next place we saw was a former hotel that could easily have been where the Black Dahlia spent her last night on earth. We looked at the rust-stained sinks and shower, the miniscule closet covered with a skimpy length of cloth and silently agreed. Enough.
So here we are, back with the polyester and the cottage cheese. But after the beauts we checked out, our apartment looks — well, almost looks — pretty good. Okay, at least better. And the good news? Pasadena is growing. Everywhere you look, and I mean everywhere, there are houses in various states of decrepitude being torn down (three on our street alone) and earth movers, cranes and porta-potties moving in. We just learned that a fairly large condo complex will go up in that space. But the Mister and I have our eyes on a vast three-story Victorian house near Old Pasadena that is in the process of not being destroyed. It’s being renovated, cellar to roof, and sectioned off into spacious condos. One can only hope that the contractors will sand and polish floors that are more than likely parquet, refurbish all those wainscots along the walls and freshen up the crown moldings around the luxuriously high ceilings. Then there’s the jewel of Crown City: Castle Green. I think everyone of us who lives in Pasadena has at least driven past that extraordinary monument built before the turn of the 20th century.
The new places going up are, in the main, condominiums, tall-windowed and balconied. And one can see, sprouting all along Lake Street and Colorado Boulevard, spanking new shops displaying the latest must-haves in trendy fashion. There’s a charming place that sells only hats — and good ones (I got the Mister a fine black fedora there for Christmas) — and always, those two temples of beauty: MAC and Sephora. I think the first time I became aware of the changes was when that big movie theater on the corner of De Lacey and Colorado became (almost overnight, it seemed) a rather large Tiffany & Co. And then I noticed that the myriad of small bookshops along Colorado were disappearing like falling dominos, replaced by yogurt shops and exotic restaurants, a couple of them very good. Still, I miss those dust-moted book-stores with their sagging shelves and unsteady stacks of old Life magazines.
But why grumble? Our public library on Walnut still stands, a tribute to 1920s Spanish-style glory — its Christmas tree, reaching proudly up toward the ceiling of the reading room each December, further proof that some things remain constant. And Vroman’s, one of the best book-sellers west of the Strand in New York remains, stuffed with the newest books, reissues of older favorites and pride in its Pasadena authors. The jade-green strip of bas-relief that graces the Colorado-facing walls above the windows is a tribute to Art Deco, and it glides along for at least a half-block, a reminder that this city appreciates beauty — both old and new.
So every time I drive past all those newly built condos (some still unfinished) on Pasadena Avenue, I remind myself that the regrowth, or renewal, or whatever you want to call it is a good thing. And I’m reminded of those Con Ed signs I used to see near open manhole covers in Manhattan. They read: “Dig We Must For A Growing New York.” Those signs seemed to be everywhere. Well, now it’s Pasadena’s turn and, in the timeless words of Yogi Berra, it’s déjà vu all over again.
Léon Bing is the author of Do or Die; Swans and Pistols: Modeling, Motherhood and Making It in the Me Generation; Smoked: A True Story of the Kids Next Door; and A Wrongful Death: One Child’s Fatal Encounter with Public Health
and Private Greed.
She lives in Pasadena.