For as long as it’s been a city, South Pasadena has rightly considered itself its own town, and not merely an extension of much larger Pasadena.
Of course, it had been just that to some degree in its early years, kind of like siblings inasmuch as the slightly younger city is contiguous to Pasadena, and it had taken in those families and others escaping the toxic hustle and bustle of its much larger neighbor to the north in the late 1880s and early 1890s.
Unlike Pasadena, however, South Pasadena, outside of some conveniences of modern life, has remained pretty much as it was since the early decades of the last century, its many tree-lined streets filled with stately homes fronted by lush, well-trimmed lawns projecting a small-town feel that people from other communities envy and TV and film production crews seek out in attempts to depict a largely bygone image of Any Town, USA.
And, unlike just about any other town in the US (except for, perhaps, Pasadena), South Pasadena has always been a distinctly unique and special place, one that served as home to socialites, diplomats, politicians, industrialists and other players on the world stage, including First Lady Lucretia Garfield, the widow of slain President James Garfield. Even President Teddy Roosevelt stopped by once while on his way back from the Panama Canal in order to pay a visit to Mrs. Garfield, staying at the luxurious but long-gone Raymond Hotel while here.
The quaint and quiet community, once inundated with orange groves, is no less attractive to modern-day celebrities, actors like Academy Award winner William Holden, Meredith Baxter (a South Pasadena native), and “Mad Men’s” Alison Brie, among many, many others.
For these folks — and roughly 25,000 other men, women and children — living in such an idyllic place, where many homes are actually historical landmarks, streets in the commercial district are dotted with mom-pop-businesses, and the biggest employer is the local supermarket, preservation and self-protection are top priorities.
Perhaps because there is only one weekly newspaper in town, or because people living in sprawling Los Angeles to the south have their own problems to worry about, many people may not be aware that South Pasadena has been locked in a battle for its very existence, a struggle to stop construction of a long-planned connection between the Long Beach (710) and Foothill (210) freeways which would rip through town, destroying any semblance of the lovely little city people know today.
It is for these reasons that most folks who live here have united around what has become known as The Fight — a decades-long resistance to Caltrans’ plans to connect the two freeways. For now, South Pasadena has won this David and Goliath battle, but The Fight is far from over. Instead of an overland route, the state is now considering building twin tunnels that would carry cars and mostly trucks to and from the two freeways, an idea that is being fiercely opposed by most citizens and community leaders.
As South Pasadena City Librarian Steve Fjeldsted explained to Pasadena Weekly reporter Justin Chapman, “South Pasadena is much more preservationist than just about any community in Southern California.” Surrounded by LA and other communities that have lost their identities to urban sprawl, South Pasadena, Fjeldsted said, stands apart, as well as prepared to continue The Fight in order to maintain a coveted way of life well worth preserving.
Birth of a City
Self-protection lies at the heart of South Pasadena’s very beginnings as a city
By Justin Chapman
Centuries before white settlers inhabited the southern portion of the San Gabriel Valley, the city we now call South Pasadena was home to members of the Hahamongna branch of the Tongva tribe of Native Americans.
Also known as Gabrielinos, tribe members built thatched dome structures along the banks of the seasonal Arroyo Seco. There they lived and worked the land and streams and traded with other Tongva tribe members who lived throughout modern-day Los Angeles. When South Pasadena incorporated in 1888, very few Native American people were allowed to own land.
“The Arroyo Seco was really the cradle of civilization for Indians that inhabited Pasadena and South Pasadena,” said South Pasadena City Librarian Steve Fjeldsted. “It not only gave them their water, but was also part of their trade and travel routes. Of course, later it became one of the first routes between Pasadena and Los Angeles.”
When Spanish explorers began colonizing the area in the 18th century, Indian culture was absorbed by the missionaries. California became a Mexican province when Mexico won independence from Spain. According to the definitive historical text by Jane Apostol, “South Pasadena: A Centennial History,” very few Indians received shares of land “when the property once controlled by the missions was given away in huge land grants on which ranchos were established.” Most of present-day Altadena, Pasadena, San Marino and South Pasadena formed the boundaries of Rancho San Pasqual.
What is now known as the Flores Adobe, the oldest house in South Pasadena, served as headquarters for Mexican Gen. José María Flores during the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. The adobe, which is still around today, is the place where Mexican commanders drew up their plan of surrender to the United States.
In the 1870s, members of the California Colony of Indiana began moving to the area and started purchasing property. San Gabriel Orange Grove Association members Calvin Fletcher and Benjamin Eaton were among those who invested in land at the southern end of the colony, south of Columbia Street.
“They started subletting it, more people came out, and South Pasadena has remained independent and small to this day,” said Fjeldsted, “but that’s part of its earliest beginnings.”
According to Fjeldsted, it is a common misconception that South Pasadena split off from Pasadena’s historic Indiana Colony to form its own city. In fact, residents of what used to be Rancho San Pasqual always thought of themselves as a separate entity from Pasadena, and petitioned for their own school district and post office a decade before incorporation.
“I think part of the misconception comes from its name, which makes it sound like it’s the southern part of Pasadena or Pasadena junior. But despite the name, South Pasadena is its own community,” said Fjeldsted.
One of the reasons residents of South Pasadena decided to incorporate was to keep Pasadena’s seedy elements away from its borders.
“There was a lot of wildness taking place in Pasadena: saloons, ladies of the night and other forms of wild behavior,” said Fjeldsted. “In order to stop it, Pasadena incorporated and had its own ordinances forbidding those things, but then it all moved down to the other side of Columbia Street. The settlers here didn’t want Pasadena’s riff raff and bad behavior coming to South Pasadena, so it incorporated on March 2, 1888, and passed the same ordinance that Pasadena had passed. That just moved some of those things farther south to Los Angeles, but that’s what solidified the entire community into being incorporated.”
Self-protection, which continues to be a strong trait of the community to this day, was at the heart of South Pasadena’s very beginnings as an official entity. Apostol noted that a leader of the temperance and anti-saloon movement of the day, Dr. Hiram Reid, said South Pasadenans had to incorporate in order to have “police control over their territory … and thus they were compelled by sheer necessity for self-protection to incur the expense and trouble of forming a city corporation.”
South Pasadena has come to be defined by ‘The Fight’ against the 710.
By Justin Chapman
At the turn of the last century, there were few other places that anyone would rather be than sunny Southern California. And one of the best, if not also one of the most exciting places to be was South Pasadena, home of a widowed first lady, Lucretia Garfield, and visited by diplomats, industrialists, even President Theodore Roosevelt, who stopped here once on his way back from Panama, staying at the luxurious Raymond Hotel.
While Fair Oaks Avenue and Fremont and Mission streets were still dirt roads, the Raymond dominated the landscape for miles in every direction and drew wealthy clientele from the East Coast.
“The Raymond Hotel actually attracted rich visitors to the sunny skies and warm climate of South Pasadena,” said South Pasadena City Librarian Steve Fjeldsted. “It was a world class luxury hotel that attracted well-to-do tourists from back East for the most part and put South Pasadena on the map in the minds of lots of people. It burned down twice and, after the second time, it was never rebuilt. By that time, this area had grown up quite a bit and it had done its job to attract a lot of people and a lot of attention to this area.”
Another major draw to the area in the early part of the last century was Edwin Cawston’s world famous ostrich farm, which at the time was located right next to the Arroyo Seco. According to local historian Rick Thomas, ostrich feathers symbolized wealth and upper-class refinement and remained popular in America for nearly 50 years.
“It really was for the feathers and the fashion,” said Thomas. “Cawston made a whole entertainment element to it. Eventually, it went out of business because women’s fashion changed.”
However, with economic growth came the need for increased mobility. With the area’s population growing, and the advent of the automobile, South Pasadena quickly found itself sandwiched between the Long Beach (710) and Foothill (210) freeways, which the California Department of Transportation, Caltrans, has tried to connect for more than 50 years.
In 1949 the city of South Pasadena passed its first resolution against the proposed route, and by the 1950s Caltrans had begun the seizure of hundreds of homes in South Pasadena, Pasadena and El Sereno through eminent domain and hardship sales.
If any single thing has come to characterize South Pasadena over the past five decades, it has been the dogged resistance of this little city to the state, and ultimately winning … so far.
The struggle to stop the state from connecting the freeways, or, “The Fight,” as Thomas calls it in his Images of America book, “South Pasadena,” has been going on for more than five decades.
“In the ’70s, it got shelved and nothing happened for about 10 years,” said veteran freeway fighter Joanne Nuckols, who has served as chair of the city’s Transportation Commission. “Then, all of a sudden, Caltrans decided to pull it off the shelf in the mid-’80s and everything started up again. That pretty much lit a fire under everybody that we really needed to look at this.”
The cities of Los Angeles, La Cañada-Flintridge, Sierra Madre, Glendale and South Pasadena all have passed formal resolutions against the proposed route, but cities like San Marino and Alhambra continue to support Caltrans’ proposal. Pasadena has expressed strong concerns about the project, but it has stopped short of formally opposing it because they believe their hands are tied by the voter approved Measure A. That proposition called for completing the extension between the two freeways. However, it did not specify how the extension should be completed.
“South Pasadena fiercely protects its small town environment,” said Thomas. “Unfortunately, this town is so uniquely positioned to be the travel point from Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Valley, so it just gets in the way of transportation corridors. The whole city was considered endangered early on. We don’t even need that designation anymore because we have so much clout.”
While The Fight has been the source of much controversy over the years, it has also contributed to defining South Pasadena in other ways.
“The preservation movement and The Fight kept the small-town atmosphere,” said former Mayor Harry Knapp, another longtime freeway opponent. “The freeway fight gave some uncertainty to developers, even now, and preserved that small town feel that we’re really trying to keep.”
Today, even with an overland connector route permanently off the table, The Fight continues, with city leaders now opposed to plans to connect the two freeways with two giant 4.5-mile-long tunnels.
‘An island in the sea of madness’
South Pas strives to maintain its small-town feel as Caltrans pushes freeway tunnel option
By Justin Chapman
On Saturday, the city of South Pasadena will be celebrating its 125th anniversary with a litany of free events. The library will host authors Mary Ames Mitchell tonight and Jim Gallo and Dan Rice tomorrow night, accompanied by the local band Cottage Industry.
Then, from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday, the city’s actual birthday, a “Neighborhood Night on the Town,” sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, will feature open houses, art exhibits and live music throughout South Pasadena.
But while the city certainly has reason to celebrate, residents and community leaders are all too aware of the lingering threat that is the Long Beach (710) Freeway extension.
For one thing, the freeway problem has not gone away; it has just moved underground. Caltrans is now considering five alternative options to an overland connector route: build nothing, increase bus rapid transit lines, build light rail lines under Fair Oaks Avenue, improve traffic management, and build the tunnel.
Citizens are equally opposed to the tunnel connector plan as they were to the surface route, which Caltrans has said is off the table, though the agency still refuses to sell the homes it bought up through eminent domain as surplus properties.
“We think the tunnel is too harmful,” said 710 opponent Joanne Nuckols, who served as chair of the city’s Transportation Commission. “We don’t like the no-build option either, because we think something needs to be done to resolve the stub ends of the freeways, which is something they do not have in any of the plans. We think the combination of the [bus rapid transit option], surface improvements and resolution of the stub ends of the freeways, and extension of the Gold Line as opposed to the rail line they’re proposing, would do a long way to improve the traffic flow in the [freeway extension] corridor,” Nuckols said.
“The combination of the non-tunnel alternatives would be a lot less expensive than the tunnel and, cost effectiveness-wise, would move a lot more people and solve a lot more of the transportation problems,” Nuckols said.
Former Mayor Harry Knapp agrees that something needs to be done to improve traffic flow in the corridor.
“Let’s say this whole freeway thing goes away. You still have to do something,” Knapp said. “One of the major ways we proposed to improve traffic on Fair Oaks [Avenue] was to eliminate the two northbound lanes that turn left onto the 110 Freeway just before State Street, and instead extend the defunct exit ramp on the right. But Caltrans owns that ramp and doesn’t want to pay for it. If Fair Oaks moved a little bit better, a lot of people would use Huntington [Drive] and go up Fair Oaks.”
Other issues that face the city in the coming years include balancing preservation needs with economic growth.
“There’s some growth desired, but we just want to keep the mom and pop stuff here and keep out the big box stores,” said Knapp. “Downtown development is one concern. In the original plan, the Rialto Theater was going to be an anchor. But Landmark owns the building and they don’t want to do anything with it, so it’s kind of demolition by decay right now.”
Preservation and self-protection will continue to play a big role in shaping the city for years to come, with strict laws on the books limiting the trimming and removal of trees, as well as a 45-foot height restriction for buildings.
“South Pasadena is much more preservationist than just about any community in Southern California,” said City Librarian Steve Fjeldsted. “It’s surrounded by much larger more populated communities, which have, in part, lost a lot of their identity with development and so forth. South Pasadena has been threatened by the 710 Freeway, and it’s really galvanized the community. Pridefully and stubbornly so, South Pasadena has strived to retain its own identity because it’s like an island in the sea of madness.”