Saturday, July 4, 2009

Walking Altadena: Lower Westside

Four distinct aspects comprise Altadena: The wealthy, the bohemian, mountains, and blight. The first three intersect somewhat, geographically. While most of the mansions are on the east side, the McNally “summerhouse,” for example, can be found about dead center of town. The old Busch estate rests in Millard Canyon to the upper northeast. Bohemians are scattered almost everywhere, with lots of movie people – set decorators and art department mainly – hugging the hills. The exception is Blight.

Blight reigns supreme in the southwest corner of town, and doesn’t seem to cross any boundary. It also doesn't appear to have any vestige of a more genteel past, so perhaps it traveled a trajectory straight from wilderness to poverty.

It’s a pocket that, if it ventures out, goes to war with another pocket in northwest Pasadena. Just about any local murder that isn't strictly a family affair, takes place in this battlefield.

An argument can be made that Altadena has two downtowns; one can also argue Altadena has no downtown whatsoever. But let’s say we weigh-in in favor of the former. There’s the mid-town downtown and the lower westside.

In terms of real estate and commerce, the westside downtown is equal parts liquor stores, churches, empty storefronts, and cemetery. (Mountain View Cemetery actually hosts some wealthy chaps -- Professor Lowe, Wallace Neff, etc. -- but last I heard, they weren't allowed to take it with them.)

The westside has two main drags – Fair Oaks and Lincoln Boulevard, contained by Harriet street to the north and Woodbury to the south. Down Lincoln and Fair Oaks, you can run across children slapping dogs, mothers slapping children, fathers slapping mothers, or maybe I’m just always there at the wrong time. No one seems to pay much attention to all the slapping. It’s probably safer that way. Or maybe it’s just not unusual enough to garner interest.

When it comes to lethal violence, apparently no need to wait for the cloak of darkness. How eerie to find out that while you drove down Fair Oaks on the way to Old Town Pasadena or to meet the 110 freeway, a murder actually occurred right behind you, or beside you. You know this, because you read it in the next morning's paper.

Unless you're an actual denizen of the area, you're relatively safe because the rage is directed internally.

I walked down Fair Oaks today, and took my dog along, an unnecessary precaution. There’s almost no foot traffic, and what foot traffic there was had no interest in me.

On Fair Oaks, my dog shied away from some feral dogs, who paid no heed to our activities. They were just hungry is all, and camera-shy. The people most decidedly did not want their picture taken. I’m glad I asked first, because even the question was met with quiet hostility. So I was starting to feel like a failure, because if I were Kevin or Ken Mac, my camera could catch the heart of blight. But I knew I hadn't really caught anything but storefronts and signs and didn't even have a face to put with it all. Then I saw a couple with a stroller.
At last, something touching. Hope springs eternal and love among the ruins. I put on a big smile and ran right up to them and said, "Oh, I'd love to take a picture of you and your ...


In the grand or awful scheme of things, I don’t know if this stretch of Fair Oaks qualifies as a mean street. Perhaps just a sad street. It's somewhere near that crossroad, and probably swings both ways.


  1. Least there's no snow!
    Add convenience marts to liquor stores and empty storefronts-and vacant houses-to our main tax base here. Oh, and 20 bars up Arcade St. and Payne Ave.
    I forgot closed factories. You don't notice them so much 'cause they were closed before our current troubles. Maybe that *is* the trouble?
    The next time you go to the major discount department store-in the first ring suburb-try to find items not made in China. A great game if you bring the kids; they can learn economics while playing a rousing game of "where's Wu Wei?". (everywhere)
    Although, my writing pal said all of So. Cal. is a suburb. Is that true?

  2. This is a heartbreaker and a tear jerker but then it's full of belly laughs (slap scene), too.

    wv "entrope"

    PS. My favorite breakfast joint is The Red Hen on N. Fair Oaks. One of the waitresses there used to work at Two Guys From Italy and knew my father. She recognized me and thought my son was his spitting image. Sweet lady, and the cook makes the best grits I've ever had.

  3. A number of my family are buried in Mountain View Cemetery. They buried my ggfather in 1956 and Altadena was not someplace to be so afraid to drive through. Even when they buried my uncle in the 60's, it was still an okay place to be. By the time we buried my ggmother int he 70's, I was told in no uncertain terms was I supposed to venture there alone. One time, when going to visit my mother there, a pack of those feral dogs scared the daylights out of me...I nearly drove off the road in the cemetery, as they (15 or so pups) popped out from behind a large upright marker running for food somewhere on the other side of the cemetery.

    I have walked around Altadena's less wonderful sections---pretty much the locals seem to think I'm just a crazy white b!tch (or so some have vocalized to me), so they leave me alone fearing I might shoot them or am a cop.

    The behaviours, the blight, the attitudes have been there as long as I can remember. Some of it is an outpouring from Kings Row. Some of it is just opportunity and lack of response from the community. People have tried to clean it up, not enough locals seem interested.

    Fair Oaks and Colorado used to be a similar locale. An infusion of money and cleanup and a little "wish and prayer" work and viola---I seriously don't recognize it from 25 years ago. But no one seems interested, on any side of the street. This economy doesn't help, but it was like this when the boom was happening too. Can't save everyone, but can't ignore every problem either.

    Seems Altadena is fine to have the sectors as long as "they" all stay out of each other's way.
    wv: motain...nooo, moUNtain! ;-)

  4. What aspect are you, kB?
    I'm assuming mountain wealthy.

    I like Part I. I can hardly wait for your next episodes on the sweet & savory AltaDanish!

  5. If they're throwing them out, go back and grab those chairs

  6. 4777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777777

  7. And who slaps the fathers? Wait, I know.


  8. Finally! I was beginning to think Altadena was a blight-free zone.

  9. Thank you for this blog. So many thoughts as I read it and looked at your pictures.

    Jaylene Moseley walking the same street further down a few years back, talking to residents and
    store owners and youth one by one by one and asking them if they were willing to come together
    to talk about their street. Out of that conversation emerged positive change and a new sense of community because the residents and business owners got together and did something.

    Pastor George Van Alstine (Altadena Baptist Church and longtime activist)telling us
    when we went to a vigil at a liquor store after yet another of the shootings, that there's
    nothing to be done until the people themselves --
    the ones who live in the neighborhood -- are willing to do something.

    One of the commentors on Bill Moyers Web site saying after Friday night's show, "The defining
    challenge of our time, as you so eloquently discussed last night, is restoring that sense of
    mutual responsibility embodied in the Mayflower Compact and reestablishing those values that
    constitute the heart of what it means to be an American."

    Moyers reflected, "The Pilgrims in the Mayflower Compact agreed to a mutual responsibility for the
    well-being of one another, even if meeting that responsibility clashed with their private
    interests. That basic social contract - responsibility for each other and for the common
    good - is at the heart of our nation."

    You certainly gave us lots to think about, Karin. Thank you!

  10. I don't know if we're a come and get it society, where those who get to the table first get it all, or if we have some roots in mutual responsibility (which also includes the personal responsibility).

    Monica, thank you for posting that. You never toot your own horn, but your efforts are worth noting. And emulating.

    MG, let's meet for some grits. And check out some of Trish's ancestors.

    Wake Up, are you crazy? People were eating there an hour later.

  11. Well Missy, you've put on another face and that camera of yours is working overtime. Good for you. Thought provoking as always and now the photos to back it up. I feel like I'm watching a student take flight. Excusez moi while I dab a tear.

  12. I've been chicken to walk it on my own--didn't know about the feral dogs, thank you. But you know I want to shoot it (with a camera). Fair Oaks, Lincoln, all of it.

  13. KB and P, go forth and shoot! Your audience awaits.

  14. Hiker:

    Fascinating description of your town.

    I like to travel on my motorcycle. I purchased it in 1999. My first trip was to Detroit and see the last baseball game played in Tiger stadium; for our safety, the Detroit coppers told us to stay in Windsor (on the Canadian side).

    Our second trip was to New Orleans. This city gave me the creeps. Dirty, grimey, and business district with an eighty percent vacancy rate!

    Other trips to Colorado, South Dakota, minnesota, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Montana, Indiana, Ohio, New York, Conneticut, Massachuesetts,Pensylvania, New Hampshire, and Maine. All of these states had one thing in common: All had small towns that were once economically healthy.

    Traveling by motorcycle gives me an opportunity to "feel" the are I'm traveling through. The locals are less wary of motorcyclists and will talk. They all talk about the same thing: The downfall of their economies.

    You write very well. I wish I had your skill.

  15. I like the couple - they are resourceful (my grandmother used to haul her goods & her groceries to the farmers market in a wooden stroller in Croatia) & smart - bet you didn't have an sun-brella to shield your fair skin. Knew it.

  16. I envy you Phil. I could do some real damage on a motorcycle.

    Tash, the sun was in my eyes and I didn't realize it was a bottle of water until I took the photo. They were sweet. Wonder what kind of a nut they thought I was.

    Yeah P, you'll get the good stuff.

  17. Petrea--do as my mother used to suggest in those situations...walk like you have a destination, a purpose and few people will question you.

    The feral dogs--I've yet to run into any who give people a problem. Take a walking stick or monopod---not to hit, but to just put up in defense and gently encourage any furry one that gets too close. Again, talk with a purpose with the pups and they'll usually follow your lead.

    AH--go on and check out what it was ALL our ancestors came here for---amazing what a little learning can get you. Elder Brewster would be disgusted at a lot of what is here. I hope those of us attempting to make a difference would settle his bile, if just a little.

    wv: jundid...j'undid that order you placed at Amazon for the wrong piece?

  18. Huh? (head popping up from the gopher hole) You have a new camera? We want details.
    And welcome to the club. Searing photo essays such as these are often built from seemingly random photos. And we don't see lots of interesting things until after we download. Thems the rules.

    wv: airoy

  19. That's the way I walk too, Trish. Maybe that's why they always think we're cops.

    that, and I'm a little oblivious to danger. 3dot, who visits here from time to time could tell you a story or two of when we walked around the skid row areas during The Times' years.

    (No new camera PJ. Still haven't read the instructions on the one I have.)

  20. This is a great post, Karin. It has always amazed me the way areas of poverty and crime back right up against tony areas of wealth and privilege. When I lived in Venice Beach in the early 90s it amazed me that the gang-ruled areas of sheer blight were so close to the expensive Santa Monica vegan cafes and designer boutiques. And even more surprising was how they seemed to rarely cross paths or clash. Even during the King riots, the only real display of violence in Venice was a broken window of a crappy laundramat in the hood.

  21. Was just looking up demographic/crime stats for Altadena. I am amazed that Altadena has the most artists/designers/people working in media of almost any city in the US. Also, that such a huge proportion of the population have higher level college degrees and that the median income is higher than average. I didn't realized there was such a divide between the urban sophisticates and the impoverished there.

  22. Interesting, Laurie. On my block alone there are three guys who work in studio art department, a next door neighbor who is a composite (?) artist, another two neighbors who teach art, one actress, an architect. And me!

  23. You have captured the "heart of blight" -- that freaky water bottle couple! What were thinking? Run like hell I say. And I love that building with the "Hillside" sign." That's pure Googie that you just don't get in NYC...great tour of Altadena's high and low.

  24. our boy Roddick almost pulled it out. Well, not really, but who could imagine he'd get so close? Not us!

  25. Wow, Laurie's stats are fascinating. Who needs Greenwich Village?

  26. Late again, but thanks for the great tour of your fine city. Lovely.

  27. Creative/Artistic types mixed in with college grads. Never a good mixture.Hmmmm... Now I think we're getting down to the root of the problems in de AltaDena.

  28. As a John Muir alum and Altadena native, I've driven these areas many times and enjoyed your descriptions and pictures. I do grantwriting for a couple local non-profits and we sometimes have to explain to those who don't know the big picture of Altadena that it's not all mansions and country clubs.

  29. Really, there is much to see on Fair Oaks and Lincoln. Not all bad. I should take some pictures of the attractive things. Kettles Nurseries (old fashioned nursery)or Lincoln Avenue Lumber & Mill (old fashioned lumber yard), Johnny's Sports Shop (old fashioned sporting goods store), Jim's Burger (great Googie architecture with a recently restored Googie sign) and many more interesting places. Disabled American Veteran's Thrift Store used to be on North Lincoln and was a must stop until it closed a couple of years ago, Dazee Thrift Shop used to be across from Mountain View Cemetery and just south of Zeke the Sheik's compost heap until they moved to much smaller quarters on Woodbury across from Hen's Teeth Square, etc., etc.

    The studio people live in this area for a reason. Urban explorers love this area for its treasures. The horrible Altadena Crossings 24 Hour Fitness monstrosity wiped out one of the finest dive bars with an unbelieveable front mounted sign, space age " THE ORBIT ".

    Don't be afraid to be in this area as that's what makes it unsafe, the FEAR. Remember, all those million dollar home owners of the abomination "La Vina" have to drive up through this "quaint" part of North Lincoln to get to their gated community.

    The poverty pimp redevelopers who sell the idea of making these areas like all other white bread non-descript areas in America should be booted out! Home Depot is trying to force a Lincoln Avenue big box on us here in Pasadena to destroy Johnny's Sport Shop and Lincoln Avenue Lumber. We say take your big box to some other place far away!

    By the way, my childhood hero Superman, George Reeves, a Pasadena boy, his earthly remains are in an urn in the Pasadena Masoleum which is at Woodbury and Fair Oaks. Ask an attendant where the real urn is, since the masoleum placed a fake one near the entrance to foil kidnapping attempts! To strange, but true!

  30. Even though most of these references are to Lincoln Av,we agree in more ways than you know. A Home Depot makes me shudder. And if they scraped some decades off those store fronts on Fair Oaks, we might have some lovely buildings. (But that Dazee place and the dive bars, not so much.)

  31. Home Depot on North Lincoln? No way.