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Historical imagination and the power of change
by Michele Zack

I like to look to the past for clues as to why things are the way they are, although it is crucial to be careful and not assume direct linkages or legacies, because new, unrelated elements often arrive with their own power—the power of change.

Historical imagination is, however, critical in deciphering past events and periods. Not imagination as in “making stuff up,” but in using facts from the record to place yourself in different times, and to empathize with people alive before you. I will admit to having a hyperactive historical imagination that on occasion leaps from the archives to full-scale fantasy.

A photo of a Pacific Electric “dinky car” once catapulted me into the streetcar heading east on Mariposa Street—feeling the press of the wicker-weave seat on my arm, and the BUMP! as the car traversed the spot where the street jogs, near present-day Waldorf School.

Hmmm… at Lake Avenue, shall I stop in for tea at La Mariposa Hotel? Or, how about hopping a Mt. Lowe car, and going two stops to the Incline in Rubio Canyon? Sited where the canyon narrows into a deep-walled gorge, Rubio Pavilion (ticket booth, 10-room hotel, snack bar, dining hall and open air dance floor) bridges the canyon floor. Wooden walkways and staircases bolted into the rocky walls meander damply up from here to a grotto of giant ferns fed on mist from several waterfalls. I like to go there at early dusk when the Japanese lanterns turn on, mingling electric glow with the day’s last light.

The point of the above reverie is not to sink into nostalgia, but to encourage the use of some imagination among residents and would-be planners in visioning possible future Altadenas—by considering its past. Altadena’s checkered commercial history is instructive in light of the current discussion about what we want of our community.

In fact, we have a long pattern of polarization: some have always preferred a quiet bedroom town, tending to shy away from civic engagement or a strong Altadena identity. Possibly, these people just want to be left alone, that’s why they chose to live at the fringes of L.A.’s great conurbation. Then there are the go-ahead types who dream of a community of homes, shops, restaurants, doctors, dentists, and rug cleaners — and perhaps even bed and breakfasts and a tourism revival. We still have mountains, a trail system, and a great longing for beauty and appreciation of nature: whatever happened to our can-do, such Altadenans ask?

I fall into the “why can’t I have everything?” camp. Can you give me one good reason not to combine our wonderful access to the wilderness with cultural and commercial conveniences of urban living that would also stimulate our economy?

As I mentioned in my last column, we are a town of 43,000 with median household incomes in the mid-eighties. This is higher than, or close to, nearby communities larger (Pasadena) and smaller (Sierra Madre, La Canada Flintridge, Montrose, La Crescenta, Monrovia) with much livelier commercial centers than Altadena.

Readers e-mailed many perceptive comments about possible causes, and also responded to the suggestion that the steep grade of our three commercial corridors, established in the late 19th century when Altadena developed as a street car suburb on the way to the fabulous Mt. Lowe Resort, continues to affect economic development here. I have boiled these down to essentials, and will share in future columns, along with a critique of assertions made by LA County planner Richard Bruckner in his Altadena Patch interview.

But wait, first a brief review of pivotal points in Altadena’s commercial history, to help reveal why Altadena is the way it is, and to get us all on the same page as far as facts. This discussion will unfold over time, let’s start by spending five minutes to consider our past:

1. When John Woodbury and associates formally launched the Altadena Subdivision in 1887 just before Southern California’s Real Estate Boom busted, its eastern boundary was Lake Avenue. Imagined commercial uses, such as a grand hotel, rail yard, and supporting machine shops—as well as transportation lines that were actually built— were all concentrated on the west side between Lincoln and Fair Oaks. The slope was gentler there, it was connected by rail to Pasadena’s center, directly south at Fair Oaks and Colorado, as well as to a line delivering tourists to the Arroyo Seco. Most of Woodbury’s capital came from Marshalltown, Iowa, and various Pasadena investors; they all sustained heavy losses in the bust of late 1887. Their legacy was several rail lines that serviced the west side of the Altadena mesa where millionaires had been gathering along Mariposa from the mid-1880s. Neither Woodbury nor his agrarian-minded brother Captain Fred remained on the scene to launch a second try; John fled home to Iowa in disgrace and in trouble with the law and creditors, and Fred sold off his acreage and moved to South Pasadena.

2. In the early 1890s, impresario Thaddeus Lowe decided to make Altadena Junction, at the northwest corner of Lake Avenue and Calaveras Street, the jumping off point for his new San Gabriel Mountain “railway to the clouds.” Since 1888 a line up to West Altadena, traversing east along Harriet Avenue, terminated there. Pasadena was also growing eastward along Colorado Boulevard by this time, and an additional line up Lake Avenue, to which Lowe’s railway connected, was completed in 1895. A burgeoning tourist industry already existed; with mountain camps, the toll road to Mt. Wilson (opened in 1889, its terminus was in Altadena on the edge of Eaton Canyon), and the deluxe new resort, Altadena’s still-imaginary center also shifted east. Only a couple hundred people lived here: farmers, invalids, and a few millionaires, almost all west of Lake Avenue.

There was little commercial infrastructure other than the Tally-ho stable and post office to take economic advantage of the tourists who began passing through the rural district of Altadena on the way to Mount Lowe. Sixty thousand rode the railway its first year (the Incline opened July 4, 1893), but they spent their money at the multi-faceted resort that soon included hotels, restaurants, cabins, fox farm, zoo, trails, and horse rides—or in Pasadena at restaurants and high-end hostelries like the Raymond and Green Hotels. Altadena got a bump from all the activity in modest commercial/residential development and improved transportation to commute to jobs in Pasadena, but the real money here— Col. G.G. Green, James Crank, Alfred Armstrong, James McNally, and few others, preferred to invest in Pasadena and elsewhere. Most of them had come to Altadena to retire, not to build fortunes. As for non-millionaire Altadenans and other San Gabriel Valley residents—rarely or never did they ride the Incline Railway up to Mount Lowe, it was an expensive attraction for tourists. Hiking trails did get a lot of use as the “great era of hiking” was in full swing.

3. Altadena’s first hotel, the six-room La Mariposa, was not built until 1902 at Lake and Marcheta (present-day Websters). Others did not follow, although the Dinkie line I like to imagine riding connected Fair Oaks to Lake Avenue along Mariposa opened in 1903. Business was far from brisk when in 1907 the hotel sublet one of its under-used parlors to Pasadena’s Model Grocery to open a small branch catering to the carriage trade. Angry property owners picketed this retail invasion threatening to despoil Altadena’s peace! The grocery stayed a few years, and Altadena’s population continued to grow, but slowly, to a few thousand people in the first two decades of the 20th century. Farms, dairies, sanitaria and Mountain View Cemetery formed the basis of the economy, along with wages earned by those commuting to Pasadena and Los Angeles on an excellent transportation system.

4. The roar of the 1920s reached Altadena; many of the hundreds of thousands of new California residents found us, and the community began its first real estate boom. Areas east of Lake Avenue developed during this “Golden Age of California Architecture.” Modest, rich, and in-between, the numbers of newcomers made our growth rate the hottest in Los Angeles County. In just a few years during the mid-1920s, population spiked above 20,000, before shrinking back a bit by the Depression. The influx of new blood with less connection to Pasadena created a stronger Altadena identity and sparked commercial as well as housing construction; dozens of businesses opened along Lincoln, Fair Oaks, and Lake Avenues, and at commercial nodes on Mariposa, and at Los Robles and Woodbury Road. These areas were all served by light rail, and because of the adjacent mountain resort, relative remoteness, and lack of city government, places like the Country Club, Webster’s Pharmacy, and speakeasies were able to sell alcohol, giving local tourism a boost.

5. The next boom arrived post-WWII when Altadena grew to 40,000 people. (It has hovered just above this number for the last 60 years.) Pent up demand for housing and GI loans for homes and education created “the Greatest Generation” of middleclass homeowners, and many started small businesses and continued to strengthen Altadena’s identity. New businesses and thousands of homes were built on infill as large estates were broken up and subdivided, and new areas developed such as the President Streets and country-club-adjacent land on the east side, and the Meadows in Altadena’s northwest. Two newspapers were published, and the Eliot auditorium would sell out its 1,000 seat house for two or three performances of the “Dad’s High Jinx” show to baby boomers and their upwardly mobile parents.

6. Altadena remained a white enclave—under 4 percent black in 1960—until the social and racial turmoil of that decade, including integration of Pasadena Unified School District caused convulsive racial change and population upheaval from 1965-75. In Altadena, nearly half the population left, and were replaced by people of color who first settled on the west side, but who eventually integrated every Altadena neighborhood. Many new residents were middleclass people from Pasadena displaced by redevelopment and freeway construction there. The overall result of this rapid change, however, was not good for business, especially along Lincoln and Fair Oaks Avenues. Dozens of businesses left or had failed by the mid-1970s. Lake Avenue, as Altadena’s remaining viable commercial corridor fared better; but despite returning prosperity in the 1980s and 90s, and Altadena’s growing status as a middleclass, diverse, and racially harmonious community—the overall commercial vibrancy of the post-war years never returned. It took until the new century to get decent grocery stores to come back to West Altadena: now we have two, Super King on Lincoln, and King Ranch on Fair Oaks.

That’s more than enough history for one column. To be continued, and I welcome your comments.

November 3, 2010
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