What happens when Pasadena and Los Angeles compete for the heart of a SoCal native
By Colleen Dunn Bates 08/01/2010
The word “hometown” is heavily weighted. It evokes community, family, history and stability. Whether real or longed for, a hometown implies a sense of belonging, perhaps even of nurturing. No matter that so many Americans move so frequently — as a society we still place a high value on at least the idea of a hometown.
As someone who grew up with a strong sense of rootedness in a very big city — Los Angeles — I’ve always put a lot of stock in the importance of a person’s hometown. When my husband and I started thinking about leaving Silver Lake in 1992 to find a larger house and a more kid-friendly neighborhood for our 2-year-old, we put a lot of thought into what we wanted in a hometown for our children, and we found ourselves gravitating toward Pasadena. There we found tree-shaded sidewalks perfect for pedaling tricycles. We saw kids playing in the front yards of storybook houses. Preschools seemed plentiful, as did dogs and parks. The crime rate was a lot lower than in early-’90s Silver Lake. A new area people were calling “Old Town” had a wonderful toy store and a great bagel shop (both, alas, gone now). House prices weren’t cheap, but they were far more affordable than those to the west in the family-friendly neighborhoods of Hancock Park, Santa Monica and the Palisades. When we factored in the manageable commute to the Hollywood and Valley studios where my husband worked, Pasadena appeared to be the perfect hometown for our young family.
And yet, I worried. I loved Los Angeles, and I feared that Pasadena would be too provincial. When I was an L.A. teenager and young adult in the ’70s and ’80s, the Pasadenans I knew — mostly my parents’ friends — were lovely people but not exactly cosmopolitan. The stereotypical Pasadenans of that era dressed only from Talbots and Brooks Brothers, socialized only with people from their club and/or their parish, never went to movies or concerts and thought going out to dinner in L.A. was the height of adventure. It was hard enough to make the transition from freewheeling twentysomething to diaper-changing thirtysomething. I didn’t want to go straight to geezer in the process.
Plus there was the issue of identity. Even if we don’t stay in our hometowns, they stay with us. My husband hails from a suburb of Pittsburgh, and every time he watches a Steelers game or indulges in some kielbasa, a part of him feels at home, even though he loves L.A. more than he ever loved Pittsburgh. My identity is very much wrapped up in being an Angeleno.
I went to the same elementary school my father attended and the same college as my mother. When we were kids, my siblings and I could walk to our paternal grandparents’ house. All over the city were signs from my father’s commercial real estate company (Charles Dunn Co.) and buildings designed by my mother’s grandfather and uncles (she’s from the A.C. Martin family).
I have siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles and second cousins everywhere. Like fellow native Randy Newman, I love the real L.A., not the glossy L.A. of TV and fantasy.
I’d always assumed my children would grow up with that same love. Would living in Pasadena kill it?
Despite these concerns, we couldn’t resist the pull of the smaller city, and we especially couldn’t resist the lure of Prospect Park, where we’d found a well-built 1921 Colonial that was in such poor condition we could actually afford it. Also, good friends had moved to Pasadena a year or so ahead of us with their two little kids, and they were neither boring nor provincial. So we sold our Silver Lake Spanish, bought the Prospect Park Colonial and started madly researching preschools and preparing for the birth of a second daughter.
Eighteen years later, I’ve found myself all the richer for that decision. Our new neighborhood gave us exactly what we wanted: bike-friendly sidewalks, handsome architecture, lush trees, easy access to conveniences, freeways and walking routes and a diverse range of interesting, friendly neighbors who were not nearly as conservative or provincial as the Pasadena stereotype once suggested. We quickly found a co-op nursery school (Cottage), where we made lifelong friends and learned how to be better parents, while our girls played and grew. We then fell in love with the progressive educational philosophy at Sequoyah School, so our daughters started there for kindergarten, and the whole family was enriched through 12 years in that community. The girls played sports in local leagues — soccer in AYSO and softball in PSWLL — and when they wanted to spend time on art, dance and theater, we found great programs nearby. We also joined All Saints Church, where the girls sang in the choir and I found the ritual of my Catholic childhood without the restrictions that had become unacceptable. Later we found a recreational community at the Altadena Town & Country Club, where my husband and I played tennis and our girls joined the swim team, which proved to be life-altering for our older daughter.
As the years went by, my feelings for our adopted hometown grew from admiration to love — so much so that in 2006 I was inspired to produce the book Hometown Pasadena, which celebrates the many virtues of Pasadena and its sister towns. Its success, and my ever-growing devotion to the Rose City, led to the book At Home Pasadena, a new edition of Hometown Pasadena and an online magazine called Hometown-Pasadena.com, as well as local history books for the Altadena Town & Country Club and Holy Family Church. Producing all these has made me appreciate even more the gifts we have here: intelligence, education, nature, architecture, entrepreneurship, art, philanthropy, spiritual development, neighborliness, accessible politicians and so much more.
And yet. I will always be an Angeleno. And when my daughters chose to attend my alma mater, Immaculate Heart High School in Los Feliz, I was thrilled, despite the unpleasant commute. Not only would they be attending a very fine school, but they would develop a bond with L.A. that would link them to family going back many generations. Their classmates would reflect the broad diversity of modern L.A., and the tuition, much lower than most of the Pasadena-area private high schools, would make for a more middle-class vibe and less of the sense of entitlement found at the schools they might otherwise have attended.
Their decision — and it was theirs — changed their lives for the better as much as our decision to move to Pasadena in 1992 did. They navigate the potholed streets of L.A. as well as I did in the ’70s. They have friends from Westchester to Monterey Park. They know the funky shops of Echo Park and Silver Lake. They go to West Hollywood’s Gay Pride Parade as well as the Rose Parade. And they’re more adventurous than they would have been had they gone to a Pasadena high school.
As for me, it just plain makes me happy to see them being Angelenos as well as Pasadenans. They got the best of both worlds, as did I. Our homes and hearts are in Pasadena, but as for L.A. — well, like the song says, we love it.
Colleen Dunn Bates is the publisher of Prospect Park Books in Pasadena.