A Los Angeles Primer: Old Pasadena

If we call the seaside Santa Monica, home of Third Street Promenade, one of Los Angeles' major "satellite cities," then we must also grant the title to Pasadena, which goes its own way in the opposite setting, under the San Gabriel mountains. Both incorporated in 1886, both boast populations around 100,000 (Santa Monica a few thousand lower, Pasadena a few thousand higher), and both have gained reputations for substantial, if not outlandish, wealth. Both independent municipalities have also, in their separate ways and positions — Santa Monica to the west, Pasadena to the northeast — maintained a psychological disconnection from, not to say a disdain for, the metropolis between them. In Robert Altman's The Player, Tim Robbins' movie-studio VP undergoes casual police questioning. "You're putting me in a terrible position here," he says, nervously. "I'd hate to get the wrong person arrested." "Oh, please!" responds Whoopi Goldberg's detective. "This is Pasadena. We do not arrest the wrong person. That's L.A.!"

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Still, residing in a place like Pasadena has never stopped anyone from, when it suits them, claiming to live in Los Angeles — it does, after all, lie within the eponymous county. It also, like Santa Monica, provides something of a pressure valve to those unaccustomed to the too-big city it borders: those bewildered and disoriented by Los Angeles proper can make a retreat there, a return to the more traditional look, feel, and form they can readily comprehend. Nowhere will they feel more at ease than in the original business district, almost without exception called Old Town Pasadena on the street, but now zealously branded, for whatever reason, as Old Pasadena. Concentrated in the blocks around Colorado Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue, this historic building-rich core — called, in promotional materials, "The Real Downtown," — has in recent years reinvented itself as a walking-friendly shopping district, thick with all manner of buying opportunities. One often hears enthusiasm for Pasadena, and the satellite cities in its league, put in terms of the observation that "you have everything here," a feeling the presence of zones like these no doubt fuels.

But even little Old Pasadena, like so many American downtowns, had to come back from the brink. By the seventies, it seemed to have fallen over the brink, into a state of both disrepair and disrepute. A walk through the neighborhood today gives no sense of its sketchy recent past, and people offer a cornucopia of suggestions as to what, exactly, to credit with its thorough revival. Shifts in supply and demand, demographic trends, "political will," and so on: you can pick the one that best suits your prejudices. For my part, I've heard no more intriguing explanation than the one laid out by UCLA urban planning professor and parking theorist Donald Shoup. He promotes the idea, obvious to most only in retrospect, that cities would do well to set their parking prices in direct response to the parking market: when more people want to park on one block, charge more for that block; when fewer people want to park on another, charge less for it. In theory, this ensures not only the availability of spaces to those who need them most, but a freedom from deadening, all-consuming free parking infrastructure, and a source of revenue the city can use to keep up the surroundings so that people will want to park there in the first place.

Old Pasadena's nineties comeback came up quickly when I met with Shoup in his campus office to record an interview for my podcast, Notebook on Cities and Culture. Not far from where we sat, you'll find another smaller-scale neighborhood in which some take refuge from the enormity of greater Los Angeles: Westwood Village, which, while its proximity to the university still attracts a fair few students, has palpably seen much livelier days. "I think a lot of Westwood's problems are due to bad parking policy," said Shoup, "and we can contrast it with a similar area that has had very good parking policy. Thirty years ago, Westwood was wildly popular. Old Pasadena was a commercial Skid Row. People thought it would never come back. Buildings were in terrible condition, mostly empty. People from Pasadena would drive to Westwood to walk around and enjoy the city. Now, people from Westwood drive to Pasadena to walk around. What made the change? In Pasadena, the city had no parking meters, and wanted to put them into Old Pasadena. It was built largely before 1930, and it didn't have much off-street parking. The on-street parking was occupied by the merchants and employees, who then complained about the lack of parking for customers."

This at first sounds like a classically intractable American urban situation. "The city wanted to put in parking meters. The merchants said, 'No way, it'll chase away the few customers we have.'" And yet, after the debate had burned a couple years, "finally the city said, 'If we put in the parking meters, we'll spend all the meter revenue for public infrastructure and services in Old Pasadena. The merchants said, 'That's different! Why didn't you tell us that? Let's run the meters 'til midnight. Let's run 'em on Sunday. Let's charge a high price.' They knew the money coming in would come right out the other side and fix their sidewalks, put in new street furniture, put in historic streetlights, put in new street trees, clean up the alleys — just about everything a city can to do fix up the public part of a neighborhood. Once the city had done that, the property owners began to restore their buildings, which didn't make sense beforehand. A lot of new restaurants and stores opened. And Pasadena had $700,000 a year, still, in parking revenue to steam-clean the sidewalks twice a month, to have added police protection, to remove graffiti every night. Now 30,000 or 40,000 people go to Pasadena to walk around every weekend. The same year Pasadena installed these meters, in Westwood, the merchants persuaded the city to reduce the price of parking from a dollar to fifty cents," with the comparative results we see before us today.

Shoup tells an impressive story, and Old Pasadena, in its way, remains an impressive place, host to a level of activity many neighborhoods, and not just the Westwoods, would covet. But new dissatisfactions have also emerged: one particularly astute Pasadena-based observer of the built environment told me he thought the place has become a "victim of its own success," that its popularity had pushed it to the point of "peak chain store." Though Old Pasadena hardly starves its visitors for specialty shops not found in every other city in the country, a walk past the likes of Banana Republic and Forever 21, Crate & Barrel and Color Me Mine, Sunglass Hut and Starbucks lends a certain credence to the point. And you may, as I still do, trip over a more fundamental stumbling block in the very concept of driving somewhere in order to walk around. The unusual size and shape of Los Angeles, and the incentives those qualities engender, have reduced many an Angeleno to such oft-ridiculed patterns of behavior. This sort of thing culminates in the almost beautiful absurdity of the thousands who daily climb into their car to go to the gym and exercise. Adjustments to parking policy can improve both places and our ability to use them — and, in the instructive case of Old Pasadena, vastly improve them — but I suppose we have to give Kant the final word: out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.


Photos by Colin Marshall.

About the Author

Colin Marshall hosts and produces the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. These columns present essays adapted from his book-in-progress, "A Los Angeles Primer: Mastering the Stateless City."
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