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Arroyo Culture: In the Shadow of the San Gabriels

This week L.A. Letters covers the picturesque communities of Altadena, Pasadena and the Arroyo Seco. Nestled below Mt. Wilson, in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, Altadena, Pasadena and the Arroyo Seco are the birthplace of Southern California arts and crafts culture. Sycamores in the chaparral and orange groves defined the early years over a century ago. The thriving literary and culinary culture occurring now in Altadena and Pasadena has always been here. Altadena native, singer-songwriter Damon Aaron, says, "We've always had gardens, architecture and scientists, everyone else is just now catching up."

It's a well-known fact that scholars, artists, booksellers, collectors, craftsmen and publishers worked and lived along the wooded edges of the Arroyo Seco around the turn of the 20th Century. Gathering around Charles Fletcher Lummis and later figures like Ward Ritchie, Lawrence Clark Powell, and at nearby Occidental College where Robinson Jeffers attended. The mythical bohemian neighborhood along the banks of the Arroyo Seco was finally disrupted when the Pasadena Freeway was built through its heart during the Depression.

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One of the best books about the 1920s and 30s around Pasadena is "An Orange Grove Boyhood" by Lawrence Clark Powell. Powell worked for UCLA for a long time, becoming one of the most distinguished librarians, scholars and essayists in the history of California. His childhood in South Pasadena is what he explores in this memoir of his boyhood years. Powell's family moved to South Pasadena in 1910 when he was a toddler. The book covers until 1930, when he went abroad for schooling. His descriptions of uncut landscape are pure poetry: "The orange groves rolled eastward in a green wave along the base of the Sierra Madre and across the intermediate valleys to the San Bernardinos which wall off the desert. There Redlands and Riverside rule the Orange Empire."

Weaving in some of the early history of the region, Powell touches on the large landholdings of Henry Huntington, Millionaire's Row on Orange Grove Avenue, and driving past the Wrigley mansion, which is now the home of the Tournament of Roses. He writes of taking hikes in the mountains with his school friends and taking drives with his father: "My father liked to take long drives about the countryside when Southern California was still a paradise of small towns islanded among the groves." Powell also touches on the social order of Pasadena's old money families: "I discovered a secret world under the canopy of a mature orange tree." Powell's book is an amazing snapshot of the area before the freeways and malls came.

Hotel Green | kara brugman/flickr/Creative Commons

Neighborhoods like Bungalow Heaven retain some of the idyllic charm. Pasadena is called Crown City for multiple reasons: geography and wealth are two of them. Evidence of Pasadena's place in Southern California history can especially be seen in its architecture. Throughout Pasadena richly detailed buildings with well-scrubbed terra cotta and decadent ornamentation stand taller and cleaner than they did when they were built close to a century ago. Among a litany of heavyweight architects with work around Pasadena include the Greene & Greene Brothers, and structures designed by Gordon Kauffmann, Frank Lloyd Wright, Wallace Neff, Richard Neutra, John Parkinson, Myron Hunt and Julia Morgan, among countless others.

Pasadena's civic axis is grounded by blocks and blocks of wide streets, parks and epic architecture. There are too many buildings to name, whether you're walking on Colorado admiring the polished stone structures, driving down Raymond past towering churches, or looking at the late Victorian hotel Castle Green from Pasadena's Central Park. Pasadena's cityscape sparkles like Balboa Park in San Diego or the Beaux Arts Civic Center in San Francisco. Pasadena is a mecca of museums, from the Norton Simon, Pacific Asia Museum, the Huntington Museum and Gardens, and several institutes of higher learning like Cal Tech and Art Center. Among the many greats that spent their childhoods in Pasadena besides Powell include Jackie Robinson, Julia Childs, David Lee Roth, and Eddie Van Halen.

On May 11, 2013, Litfest Pasadena finished its second annual celebration of literary arts in the area. A number of local presses, literary organizations, and museums assembled with authors and artists in Pasadena's Central Park for an all day extravaganza. Before poet-performing artist Kate Durbin did her set, she paid respect to the late great Pasadena author Octavia Butler. The north stage was named for Butler, and the groundbreaking science fiction author remains one of the towering literary figures from the region. Famed Pasadena food columnist Jonathan Gold was on a panel with some up-and-coming young food bloggers. I performed a set of poetry on the other stage along with Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Altadena native Douglas Kearney, Nicky Schildkraut, and Tim Stiles. Our 45-minute set was called "In the Shadow of the San Gabriels."

It was a beautiful warm afternoon. I saw Libros Schmibros owner-proprietor David Kipen. We sat together and watched the panel, "The Legacy of the Arroyo Culture." The famed Arroyo author-historian Robert Winter, at 87 years old, was unable to appear. Nonetheless, Highland Park native Severin Browne, Jackson's brother, and local historian Ann Scheid spoke about the storied past and the lively arts culture that continues to this day. Looking around at the festival it was easy to see that they were right. Among the many display tables were people from Prospect Park Books, Red Hen Press, Poets & Writers Magazine, Rare Bird Lit, and Otis Books. Author-organizers like Jervey Tervalon, Roz Helfand, and Lawrence Wilson were on panels as well as behind the scenes.

Prospect Park Books is one of the small publishing houses in Pasadena. They first emerged in the public eye after the success from their 2008 book, "Hometown Pasadena" and the accolades continued following their 2010 Los Angeles Times bestselling fiction work, "Helen of Pasadena." Their newest book, "Literary Pasadena," includes 29 contemporary fiction authors examining Pasadena's landscape in a collection of short stories. This book combines a mix of seasoned writers like Denise Hamilton, Naomi Hirahara, Michelle Huneven, Ron Koertge, Jim Krusoe, Gary Phillips, Jervey Tervalon, and Pasadena newspaper columnist Lawrence Wilson, along with several up-and-coming new authors from the area.

Another excellent Pasadena publisher is Red Hen Press, home of Los Angeles Poet Laureate, Eloise Klein Healy. I first learned of Red Hen when they published "Daphne's Lot" by Chris Abani. Established in 1994 by Kate Gale and Mark Cull, they've published many great scribes like Laurel Ann Bogen, famed poet and Pasadena City College Professor Ron Koertge, and Douglas Kearney's first book, "Fear Some." Two of their newest books are "The Palace of Contemplating Departure" by the award-winning poet Brynn Saito, and Eloise Klein Healy's latest book, "A Wild Surmise." Healy also recorded several poems from the book as well, in the legendary Hen House Recording Studio. Publishers like Red Hen reflect the thriving literary culture on display in Pasadena.

As famed as Pasadena is, Altadena plays just as an important role in the area. North of Pasadena, the name itself, as Spanish speakers know, means "above Pasadena." Homesteaders and artists settled in Altadena dating as far back as the late 19th century. In my generation musicians like Damon Aaron, Dam Funk, Kevin Sandbloom, and Raashan Ahmad from Crown City Rockers all emerged from the backyard jam sessions in the area.

The Altadena Farmers Market just celebrated their one-year anniversary. Held next to the Altadena Community Garden, there were samples of great local pizza, oysters, and a number of other excellent vendors as the late afternoon light glowed on the San Gabriels immediately north. Bon Appetit magazine recently called Altadena "The new Epicurean center." As Damon Aaron told me, it's always been a center for gardens and culture.

Poet-Professor Jean Burden lived in Altadena for many years. Author of nine books, Burden was known for being the editor of the poetry journal "Yankee" for 47 years. In 1986 friends of Burden started what has become one of the longest and most prestigious poetry series in America. Burden passed away in 2008 at 93 years old, but the readings have continued. After 27 years, the annual Jean Burden Poetry Reading held at Cal State L.A. has featured U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Adrienne Rich, Harryette Mullen, Lucille Clifton, and appearing last week was the legendary L.A. poet Wanda Coleman. When Coleman was brought on stage she was given one of Burden's books of poetry. Coleman said, "a dialogue across time, this is something special." Her poetic set was accompanied by pianist David Crittendon and saxophonist Tracy Wannomae. Coleman summoned the spirit of Burden, and then some, to deliver one of the most powerful sets of poetry I have ever seen. I'll write more about it later. Before Coleman's set a short video played about Jean Burden. Burden loved the hills of Altadena and loved Southern California's literary culture. It's great to see her legacy remembered and the spirit living on with the many local poets.

Ben Sakoguchi, ''US & Them Brand (2002)'' from the Orange Crate SeriesAnother towering figure in Altadena is the painter Ben Sakoguchi. Born in 1938, Sakoguchi spent his early childhood in an internment camp at Poston, Arizona due to his Japanese ancestry. After the war, his family reopened their grocery business in San Bernardino. He eventually attended UCLA where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree, teaching credential, and in 1964 a Master of Fine Arts degree. Sakoguchi was hired by Pasadena City College, where he was on the Art Department faculty until his 1997 retirement. He inspired countless young artists in Pasadena, and continues to display his work internationally.

Some have recently called Altadena, "the new Brooklyn." As much as people like to throw around such proclamations, Altadena has always been about food and culture. Meanwhile Damon Aaron reminds me that Walmart opened in Altadena, and they are trying to build another one. Furthermore, though Pasadena is known as the City of Roses, the north and west side of the city were chopped up for freeway construction, displacing people of color in the same manner as it happened at Chavez Ravine, Boyle Heights, and Sugar Hill in West Adams. Pasadena's police also have been in the news after a few controversial shootings. Pasadena is just like the rest of Los Angeles, with as many issues as it has assets.

All in all, Altadena, Pasadena, and the Arroyo Seco, hold a thriving landscape of cultural diversity, architecture, literary arts, and excellent food. Combining the arts and crafts legacy and the contemporary authors from Litfest, the region is a beacon of Southern California culture. The following poem is my conclusion to my portrait on this historic landscape of L.A. Letters.


ARROYO VILLANELLE

Arts & Crafts flourished in the Arroyo Seco.
Chaparral hills with underground water flow,
Most of the time, the dry creek's slow.
Homesteaders built craftsman homes
A Century ago in Sycamore Grove.
Arts & Crafts flourished in the Arroyo Seco.
Poets & artists like Charles Fletcher Lummis
Settled in the lush landscape of wooded oaks.
Most of the time, the dry creek's slow.

The river ran wild a long time ago,
The concrete came for flood control.
Arts & Crafts flourished in the Arroyo Seco.
Figueroa is the intersection of the Avenues.
The river tunnels, the canvas for crews.
Most of the time, the dry creek's slow.
Everything changed when the freeway was built.
Concrete covered flowing water below.
Arts & Crafts flourished in the Arroyo Seco.
Most of the time, the dry creek's slow.



Top: Gamble House designed by Greene & Greene. Photo: Usonian/flickr/Creative Commons

About the Author

Third-generation Angeleno Mike "The Poet" Sonksen is a poet, journalist, historian, tour guide, and teacher.
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