By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In 2001, after a 35-year absence and with much trepidation, I moved back to the town where I was born and raised, Altadena, California.
Specifically, I moved back to west Altadena, not the fancier, more bourgieside of town east of Lake Avenue. This matters to many who know the area: One of the first questions Altadenans ask when they hear I’ve moved back is, “East or west?” — which is a subtle inquiry into class and, to some extent, race.
My home, in the modest and racially balanced west, is smack in the area once known as Millionaire’s Row, where at the previous turn of the century, sun-seeking Midwestern businessmen built their estates. Over the course of the 20th century, the grounds of these same estates were haphazardly chopped and divvied up by that inexorable and undiscriminating urban force known as “infill.” Because this chopping and divvying was done over many decades without any civic plan (as opposed to the much more deliberate development in the east), the infill is uneven, often ramshackle and crammed in — and, almost as often, unexpected and charming.
Some of those old mansions and gracious large homes still exist on the north side of my block, but stroll down one of their driveways and where the estate’s stables or orchards once stood, you’ll find a dense cluster of modest midcentury houses on teeny lots: infill.
The story I tell myself is that the wealthy, mansion-dwelling Midwesterners first built smaller homes on their property for their kids, then sold other parcels to pay offthe gambling debts of their wilder offspring. Why else would people relinquish so much privacy and breathing space?
More likely, the lion’s share of westAltadena’s haphazard infill had more to do with the Depression. Indeed, the southern side of my block holds a half dozen Janes cottages, those miniature Tudor dwellings built as low-cost housing in the ’30s. These days, with even the lowliest Craftsman bungalows now out of reach for most first-time home buyers, the Janes cottages, with their steep-pitched roofs, many-paned windows and narrow but often very deep back yards, have become the starter-home architecture of choice — nevermind their teeny floor plans and dearth of closet space. As infill goes, the Janes are lovely.
My home is also infill, a small stucco cube of midcentury vintage on a flag lot (so called because my driveway is long and straight like a pole, and the lot furls off it like a flag). In the early years of the 20th century, my property was part of a larger holding owned by one-time anti-saloon Republican Frederick Oliver Popenoe, who started the subtropical nursery called West India Gardens. Popenoe himself lived in the beautiful courtyard-centered Craftsman whose yard abuts mine to the west. Popenoe sent his business partner and sons all over the world for plants that would thrive here in California — he is responsible for bringing in a variety of date palm that thrives out in the desert, and for introducing Mexico’s Fuerte avocado to California. Some of his specimens can still be seen at my neighbor’s house: a towering stone pine, an ancient tea tree. He probably planted the hundred-foot eucalyptuses that tower over my property.
Not content with manipulating plants, Popenoe went on to apply his biological expertise to humans and became a eugenicist whose views were studied and appropriated by the Nazis. Never one to rest on success, if you could call it that, Popenoe went on to yet a third distinction, and helped to found a brand-new field of human endeavor — marriage counseling. He was the first person to pen the column “Can This Marriage Be Saved” in Ladies Home Journal.
My house and its nearby twin were built for two of the eugenicist’s many descendants — the name Popenoe is on the original property description. The two wood-frame stuccoed homes were constructed the same year I was born, 1953. Since then, dozens of people have occupied them — I know, because we still get stray mail for most of them, fliers from churches and car dealerships, plaintive post cards from friends regretting lapses in communication, and more than a few intimidating envelopes from government agencies. Some former tenants in moving on clearly have outstripped the tax man and child custody courts.
My own history with this plot of land goes back to before I was born. My father’s family moved to westAltadena in 1923, when he was 8 years old. His father and uncle together bought an acre with 48 orange trees over by the arroyo. That first year, when he was having trouble adjusting in school, my father ran away from home with two friends. They took a blanket, packed some bread, yanked unripe oranges from the trees, and headed east. They spent the night on what is now my yard, when it was still part of the West India Gardens. The three fought over the one blanket all night. In the chilly dawn, without discussion, they headed home. As they grew near, they were gratified to hear their parents howling their names.
In his 20s, my father bought a quarter acre of a lemon grove just south of his father’s property. He built a tiny house there in his 30s, then found a wife. After my sister and I were born, he built a larger house to the front of the property — my childhood home. If you drew a line, from his lot to mine, we’d be sitting at the same north-south parallel, one mile apart.