Can South Pasadena Preserve Its Old-School Charm?
There was a time early in this century when “South Pas,” that is to say, South Pasadena, was approaching the status of underground cultural hot spot.
Buster’s Coffee on Mission Street would put on great art openings of great, cartoony monster drawings by Los Angeles Free Music Society member Rick Potts, and if you were lucky, you’d be there, sipping espresso, when Rick was playing some music, like his novelty song, “Platform Swimfins." Buster’s (born 1976, died 2016) was basically a converted, old two-story house, with a colorful, cramped, aromatic-arty-funky feel, the atmospheric equivalent of hipster-granny clothes. Though the blueberry crumble wasn’t always the best (kinda cold sometimes), the coffee was always darn good.
Buster’s, the late and lamented, basically had the best juju spot in town, right next to the railroad tracks; the perfect place to sit, relax and enjoy that pure, small-town South Pas atmosphere. In this unpretentious and quietly bustling ambiance, you felt as if you could be in some corner of Berkeley or Claremont or maybe even in South Pasadena circa 1940 (if you’ve been there, you know what I mean), that is, until the Metro train came along in more recent years, whooshing past the building and shaking the windows in a place planted in the old red-brick center of town, heading up north. Later in the day you could, if you were lazy enough, still be sitting there watching the sun go down, talking with strangers (which, of course, wouldn’t happen now), as the light drenched old Mission Street in that nostalgic, deep orange glow.
This past April, the heroic but finally burnt-out Buster’s closed down, after 40 years of loyal service. Generations of Caltech students, first dates and wispy young blond mothers with their babies have done been here an’ gone.
Just recently there was more bad news: A great used book–and–record shop on Mission, Battery Books and Music, has closed its doors, too. The hell of it is, Battery Books was also putting on shows of jazz and improvised music in a small, cozy book-lined part of the store; these were barely advertised gigs by living legends such as jazz drummer Andrea Centazzo and L.A.’s famous, avant-y saxophonist Vinny Golia, and now that’s gone. So is this the end of unpretentious, arty activity in charming ol’ South Pasadena?
South Pasadena itself still remains: old and youthful and possibly eternal. It's is one of the best of those rare and mostly untouched pockets of early–20th century cityhood that successfully avoided, in fact, fought against, the wrecking ball. The San Gabriel Valley seems to be especially good at this, as the two Pasadenas, unlike L.A., somehow have kept a level head through the years and were never as eager as Los Angeles to bulldoze their identities.
So South Pas, founded back in the 1880s, remains architecturally preserved; it is, in fact, a “preserve” for an amazing catalog of early–20th century bungalows, and has kept itself resolutely skyscraper-free. South Pasadenians, you could say, like to keep it low ’n’ slow. For that reason it tends to be a quiet place, except when that Metro train roars through at Mission and Meridian every 20 minutes or so.
The town has always prided itself on being its own entity, distinct from Pasadena, but shares that city’s hard-assed, closely guarded sense of historic identity, which means preservation to the Nth degree. I quote from a city-sponsored booklet on the city’s history: “Having already seen its historic landscape carved into subdivisions by one freeway, the city is committed to preventing construction of another freeway extension that would destroy its neighborhoods, its heritage and its economic survival.” You go, little city! “Few cities in the nation,” it goes on, “are better recognized for determination to preserve ...”
Socially, I can only wax anecdotal: upper-class, a heavy Caltech presence, the quiet hum of architects’ offices everywhere, groups of professorial and handsome older people toasting with their wineglasses in tony South Pas restaurants (and at Mission Wines, where you’ll see them every day after work).
While Pasadena has Colorado Boulevard, South Pas has ye olde Mission Street, the east-west heart of town (the main north-south corridor, Fair Oaks Avenue, hasn’t a tenth of the old-soulfulness of Mission, I’m afraid). The small-town folksiness is anchored by the vintage-1930s South Pasadena Library, which stands surrounded by a park; it’s the kind of neighborhood library you could imagine producing some scholarly notables of the genteel, pre-WWII variety, and, in fact, Lawrence Clark Powell, the late UCLA librarian and author (who wrote, “Books themselves need no defense. Their spokesmen come and go, their readers live and die, they remain constant”) and publisher Ward Ritchie, who for years created fine limited-edition books in L.A., both grew up in this area and frequented the library as children (so did a guy named Leon Dostert, a linguist who created the system of “simultaneous translation” that’s used today at the United Nations).
Are there, were there famous actors from South Pas, you ask? Yes: William Holden, the rock-jawed star of Sunset Boulevard, went to South Pasadena High. There are others, recent ones, but they’re boring. Oh and some ’80s movies were shot around here, but if I were an old city, I wouldn’t brag about it (I suppose the Hollywood people think this is what the Midwest looks like, and there’s gotta be some truth to that, since a huge number of Iowans settled in this area, and L.A. generally, in the late 19th century).
The above-mentioned pamphlet South Pasadena: History and Landmarks Guidebook (which you can pick up for free from said library) touts the long list of official building styles of its residences, but that’s for visiting German tourists with lots of time on their hands. But since we're on the subject: classic box style, shingle style, Victorian farmhouse (sounds like a Captain Beefheart song title), Craftsman, period revival — they're all here. Read the booklet and get excited (or just google the Huntzinger House and get excited). I've seen some Craftsman bungalows here in the flesh that are truly delicious and a clear claim to the region’s cultural greatness. For years these houses have been bought up by well-funded young couples starting out on the whole raising-a-family thing, and I can’t say I blame them; I mean, what a great place to raise kids, if you're into raising kids. If they stopped growing at around age 8 or so and stayed cute, I’d do it myself.
As an outsider (an L.A.-native outsider), the eastern border of South Pas is for me Fair Oaks Avenue, which sports a very old BBQ restaurant with really great neon, called Gus’s (since 1946), and the amazingly charming Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain: a nostalgia items–loaded drugstore that includes a genuinely old-fashioned “malt shop” inside, where the grilled cheese sandwiches and choco-malts are quite decent, served to you by the friendly neighborhood teens-slash-young folks who work there.
The hipness and funkiness resides on Mission Street, with the south side dominated by the old Mission Arroyo Hotel building (1923) in all its red-brick grandeur; it currently houses a series of the more interesting businesses in town, including a couple of excellent bars and restaurants, and a cool pop culture antique shop (Hodgson’s Antiques), where the smell of old Life magazines and the glittery and cluttered claustrophobia actually feel good, for a while.
Across the street is one of the most esoterica-friendly video rental shops in all of Greater L.A.: Videotheque, which has sections for cult people like John Cassavetes, Marcel Duchamp, the Kuchar Bros., John Waters, etc. (“We offer what the competition doesn’t … rare and cult titles, as well as all the new releases you want and old favorites you cherish.” It’s true.)
You have the enjoyable option, by the way, of getting to South Pas by taking the Metro Gold Line instead of driving; the trip takes you through some very old Arroyo neighborhoods that could give you a rush of nostalgia for a past that’s not even yours (look, there’s the Lummis House from 1908 off to your left).
I recommend coming here on a late Thursday afternoon, because every week the South Pasadena Farmers Market on Meridian Street pulls out all the quality-carnival-food, fresh-produce-shopping stops, with lots of good people-watching to go with it. My gal and I went recently and enjoyed, first, a steaming ear of roasted corn dipped in hot butter, and then an “Ecuadorean pulled pork sandwich” that came with delicious, salty-good chunks of fried potato. The atmosphere that night (a full moon) was fantastic, kind of like a gentrified county fair; the essence of neighborly tranquility.
Meridian is also where you can see the rather funky and unofficial local history museum, the Meridian Iron Works, stuffed like an old thrift shop with weird, vintage stuff: photos, railroad ties and paper ephemera from the early years of the neighborhood you’re a-standin’ in. It’s dusty. A talkative guy who looked like Santa Claus was working there the last time I stopped in. He, too, was a little dusty. The place looks like a very old converted barn or a blacksmith’s shop.
So there’s a bit of South Pasadena for you: forever young, forever expensive, forever old. Or, to quote the blunt but comforting words of the Chamber of Commerce: “South Pasadena, Where Past Is Present.”
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in Los Angeles.