Sweet Home Altadena

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.

As a junior-high-aged child, I rode by my present property every day on the school bus. And every day I rode that bus, I played a game in which I imagined living in the various houses, from the clapboard shacks to the Egyptian revival, the modest Janes cottages to the Myron Hunt, the Craftsman extravaganza to the midcentury ranches.(I never saw the home I would own, though, since it’s invisible from the street).

When house hunting in 2001, I was drawn to my Altadena home because of the third of an acre that came with the nondescript — okay, ugly — little home. The trees lured me, the towering eucalyptuses, the citrus, the expressive Hollywood junipers screening a basketball court. Other attractions included my old high school friend Michele Zack next door (who told me all about Popenoe and wrote the beautiful, informative and entertaining local history, Altadena, Between Wilderness and City), along with other nearby cronies, and the ongoing, notorious Altadena mix of artists and eccentrics and soreheads, the latter of whom for years prevented undue development and incorporation (Altadena isn’t a city but a northern outpost of L.A. County), thus preserving the town’s idiosyncratic and rustic charm.

Still, in moving back to the scene of my childhood, I feared I’d be gut-socked by melancholy for old times, for my grandparents, my mother who has been dead for 17 years now, for the orange-and-lemon-groves-turned-infill. I wondered, too, if my return would seem an admission of failure.

For I’d been a restless, easily bored child, and from a young age plotted to live far afield, seriously far — Brazil, Algiers, Calcutta. I would’ve been outraged then if you told me that I’d fall so close to the proverbial tree.

But neither melancholy nor disappointment descended. Instead came a surge of contentment. Memories persist, but they also accrete, and there’s satisfaction in the resulting continuity and depth. Some days, when the myoporum is in bloom, it smells like my childhood, and when mourning doves coo and a distant train rumbles at dawn (where is that train?) I am 8 years old in my old narrow bed with the red corded-cotton spread in my pistachio-green room. Sometimes, too, I lie in bed — the one I’ve covered with a red Indian spread in my olive-green room — and try to imagine what will be here on this land in another hundred years — a parking structure? A condo complex? Desert sands? Much depends on progress, and therefore on the local soreheads, and their ability to control progress’s unruly accomplice, infill. What will remain? “The trees!” my husband says. But he is optimistic; the hundred-foot eucalyptuses, already many decades old, will surely be gone, as will the aged kumquat, the gnarled persimmons and Hollywood junipers. Will I, like Popenoe, be mentioned in a history book? Will my name linger on a deed?

Will the garden tool or lost fountain pen be dug up by a gardener or a bulldozer? How long will my mail keep coming?

—Michelle Huneven

Novelist Michelle Huneven’s newest book is The Tao Gal’s Guide to Real Estate (Blooms­bury Publishing), co-written with Bernadette Murphy.