John Van de Kamp, One of Pasadena's Most Prominent Citizens, On How the City Has Changed

Published : Monday, May 11, 2015 | 4:52 AM

John Van de Kamp as he addressed the West Pasadena Residents' Association on May 6, 2015 at Sequoyah School.

John Van de Kamp addressed the West Pasadena Residents’ Association annual meeting last week — he sits on their Board — and delivered a brief verbal memoir of his almost-seven-decades-long residence in West Pasadena.

Van de Kamp was born in 1936 and grew up here. He attended John Muir High School. He served as Los Angeles County District Attorney from 1975 until 1981, and then as 28th Attorney General of California from 1983 until 1991

Van de Kamp’s remarks were built around then-and-now comparisons which few people can make with authority. That is because there are, in fact, few people who have personally witnessed the city’s evolution as he has.

His remembrances, comparisons and conclusions all were fascinating to hear. We’ve published his speech below. — The Editors


“I’m 79. My first 12 years I lived in Altadena – most of the last 67 I’ve lived in West Pasadena. In my ramblings this evening I want to touch on the past and the present – not a history of Pasadena but some observations from my life here. You are not going to hear of Don Benito Wilson or the Indiana Colony. I’m not that old.

The question raised: Have things gone to hell?  Was the past an idyllic past we should aspire to – and if so, what made it so and what should we concentrate on?

Very simply Pasadena has changed over these years – mostly – but not always for the better.
Public Transportation: Back in the ‘40s we had the Pacific Electric Redcars that would take us downtown on Saturday morning to hear L.A. Philharmonic, and good bus service as well.

Today, the Gold Line – but [it's affected by] traffic congestion because failure to go below grade at major intersections.

Schools: Then and now strong private schools – then a strong public school system – by most accounts. I was a beneficiary – graduating from John Muir High School when it was a high school – junior college in 1952.

Today: with a more diverse and larger minority population and budget cuts in our public schools a struggle to achieve excellence – with the Pasadena Education Foundation providing outside support among other things to adding computers to our classrooms and making sure that summer school is available to as many as we can (which otherwise would be unavailable).

Then: San Rafael, Arroyo, and Linda Vista Elementary Schools. By 2017, no public schools [will be located] west of Orange Grove.

Culturally: Then Toscannini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra at the Civic – with the San Francisco Opera coming every year. The Shakespeare Festival at the Playhouse, under the direction of Gilmore Brown. Richard Lert ran and conducted the Pasadena Symphony.

Today: A reconstituted Pasadena Symphony at the Ambassador College. A revitalized and out-of-debt Playhouse under Sheldon Epps. The Noise Within—Rachel Worby’s Muse-ique. Great artists like my high school classmate, Helen Pashgian who has worked all her life here in Pasadena.

Then: A number of large movie theatres, the Academy was first run, the Crown (formerly The Raymond Opera House), and many more. Today, fewer movie houses, but multiplexes showing more movies than ever before.

Then: The Carmelita 3 par golf course, now – the Norton Simon Museum. And of course we have the Huntington Library, the Armory for the arts (where I used to serve National Guard duty) and good number of other local museums.

Homes: Then: mansions on Orange Grove – today condos and multi-unit developments, not only on Orange Grove but all over the City.

Downtown Pasadena. It once was the bustling center of Pasadena. By 1950 Fair Oaks and Colorado was Skid Row. Taking my bus transfer to get to John Muir High School was very exciting. As I waited on the Northwest corner of Fair Oaks and Colorado at age 14 – on consecutive days I’d be saved by an itinerant preacher on day 1 and on day 2 by an itinerant prostitute. It was pretty exciting. On the way home I escaped into Bill’s Liquor Store on the southwest corner for a Pepsi.

Then – you had the Broadway Department Store at Colorado and Los Robles, Nash’s, Welton Beckett’s Bullocks, and Hertels. All gone except for Bullocks, which is now Macys.

Today after the intrepid leadership of the developers, Douglas Stizel and John Wilson we have Old Town Pasadena, and later in mid city, El Paseo, and another major retail center on South Lake.

Then: a great Pasadena Library where I could spend hours in the stacks, and where in the ‘80s I was honored to lead the dedication of its new auditorium in honor of my mentor and friend, Pasadena’s own Chief Justice, Donald Wright.

Today Myron Hunts 1925 Library is going strong, having adapted to the computer and digital revolution. And 10 branches, including our San Rafael Library.

The Arroyo: Then in the ‘40s and early ‘50s we picnicked on the edge of the natural stream near the La Loma Bridge.

Today: The concrete storm drain from the edge of Devil’s Gate Dam all the way to downtown Los Angeles with a small diversion near the Colorado Bridge.

Tomorrow: Just maybe – an end to the storm drain and a return to a natural streambed.

Markets: Then: The Model Grocery (where my father worked as a young man) and later Prebles, on Green. They used to be the gold standard of Pasadena’s Grocery stores. Today they are gone – and we now have major supermarkets like Vons and Ralphs and Whole Foods.

Restaurants: Despite the fact that we had a Van de Kamp’s coffee shop near Pasadena City College (now gone) my Uncle Lawrence Frank (our family has always been in the restaurant business) once said we should never open a restaurant in Pasadena—it was too tough. In the ‘50s and ‘60s we had the Stuft Shirt – some said it lived up to its name – but restaurants in general had tough going, particularly in the summer. Today: restaurants galore – and good ones. It’s still tough but we have new ones opening all the time. Some in unusual places – like Lincoln across from John Muir High School and on Lincoln.

Athletic Venues: Then: The Rose Bowl and 2 good golf courses at Brookside; Today: a rebuilt Rose Bowl, those 2 good golf courses, with upwards to 3,000 people using the bike and walking paths around them.

Then: When I grew up African Americans were permitted to swim in the pool at Brookside but once a week. The next day it was drained and cleaned. Jackie Robinson never wanted to return to Pasadena.

Today: The Aquatic Center where future Olympians train. Today: most Private Clubs can no longer discriminate against minorities. And two statues, honoring Mack and Jackie Robinson, in front of City Hall. And Rachel Robinson came to be the Honorary Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade.

Politics: Then Pasadena was a Republican stronghold. Names like Edgar Hiestand, H. Allen Smith and Carlos Moorhead were our Congressmen. Today: It’s a Democratic stronghold. Names like Adam Schiff, Judy Chu and Chris Holden holding State and National offices.

Then: In the early 40’s Santa Anita was a concentration camp where we interned the Japanese in the stables.
Today: Richard Reeves new book “Infamy” about that dark stain on American life. And the stables, which haven’t changed much, are housing thoroughbreds.

The air: In the ‘40s it was sulfurous yellow smog. In my high school tennis matches I’d get smog cough if I happened to get in to the 3rd set of a match. Today: So much better, you can nearly always see the mountains.

Our highways. In the ‘40s and ‘50s Pasadena was a unified community. Then came the 210 which in many ways divided our City.

Today: We face another divider. The threatened 710 tunnel which WPRA is working hard to stop.

What does one make of all of this?

Pasadena is no longer a sleepy city, a place where Easterners used to spend their winters, the subject of Hollywood jokes. It has diversity, vitality – still some great neighborhoods. A lot of engaged and sometimes enraged citizens. Overall, it’s a good place to live but with issues confronting us, dealing with size, growth, public services and the needs of a quite different population.

Going forward I would personally put emphasis on preserving our historic neighborhoods, protecting against mansionization, and improving our housing stock for middle and lower income earning families.

I’d like to see preservation and revitalization of our cultural institutions and our parks and recreation facilities, maintenance of which is always a problem.

We need to meet the drought with intelligent responses.

We need to address our crime issues using best practices including the type of community policing where residents, particularly in minority areas look to the police as their friends rather than their enemies.

And perhaps most important of all we must make our public education system so good that it draws families from all walks of Pasadena’s life.

Pasadena has changed – mostly for the better. With diversity has come minority representation in our government, and a better sense of integration – and our lives have been enriched by it.

But Pasadena will inevitably continue to change – and as citizens we should fight to make the most of it.”


blog comments powered by Disqus