If you're looking to come to grips with this wonderful, if complex, town that we live in, you can do no better than read Michele Zack's amazing book. Published in conjunction with the generous members of the Sierra Madre Historical Preservation Society (the Historical part being founded on April 21, 1931), it is a stunning review of Sierra Madre from the time our species first appeared in California up until some (but not all) of our recent imbroglios. It is a richly illustrated over-sized book you will be proud to show the relatives from back east when they ask why you never returned to New Jersey. And the lasting impression you'll come away with is that we fortunate few living here are the heirs of a remarkable legacy, something that needs to be protected and nurtured at all costs. A bittersweet realization when you consider the threat Sierra Madre is under now from those insensible souls who would ruinously exploit our collective inheritance for narrow personal gain.
So who is Michele Zack you might ask? According to biographical info found on the internet, she is an Altadena resident of some note, a writer and historian with a curriculum vitae that includes everything from the Pasadena Weekly to the Far Eastern Economic Review. Good enough for any writer, I'd think. But what really brought her to the attention of that hardy band of folks who have chosen to spend their lives pressed up against foothills once known to the world as the Sierra Madres, she wrote an acclaimed book about Altadena that went on to win some important awards. Here is how Kevin Starr, California State Librarian and author of the America and the California Dream series, describes it:
"Altadena: Between Wilderness and City is urban history at its best. In each aspect of her story - whether it be people, politics, architecture, water, environment, social development, or the fair housing crisis - Michelle Zack pays her subject the tribute of extensive research, vigorous narrative, and the fullest possible honesty. Not only does Michele Zack tell the lively story of Altadena in an encompassing and vibrant way, she places that story in its most complete regional and national context. If we had only this one history to guide us, we could significantly recreate the history of Southern California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a mecca for millions seeking a better life in the Southland."
Now Michele Zack has done the same for Sierra Madre. And trust me dear friends, this is both an important event and a generous act. One that couldn't have come at a better time.
Zack tells some fascinating stories about the big personalities that founded this town. Of particular interest is the business relationship between the two gentleman credited with jump starting the place, Nathaniel Carter and Elijah J. "Lucky" Baldwin. Carter, whose name now graces both Carter Avenue and the One Carter Estates fiasco, was a successful sewing machine salesman from the Massachusetts town of Dracut who, suffering from tuberculosis at a time when people regularly perished from the disease, fled west at his doctor's advice and ended up here. Once in sunny California he regained his health and, master salesman that he was, turned this story of miraculous recovery into a pitch that made him a wealthy man. Traveling back east over and over again, he proclaimed to all who would listen the wonders that could happen for similarly afflicted souls should they leave the cold forbidding east to "take the California cure."
Apparently Lucky Baldwin wasn't very lucky at all. Repeated business debacles are what led to his becoming known as Lucky, yet somehow he managed to hold on to the vast tracts of land that were his fortune. And a key to his business survival at the time of Sierra Madre's emergence was the likes of Nathaniel Carter. Unable to sell land during the depression of the 1870s, the only business he could profit by was the selling of small plots of land courtesy of Mr. Carter and his California Cure. And apparently those lots fetched top dollar prices. Another key to Lucky Baldwin's survival as a land baron was not paying his debts or employees until he was taken to court and forced to do so by a judge. A practice still used by certain local humbugs.
We have also had residents of some fame and even notoriety. Gutzon Borglum, you'll be glad to know, was an artist of renown in the 1890s. He was also a sculptor at Mount Rushmore (he carved Abe), and the creator of monuments still seen at Gettysburg National Military Park. A complex man, he was both an admirer of President Lincoln and fundraiser for a sculpted tribute to the Confederacy at Georgia's Stone Mountain. Something which serves today as a rallying point for those who haven't quite reconciled themselves with the South's defeat in the Civil War.
Another resident of note was Anais Nin. A controversial writer of great importance to both lovers of books and anyone who took an advanced literature course in college, here is how she is described by the blog writer's best friend, Wikipedia:
"Nin is hailed by many critics as one of the finest writers of female erotica. She was one of the first women to explore fully the realm of erotic writing, and certainly the first prominent woman in modern Europe to write erotica ... Nin was a friend, and in some cases lover, of many leading literary figures, including Henry Miller, Antonin Artaud, Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, James Agee, and Lawrence Durrell. Her passionate love affair and friendship with Miller strongly influenced her as a woman and an author."
And where did this chanteuse of the exotic live? At 341 Sturtevant Drive. Which is in the Canyon, of course. Where else would she live? But apparently the marriage to her Sierra Madre husband, Rupert Pole, described by Zack as being an "impossibly handsome and shy forest ranger," was not the only one. Mrs. Rupert Pole would at times leave for New York where she was known as Mrs. Hugh Guiler. An arrangement that lasted until her death in 1977.
(As an aside, isn't this something the Chamber of Commerce should be taking advantage of? I mean, there is no doubt that Santa Claus and the Wistaria Vine are big attractions and bring business to town. But here we have a direct connection to one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century, and nobody seems to see any potential in it. Maybe they just aren't big on reading?)
A lot of our friends and acquaintances are mentioned in this book as well. Carolyn Brown's work in creating the Sierra Madre Mountain Conservancy, the first of its kind in the San Gabriel Valley, is justifiably lauded. Tommie Ann Miller describes her connection to Sierra Madre's ceramics industry, in particular noted pottery makers the McCarty Brothers. David Darbyshire's role in helping to develop Sierra Madre's art colony reputation is mentioned as well. George Maurer gets a big spread in this book, and his accomplishments as a Sierra Madre volunteer are carefully detailed. Of particular note is the role he played in helping Sierra Madre get its first ambulance. Michael Sizer's troubles with draconian marijuana law enforcement is detailed, along with his imprisonment. Aggressive policing being a tradition back then as well. Michael later achieved redemption by becoming Citizen of the Year in 1993. And Doug Hayes, whose picture in this book shows a grinning long haired dude standing next to a chopper (perhaps it was some kind of an Easy Rider influence?), apparently first came to town while on a serendipitous motorcycle trip, and never left. Something that helps illustrate Sierra Madre's rich countercultural vibe in the 1960s and '70s.
In one of the final chapters of this book, Whither To, Sierra Madre?, Michele Zack touches upon some of the concerns we face today. And while she is cautious not to come down too firmly on any specific side of our more contentious recent challenges (she basically punts on the entire Measure V struggle), her instincts are obviously - and firmly - preservationist. And in this chapter she details the struggles that have taken place over the years to keep Sierra Madre what it is now, an independent town where quality of life issues coupled with a reverence for deeply ingrained traditions still hold sway. Here is one paragraph in particular that highlights that theme:
"It is hard to imagine a past in which Sierra Madre boosters lobbied fiercely for a state highway that would have run across this land north of the Passionist Monastery and along the foothills. Equally unimaginable today is that in the 1920s most Sierra Madreans hoped the University of California would open its new southern campus in Upper Hastings Ranch (and considered annexing this land) - and that they craved business development that would create 'a smaller version of Los Angeles.' Perhaps 2009 is a good time to take a step back and marvel that such visions did not materialize."
Obviously when we discuss the consequences of SB 375 and those in town who would support the dismantling of a traditional Sierra Madre in favor of the mixed-used condo monstrosities that have done so much harm to the increasingly generic downtowns of Pasadena and Monrovia, we're talking about a struggle that has gone on for years. The players and their rationales for eminent destruction might change, but the core values we live by stay the same.
And then there is this:
"As the first decade of the new century draws to a close, the evening scene along Sierra Madre Boulevard or North Baldwin is one of small town charm set against an awesome mountain backdrop. Over time, people by the millions have come to Southern California seeking health, beauty, and personal redemption - and a good few found it here. While challenges, imperfections, and unfinished business will always be around to annoy the human beings who insist on taking these problems on, at this moment they are drowned in foothill scents of sagebrush mingled with more domesticated rosemary and oregano. Background sounds of diners, laughter, and music create a life-filled cacophony. Neighbors out for a stroll, the cry of a baby, words hanging in the air: indeed it looks, smells, and sounds like the better life in Sierra Madre tonight."
Michele Zack will be signing Southern California - Seeking The Better Life In Sierra Madre at Vroman's Books 695 E Colorado in Pasadena Wednesday, 12/2 at 7 pm. If you want to pick up your copy in town, Sierra Madre Books will be getting their allotment on 12/4. You might want to pre-order with them because of the expected demand. Books can also be ordered through the Sierra Madre Historical Preservation Society site, linked to in the second paragraph. And there will also be a book launch party at the Sierra Madre Library this Sunday, December 6, from 2 to 5 pm. That's where I'm going to get my copy autographed.
One more thing. A lot of the information found in this book was culled from the excellent newspapers Sierra Madre once claimed as its own. The history of the Sierra Madre News is particularly fascinating. Will somebody years from now be able to mine that kind of quality information from the papers we have today? Sadly, I think not. And unless it is a sociological study on the decline of Sierra Madre's print media, the information found would be hopelessly inaccurate and without value. The latest edition of the Mountain Views "News" leads off with a headline story about a winning lottery ticket. And further down the front page an article about this very book reveals the following:
The coffee table book, written by Michelle (sic) Zack of Altadena, covers the first 100 years of the city and includes photographs from 1907 to present.
This book actually covers the history of Sierra Madre from the dawn of time, and has photos dating from as far back as the 1850s. And why would this book cover the first 100 years of Sierra Madre yet only have photos from the most recent? It's not just that the publisher of the SMN didn't read a book she was attempting to write about, she apparently didn't even bother to crack the cover. With the stewardship of this city's newspaper of record having fallen into the hands of someone so poorly equipped to perform even the most rudimentary functions of journalism, we have lost something valuable. Both for today and how we will be seen in the future.