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Guest Editorial
by Rick Cole, City of Azusa, California

Creating a 'Real' Place: Azusa Faces the 21st Century

  
What is real? Can it be distinguished from hype and special effects? “Place” seems to give us something anchored and tangible. But how people see and experience a place is also shaped by stories, myths and perceptions.

Azusa, California is a real place with an unusual name. Recently Hollywood screenwriters for the edgy HBO drama “Six Feet Under” used “on location” footage, but painted Azusa as a remote and exotic desert haunt of an indigenous artist. Back in the glory days of radio, comedian Jack Benny’s show concocted a long-running—and completely imaginary—train that was always “leaving on Track five for Anaheim, Azusa and Cucamonga.” And before that, in the heady “booster” era of promoting California real estate, the Azusa Chamber of Commerce promoted the little town as containing “everything from A to Z in the USA.”

These fanciful notions have overshadowed the “actual” place where archeological evidence indicates people have lived for six thousand years. Phonetic variations of “Azusavit” were recorded by Spanish padres as the village origin of the native “neophytes” inducted into labor at the nearby Mission San Gabriel. The age and meaning of the name is lost to history. But it eventually resurfaced as the name of the Mexican era rancho and of the tiny railroad era town incorporated as a city in 1898, long before “everything from A to Z in the USA” was invented as a slogan.

Azusa welcome monument.
A new monument welcomes drivers to Azusa.
Photo courtesy City of Azusa.

Today, on the surface, Azusa blends with little distinction from the tract homes, apartments and commercial strips of the thirty other cities that two million San Gabriel Valley suburbanites call home. At first glance, it evokes the bleak side of older suburbs in geographer Joel Kotkin’s recent study of “middopolis,” a landscape victimized by an “ever-expanding metropolitan periphery that lures away residents, workers, and high-tech companies critical to growth in the new information age.”

But below the surface, it is undergoing the kind of rebirth that Kotkin says is “the key to securing a thriving economic and social future” by “developing a distinct identity and sense of place.”

The symbolic turning point came in 1995, when voters overwhelmingly rejected a scheme to introduce casino gambling as the panacea to the city’s declining fortunes. Voters installed a new City Council determined to pursue another vision. As a result, new life has come to the historic downtown. When recently installed pedestrian-scaled street lamps were mistakenly painted purple, the Council persevered despite ridicule. Two dozen new businesses made believers out of skeptics. Purple is now embraced as the city’s distinctive color. Development of new homes was pushed toward New Urbanism, putting Azusa back in the running to attract middle-class homebuyers. Public schools adopted a “no excuses” determination to boost test scores. A rash commitment to plant 2,000 new trees in the year 2000 ended up adding over 3,500 new trees and planting the seeds that have flowered in a renewed spirit of citizen volunteerism. Neighborhood improvement zones were launched to “improve all of Azusa, one neighborhood at a time.” The draft General Plan proclaims “a 21st Century vision for Azusa” as “the Gateway to the American Dreams.” It outlines plans for new neighborhoods with 1,250 new homes, a new “library of the future,” restoration of the city’s neglected riverfront and expansion and partnership with Azusa Pacific University.

Planting street trees in Azusa.
Volunteers help plant new street trees in Azusa.
Photo courtesy City of Azusa.

This progress has led to Azusa being branded by the regional daily paper as “the city to watch . . . the most improved city” in the area. But change is never painless. In charting the direction for the new General Plan, the Citizens Congress began with a statement of enduring values: “Azusa is blessed with a unique natural, historic and cultural heritage.” Is the new development creating “a distinct identity and sense of place”—or altering beyond recognition the community’s existing character?

What gives Azusa a "distinct identity and sense of place?" As a young man, one of the town's most beloved citizens went off to the Korean War. Adolph Solis vividly remembers his boot camp drill sergeant demanding of each new soldier what they were fighting for. The man to his left joked, "The girls like the uniform." He was sent to stand sentry duty for his impertinence. When his turn came, Solis stammered out "Azusa." The sergeant gave him the proverbial steely glare: "What in the hell is Azusa?"

Today, after a long career serving his hometown as City Clerk, Solis stills puzzles over the answer to that question. "We're one of the last of the old-time communities," he notes. "It's not apparent on the surface, but the old families are still closely knit—and suspicious of outsiders."

What provides today’s residents a “sense of place?” Azusa’s long-neglected river, which flows with power and beauty—when the flood control dams release water downstream? Two-story brick commercial buildings in our downtown—commonplace when built, unusual today? A vacant and rusting Drive-In that is now claimed as the last of its kind on Route 66, even though it was built long after the storied “mother road” was superceded by the Interstate? Our Mexican-American heritage at a time when Southern California is becoming majority “Latino?”

Azusa street fair.
Street Fair in Downtown Azusa.
Photo courtesy City of Azusa.

For more than fifty years, Azusa has celebrated “Golden Days,” recalling the era when gold brought a boom town that was eventually washed away in a flood. But the parade and programs pay little homage to the actual history—the events give us a weeklong chance to dress in the outfits of Nashville cowboys and Mexican rancheros. The “history” we celebrate is the tradition of celebrating history.

To acknowledge these nuances is not to dismiss them. The landmarks and legacies of the past do evoke something “real,” especially in the meretricious geography of Southern California where old movie sets sometimes substitute for authentic history. Or where the red-tiled charm of “old” Santa Barbara actually dates from the destruction of the Victorian-era red brick town by the 1925 earthquake. Or where the gracious old Huntington Hotel in Pasadena was demolished and replaced with a virtually indistinguishable replica that now thrives as an “historic” Ritz-Carlton. Yet, choosing what to “save” and celebrate is by no means obvious, especially when the “ordinary” of another time is cloaked with a wholly new meaning in the 21st century. As Thomas Wolfe lamented, “You can’t go home again,” even if the landmarks are unchanged and the old families remain.

Bruce Springsteen captured the bittersweet quality of our fleeting memories in his anthem, “My Home Town.” The man remembers the boy who would sit on his father’s lap “in that big old Buick and steer as we drove through town.” Dad proudly tousles his hair and says, “Son, take a good look around, this is your hometown.” But when “troubled times” bring “white-washed windows and vacant stores,” the last verse throbs with pain as he sits his own son on his lap for a last look at “your home town” before moving away.

Hands across Azusa.
Hands across Azusa.
Photo courtesy City of Azusa.

Would he feel at home in a time warp “theme park” that froze Freehold, New Jersey in its “glory days?” If this seems far-fetched, what about places like colonial Williamsburg? The human struggle to sort out myth and reality is playing out again in the struggle over what belongs in the space cleared by the destruction of the World Trade Towers: ruins, replicas or renewal?

In our own way and time, Azusa confronts these timeless issues. Can “a distinct identity and sense of place” evolve from the transformation of an older suburb? Into what? The answer lies beyond a perpetuation of memory and myth. We face real choices about what to retain and preserve—and what to improve and replace. With the ability to draw on “everything from A to Z in the USA,” the families of Azusa strive to create a vibrant and “real” place today—and a brighter future for our children.

  

Rick Cole has been city manager of Azusa, California for five years. As Mayor of Pasadena, he was a leader in that city's "smart growth" renaissance. Mr. Cole is also a member of Terrain.org's editorial board.
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Azusa is blessed with a unique natural, historic and cultural heritage. Our citizens are caring people who work hard and value Faith, Family and Country.

We treasure our neighborhood character and community participation. We see our city as the Gateway to the American Dream of owning a home and starting a business.

We see to become a model learning community, stressing educational opportunity for all ages. Proud of our diversity, our shared goal is a brighter future for our children.

Azusa Citizens Congress
2000

 

 
     
    
  
 
     
    
  
 
   

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