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Altadena Says 'No Thanks' to Big-City Progress

May 10, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

All in all, most of Altadena's 42,000 citizens would just as soon keep their town the way it is, according to longtime residents. Maybe there could be a few more places to shop, and nobody would mind getting rid of the few "slummy" buildings. "But overall, we'd like it to remain what it is," said Marcus Lewis, a member of the Altadena Town Council.

Civic leaders are wondering nowadays, though, just how long the unincorporated town, which is administered by the county with the help of a 14-member Town Council, can stay insulated from the powerful forces that are transforming other communities in the San Gabriel Valley.

Such thoughts seem to come naturally around this time of year in Altadena. Spring is a time for taking stock. First, there's the annual Old Fashioned Days, Altadena's quirky celebration of itself, with what seems like half the population marching in the town's big parade and the other half lining the streets of Lake Avenue to watch.

Then there's an election for members of the Town Council, Altadena's pointedly assertive "governing body," which has no legal power to govern, only to advise the county.

During this year's festival and the election, both of which took place last weekend, the assessments were sounding kind of jaundiced. The modern world may be gaining on this small town, many residents suggested.

Rural View in Jeopardy

It has gotten to the point where Altadena's rural view of itself is "always in jeopardy," said Marge Craven, president of the Altadena Chamber of Commerce.

Developers have been nosing around some of the town's ridge-top properties. For example, for almost three years now, builders have been looking hungrily at a 198-acre former tuberculosis sanitarium in the town's western heights. A year and a half ago, town leaders beat back an attempt by the Church of Scientology to turn the so-called La Vina property into a training center.

"It was the hottest issue I can remember," said Lewis, an inspector for the Air Quality Management District. "People were accusing the Scientologists of being a cult, not a religion. The Scientologists were going to change Altadena, brainwash us all. It got hot and heavy."

But now the Pasadena development firm of Cantwell-Anderson is talking about building more than 300 homes up there, and residents and local equestrians, whose trails run through and around the property, are up in arms again.

At the same time, there is a continuing fear that Altadena's development-minded neighbor to the south, Pasadena, has a Pac-Man-like urge to annex their neighborhoods.

'Several Bites'

"They've taken a several bites out of us already," said Craven. Pasadena, which has about triple the population and area of its little neighbor, insists that it has no such intentions.

"If Pasadena gets hold of us, there'll be condos up on all the hillsides," warned Camille Dudley, vice president of the Altadena Equestrian Society.

And there is less and less county money for services. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department recently announced that it will merge its Altadena station with the Crescenta Valley station.

"Basic services in almost every area have suffered because of cut-backs," said Craven. "There are only a couple of people to take care of street trees now. There used to be a lot more."

Still, the life of the town moves resolutely along at its own measured pace.

A hillside town with rambling homes and backyard swimming pools, leafy horse trails and untouched canyons, Altadena often has the feel of a timeless American small town. During the Old Fashioned Days parade, in fact, the town was reminiscent of one of those folksy suburbs that movie-makers like Steven Spielberg are always trying to evoke, with youngsters on bikes and romping collies and Dads barbecuing hamburgers in the back yard.

What It's Not

"Well, it's sure not the Tournament of Roses," one spectator said fondly, watching the bright, motley procession of hometown folks parading down Lake Avenue. There were smirking Cub Scouts, solemn grammar school stamp collectors and Little Leaguers with their caps pulled menacingly low on their foreheads. Vintage automobile buffs beamed as brightly as the polished cars they drove, local politicians grinned, and high school bands stirred the morning with stacatto riffs.

Youngsters in shorts lined the Lake Avenue curbs, and a woman, almost levitating with pride, stepped into the street to take a picture of her daughter, the spelling bee champion, perched on the back of a convertible.

"It's just an excuse to get together and celebrate this great little town here," said Jo Gerpheidi, secretary of the Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the annual event.

21st Observance

This was the 21st observance. "The first time, it was just a bunch of merchants driving up Lake Avenue, honking their horns," said Craven. "Nobody knew what they were doing. But now, it's one of the most unifying things we have."

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