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Sierra Madre Canyon : Residents Enjoy a Cozy Sense of Place, a Feeling That Where They Live Is Special

October 08, 1989|STEVE TICE | Steve Tice is a free-lance writer who lives in Pasadena.

Mary Perkins, proprietor of the Cottage Market in Sierra Madre Canyon, was born in County Tipperary, Ireland, in 1910. She came to the United States at the age of 19, eventually settling in Sierra Madre Canyon in the late 1940s.

Perkins' two married daughters live on tiny Brookside Lane right behind the market. All told, six of the houses on Brookside belong to Mary's extended clan. Four generations are represented with members from 7 to 79 years of age. "There are about 20 of us along the lane here," Connie Hastings, 53, Mary's eldest daughter, said with a laugh.

Local people simply call the area "the Canyon." Residents enjoy a cozy sense of place, a feeling that where they live is special.

Few neighborhoods around Los Angeles have a rustic atmosphere that's as strong. Nature lovers and artistic types have long gravitated to the canyon. The City Council of Sierra Madre declared the entire town a wildlife sanctuary in 1972, long before the U. S. trend toward ecological sensitivity had gained much attention.

About 500 homes nestle among the trees and rocks in the canyon bottom and along the steep slopes above. The entire neighborhood extends only half a mile from a flood control dam down to the canyon entrance, generally less than 100 yards wide.

The canyon, which lies near the top of Mountain Trail Avenue, has always had water and trees and breezes off the mountains.

In 1906 a resort called Carter's Camp was opened in the canyon. Refugees from the heat of the flatlands could spend the summer months in 37 tent-houses and five cottages. Those temporary homes for folks wishing to commune with nature seem to have set the tone for the canyon. The residents and their dwellings have been an eclectic mix.

The unusual combination of convenience and isolation was used as a selling point when the area was subdivided in 1913. One real estate advertisement offered a "true mountain and canyon environment, within walking distance of the streetcars and yet absolutely removed from noisy, dusty city conditions."

Today the streetcars are gone, but the canyon, about six blocks from downtown Sierra Madre, retains its spiritual distance. Turning off Mountain Trail and traveling along Sturtevant Drive, you are "in town."

Then the street swings sharply to the left and narrows, and the trees close in overhead. You are now in "the Canyon." High stone walls flank the street. Narrow, winding stairways of river rock climb steeply up to houses hidden in the thick vegetation.

Maze of Narrow Roads

In the heart of the canyon, a maze of narrow roads, alleys and dirt driveways angle away in all directions. Woodland Drive, the main road, is 12 to 14 feet wide and only slightly less winding than the other roads. It snakes along for half a mile, twice crossing the stream on bridges and ends at the base of Sierra Madre Dam. It also passes the only commercial establishment in Sierra Madre Canyon, Perkins' Cottage Market.

Perkins bought the business in 1966. Since then she has been open seven days a week dispensing sodas, snacks, detergent and advice to canyon residents.

Moving in and staying seems to be a characteristic of the canyon. Perkins' neighbor, Bea Iffrig, 90, first hiked and picnicked in the canyon in the 1920s. She moved there in 1938 and from 1940-80 operated a beauty shop on Woodland Drive.

The local vegetation is a robust collection of native and imported species. Walls and fences are overgrown with ivy and lantana. Some good-sized clumps of cactus nestle beside houses or climb the hillsides. One cluster of trees may include pine, Italian cypress and palm, while across the road are oaks, sycamores and perhaps an alder or two.

Most of the lots on the canyon bottom are narrow or just plain tiny. The homes are a hodgepodge of cabins, shacks and "works in progress," along with newer full-sized houses.

'Oddballs and Beatniks'

"In 1963 the realtors said, 'Don't bother looking in Sierra Madre Canyon. It's all oddballs and beatniks in old shacks.' But once we saw the canyon, that was just where we wanted to be," said Jean Astrin, an artist and businesswoman in her 50s who moved to Humboldt County in 1970 and recently returned to visit the canyon.

The life styles and priorities of canyon dwellers have occasionally caused squabbles in an otherwise peaceful place. Sanitation, access roads, building code violations and boundary problems have all been emotional issues.

Ross Tyree, chairman of the Sierra Madre Planning Commission, says much progress has been made in the past three or four years toward cleaning up the canyon's problems with property lines, code violations and sanitation.

For one thing, the Pasadena Humane Society patrols the canyon regularly, which has solved the problem of packs of dogs roaming canyon roads.

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