Environmental change--from polluted streams to congested highways and overdeveloped land--is affecting the quality of life across the nation. Such change is gradual and often goes unnoticed while it happens.
To measure how various areas have been affected over the decades, The Times dispatched reporters to the places where they grew up. This occasional series of articles examines how our hometown environments have been altered--for better or for worse.
Things were pretty quiet in Azusa during World War II.
It was a typical Southern California farm town in those days--mostly oranges, with a scattering of lemons, avocados and row crops. The biggest thrill at my grammar school was watching the city fathers climb the wooden tower in a corner of the schoolyard to look for Japanese warplanes. Of course, they never spotted any.
For the most part, Azusa was attractive then. Lush orchards. Clear skies. The unspoiled San Gabriel Mountains just to the north. Streets lined with palm, eucalyptus and pepper trees. Sprawling farmhouses in the groves. Tidy homes set comfortably on spacious, shaded lots in much of the town. And most of the faces were familiar.
The real excitement began about 10 years later, when, as teen-agers, we watched in awe as bulldozers rooted out the orchards, where we'd worked as farmhands, and tore away the surrounding brushlands, where we'd hunted jack rabbits.
The rural countryside we'd roamed so freely was soon replaced with asphalt parking lots, tacky shopping centers and mean little tract houses so small that some of them were hauled in on the backs of flatbed trucks.
Sure, it was ugly. Yes, there was dust, trash and something new blurring the sky, called smog. And when we walked up Azusa Avenue--past the Safeway market, Richter's Drugstore, the First National Bank and Leo Nasser's Men's Store--we saw a lot of faces we'd never seen before.
But the city fathers pointed out that the downtown business section was thriving.
They spoke of the new brewery and manufacturing plants on the west side of town, near the old gravel pits. They counted the traffic jamming Highway 66, right through the center of town. And they bragged that the way things were going, Azusa would soon be the giant of the San Gabriel Valley--bustling, prosperous and handsome in a new, different sort of way.
But something went wrong.
Surrounding communities like Glendora, West Covina and Duarte grew and went on to become pleasant and successful suburban bedroom communities, with busy downtown business districts. Azusa grew and went on to industrialize, but the heart of the town went nowhere.
Highway 66 was replaced by a freeway that skirted local businesses. The downtown section, once a fertile hubbub of small offices and retailers, withered into a wasteland of pawnshops, shuttered stores, abandoned shopping centers and vacant lots.
And as the economy sagged, so did the environment. Smog stayed. Buildings aged without dignity, as porches sagged, siding cracked and paint faded. Trash piled up--on purpose this time, in one of the old gravel pits. The pristine front of the San Gabriel Mountains was scarred by quarrying.
Eugene Moses, Azusa's mayor, says the town is starting a comeback. He says investors are ready, and revitalization of the downtown area is just around the corner.
But city officials have said such things before.
According to local historians, the first known residents of the area were Shoshone Indians who threw up a few brush huts and dubbed their village Asuksa-gna. Early records indicate the name translates to something like "skunk place." Whatever it meant, the early Spanish settlers adopted a variant, referring to the place as El Susa.
The lands, which eventually became known as the Rancho Azusa, fell under the general purview of the mission at San Gabriel in 1771. Probably used for livestock grazing, the rancho, then about 10,000 acres, was eventually sold in 1844 to an ambitious young Englishman named Henry Dalton.
Dalton converted the ranch into a successful farming operation, digging irrigation ditches to carry the clean, plentiful water in from the nearby San Gabriel River. He planted grains, laid out orchards, put in vineyards and built a flour mill.
In the 1850s, Dalton drew up a town site to be called Benton, but no lots were ever sold. About 20 years later, an attempt was made to create another town, to be called Mound City. It, too, came to naught.
Finally, in 1884, land speculator Jonathan Sayre Slauson acquired the 4,431 acres that remained of Rancho Azusa. His timing was excellent.
The Santa Fe railroad was building a line to Los Angeles, 30 miles to the west, that would pass right through the middle of the rancho. Southern California's first major land boom was on, and Slauson was ready to cash in on it. In the spring of 1887, he drew up a third set of plans for a town, this one to be called Azusa.