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It Might Be Mayberry : A Good Place to Shop for Family Values

MAIN STREET L.A.; Myrtle Ave.; Exploring our neighborhoods. One in a series.


The fun was supposed to start at 5 p.m., but here it was 6:15 already and Dave Gayman was sweating it out. Heat shimmered off the brick and asphalt of Myrtle Avenue, and the old girl was looking a little faint.

Poor old Myrtle. After all she's been through, it looked like her Friday night party was going to be a flop.

Then, as the sun melted toward the horizon, the people of Monrovia started to stroll into a downtown that resembled a country fair. About 50 farmers, some from as far away as San Luis Obispo, sold fruit, vegetables and flowers. At the little pony ride, children mounted up and grabbed the reins, their expressions transfixed by the excitement of a living merry-go-round. Families queued up at restaurant booths and settled down for dinner at picnic tables under the August moon.

Dave Gayman was still perspiring, but he was smiling too. Monrovia didn't let Myrtle down.

"I'd say it's a B plus," Harry Brown Heigle, the promoter of the Monrovia Family Festival, said as he surveyed the Aug. 14 affair from Gayman's hardware store. "Not bad for a hot August night."

Gayman, president of the Old Town Merchants Assn., reckoned that about 1,500 folks had come out that night for the second Monrovia Old Town Family Festival. Monrovia's merchants, who borrowed the idea from nearby San Dimas to stimulate business during the recession, have made it a weekly Friday night feature in a town that once served as a hub for the region's farms and ranches.

It's a cozy fit. What with all the talk these days about decaying family values and increasing racial tensions, Monrovians seem happy to come home to their 105-year-old town, seven miles east of downtown Pasadena in the foothills of the San Gabriels. Somehow, many residents say, this city of 36,000 has retained the feel of a friendly hamlet far from a big, tough metropolis.

The Soash family--Brian runs a towing service in town, April works at City Hall, their sons are 5 and 4--shared a picnic table with Gayman and a visitor. April has worked in the city for 11 years. They moved in six years ago.

"People have such a hometown feeling," she said. "We all work together, and it really has a good family atmosphere."

Gayman wore red suspenders over a plaid shirt replete with a pocket protector on this day, and carried a walkie-talkie to stay in touch with other merchants. They wanted to make sure the festival came off without a hitch.

"You walk down the main drag here and everybody knows you," Gayman said. After growing up in Burbank and living several years in Glendale, Gayman bought his hardware store in 1988 and moved his family to Monrovia the following year.

"This town, it just adopts you," he added. "If it isn't Mayberry, it's Brigadoon. You forget you're in the middle of one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. You know the City Council people on a first-name basis. When there's a pothole or a light out, you pick up the phone and call them at home."

Mayor Bob Bartlett, a member of the City Council for 18 years, said he doesn't mind those calls. "As a matter of fact," he said, "I rather enjoy it." Many longtime Monrovians can remembers when Bartlett, now 52, starred on the Monrovia High football team.

Myrtle Avenue was vital to Monrovia from the start. The street was named for the eldest daughter of William Newton Monroe, a retired railroad man who founded the town in the 1880s after Elias Jackson (Lucky) Baldwin sold him parcels of his vast ranch.

The indirect influence of Baldwin, who acquired his nickname after striking it rich in Nevada's Comstock Lode, helped create Monrovia's ethnically diverse heritage. Baldwin hired several black families from South Carolina to work his ranch, and "when they were able to buy land, they bought in Monrovia," explained Steven Baker, president of the city's historical society. Mayor Bartlett, who is black, said his grandfather settled in Monrovia in 1925 after coming West and landing a job as a laborer in the construction of Huntington Drive.

The 1990 census found Monrovia to be about 57% Anglo, 28.5% Latino, 9.6% black and 4.3% Asian.

Baker, whose grandfather established a pharmacy on Myrtle in 1909, says an "inbred conservatism" still abides in a town settled largely by Methodists. One reason residents decided to incorporate in 1887 was to outlaw the local saloon.

Not all memories of early Monrovia are pleasant. Although blacks long made up about 10% of the town's population, their business was rudely discouraged by a number of Myrtle's merchants.

Bartlett remembers when the old community plunge was segregated. He used to stand outside, hoping swimmers would splash cool water his way. "I remember asking my uncle how come we can't go swimming. He said, 'It's not our day.' "

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