PASADENA — There was a time when my baby daughter and I would spend Saturday mornings in Old Town Pasadena. I'd strap her into a backpack carrier and away we'd go--to the bagel store, the toyshop, the semi-funky furniture outlet, meandering down Colorado Boulevard and through the back alleys that gave the district its soul.
We had the sidewalks pretty much to ourselves. We would pass block after block of tired old brick buildings wrapped in plywood as they underwent reconstruction. This was noisy work and it raised a lot of dust. It also was work that seemed endless, suggesting to the more imaginative cynics that the long-promised restoration of Old Town was but a ruse designed to provide full and everlasting employment for masons and crane operators.
Four years have passed since our Old Town days, and much has changed. My daughter now fills her Saturdays with swim teams and Brownies and neighborhood friends. And Old Town? Well, who doesn't know about Old Town? Old Town has become hip, so hip in fact that it no longer is called Old Town. The proper term, I was informed during a return visit, is "Old Pasadena." The distinction escapes me, but undoubtedly it is important.
Everything about Old Town--Old Pasadena--is important these days. Tourist officials say it has become an important destination point, in a league with Santa Monica's Third Street, Melrose, Westwood--comparisons that seem strangely humorous to anyone who knew Old Town when. Also, it has gained the notice of outside media and urban planners, who see an important lesson for a nation obsessed with ripping down the old to make room for the new. Finally, there's the money. With the jackhammers silenced, cash registers can now be heard ringing up and down Colorado--an always important sound.
Ray Leier has changed along with Old Pasadena, and like many pioneers he has difficulty believing just how far and how fast the district has traveled. He arrived in town as a street artist with a ponytail that stretched halfway down his back and an old van he called home. He opened a gallery on Colorado eight years ago, and now serves as president of the Old Pasadena business association.
"When I first moved here," the 47-year-old (hair and mustache neatly trimmed) jeweler said the other day, standing outside his del Mano Gallery, "I used to tell customers I was located between a burned out old building and a dirty book store. They'd find me."
The adult store remains--with fancy new display windows that allow pedestrians to ogle handcuffs and happy oils from a healthy distance. Everything else around Leier's gallery has changed. Where initially those who ventured into Old Town, as the jeweler put it, "spent a lot of time looking over their shoulders," the streets now teem with a large but safe menagerie of Generation X-ers, tourists, Yuppies and well-heeled middle-agers. The bums who once ruled the sidewalks are still around, but badly outnumbered.
Leier recalled how artists would roost rent-free in vacant lofts along Colorado. "Things went on in those buildings," he said with a smile that seemed suspiciously whimsical. "I mean, these were artists." Now the tenants all pay, dearly, for the privilege, and the roster of retailers reads like a convention of Sunday supplement advertisers: Gap, Barnes & Noble, Banana Republic, Starbucks, J. Crew, Penny Lane, Victoria's Secret, Gap Kids, Urban Outfitters, Crate and Barrel. Sprinkled among these are dozens of cafes that specialize either in fancy pasta or gourmet wok, or gourmet pasta prepared in fancy woks, or such.
For those who helped create it, Old Pasadena's success has been neither sudden nor clear-cut. The fight to save the district from a traditional redevelopment plan--first roll the bulldozers, then throw up commercial high-rises--actually commenced in the 1970s. It took much time to persuade the city to work with what already was there, and even more time to complete the job.
With success, though, have come jammed sidewalks, booming rents and other growth pains. Little merchants who pioneered Old Pasadena now find themselves squeezed out by national franchises. Some Pasadena residents have begun to shy away, surrendering the district to weekenders from other corners of the metropolis. Envisioned as "a hometown downtown," a rare mix of many urban uses, Old Pasadena instead appears to be evolving into simply a galleria without a roof.
That, anyway, is the pessimistic view, most frequently expressed by people who knew Old Town long before the hot times. They are at best ambivalent--proud of how far and fast the district has come, yet fretful about where it is headed. It is, I suppose, a lot like how I'll feel when my daughter becomes a teen-ager.