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100 years of pitching in to shape Sierra Madre

A spirit of volunteerism runs through the tightknit San Gabriel Valley community, which is celebrating its centennial this year.

January 30, 2007|Angie Green

Tucked away in the foothills of the eastern San Gabriel Mountains is the small town of Sierra Madre, which residents say they treasure for lots of reasons. Sure, there are one-of-a-kind beautiful homes. Neighbors know each other. Kids are safe to walk downtown. But what they beam most about is the way so many in the community give something back.

"This is a town run on volunteers," said Bud Switzer, 78, who moved to Sierra Madre 68 years ago and was voted Citizen of the Year in 2006. "That makes up the flavor of the town."

The city, one of Los Angeles County's smallest, is celebrating its 100th birthday, and although the official incorporation date isn't until next month, it has already begun to celebrate with events planned, of course, by volunteers.

The commemoration started last week at the City Council meeting's ceremony and reception. Before digging in to the cake and fruit, community leaders spoke about the city's small-town feel, its history and the "spirit of volunteerism" that moves through its 11,000 residents.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday February 02, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Sierra Madre: An article in Tuesday's California section about Sierra Madre's centennial said the city's racial makeup is about 85% white, with Asians and Latinos making up the rest. It should have said 85% white, with Asians, Latinos and others making up the rest.

The Fire Department's 40 firefighters receive no pay for their services. The volunteer unit has served the community for more than 85 years, fighting fatal fires and even delivering babies. The Sierra Madre Search and Rescue Team's 20 members have assisted in rescues in the San Gabriel Mountains. Both agencies are the only all-volunteer groups of their kind in the county.

The Police Department has 14 paid field officers and six volunteer reserve officer positions. The city's six commission board members volunteer their nights and weekends to advise the City Council.

But it's not just the adults who give back. Youths often help host the city's events, without being asked.

Eleven-year-old Christian Farias started handing out hot chocolate at the city's outdoor movie nights when he realized there was only one volunteer on hand. He and his 14-year-old brother quickly got behind the table to pass out the warm drinks. To him, it's no big deal. It's just part of growing up in Sierra Madre. It's what you do.

"I just went there one day, and they needed help," the fifth-grader said matter-of-factly.

The celebration's calendar of events run through the end of October. Although there are more than 80 events listed on the schedule, Feb. 23, the date the city was incorporated, will be the highlight, said Judy Webb-Martin, a co-chairwoman of the centennial celebration.

The centennial committee will throw a costume party with turn-of-the-century attire. There will be food, dancing, wine and a live playhouse with characters dressed up as the town's founding fathers, Webb-Martin said.

Residents say the volunteerism brings the town closer together.

"I have never felt a sense of community until I moved here," said Webb-Martin, 62, who grew up in North Miami, Fla. "I have a plot of land in the cemetery. I'm never leaving."

The city's quaint downtown has no traffic lights and feels like a small village rather than a city in Los Angeles County. When residents shop at one of the boutiques or go grab an ice cream cone, they run into their neighbors.

Sierra Madre, about three square miles and about a 20-mile drive from downtown Los Angeles, is bordered by Arcadia, Pasadena and the San Gabriel Mountains. The median home price is $843,000, the median age 42.6 and most residents live in single-family dwellings. The city is about 85% white, with Asian and Latino making up the rest, Mayor John Buchanan said.

Father Michael Bamberger, pastor at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Sierra Madre, has been a volunteer firefighter for 18 years and says the unity and camaraderie among the firefighters is one of the reasons his job is so much fun.

"The Fire Department is more than people who want to serve their community," said Bamberger, a battalion chief. "They are friends, and in some aspects have become family."

Bamberger said some of the city's firefighters would attend his church service on Sundays; he's the only one who is never assigned to be on call on a Sunday. He's accustomed to hearing pagers going off during a service if there is a fire or medical emergency in the city.

"It has been known that a significant number of [volunteers] will jump up and run out in the middle of service," he said.

The city has one of the lowest crime rates in California -- with one homicide and three robberies reported in 2006 -- but its police officers are the lowest-paid in the county, Police Chief Marilyn Diaz said.

In the last 10 months, two police officers have left the force for better-paying jobs in the county, she said. A starting base monthly salary is $3,292; in the Los Angeles Police Department, it's $4,386.

Being a small town is not without its challenges. The city's $5.5-million budget is stretched thin among the staff and departments -- the result of a low commercial tax base, Buchanan said.

There is also ongoing debate among residents over downtown development.

Those who favor more development cite increased tax revenue and more jobs. Others want Sierra Madre to remain a village without traffic problems and say an increased population would place greater demands on the police and fire departments.

In April, a special election will be held on an ordinance that would allow residents to vote on building proposals exceeding two stories plus 30 feet and 13 to 18 dwelling units.

More development would mean more traffic, the critics say.

And that, of course, would mean the town would have to get a stoplight.

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