When Hollywood looks for a location to stand in for small-town America, more often than not production companies load the grip trucks, hitch up the Star Waggons and head up the 110 to South Pasadena.
The city has so zealously protected its original charm and architectural character that it has become in many ways a time capsule of California living in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The desire to set itself apart first manifested itself in the late 1800s, when South Pasadenans voted to separate from Pasadena and incorporate as an independent town of 500 or so people.
Tourism and agriculture were the primary industries, as they were in communities up and down the Arroyo Seco. Visitors came by trainload to ride the big birds at the nationally renowned Cawston Ostrich Farm, or to winter at the L.A. area’s first grand resort, the luxurious Raymond Hotel.
Once all of those visitors clapped eyes on the beautiful Southern California countryside — not to mention the plentiful, relatively affordable land that stretched across the sparsely populated San Gabriel Valley — many of them decided to put down roots in South Pasadena.
The city’s wealth of Craftsman architecture and well-preserved commercial districts owe themselves to this real estate boomlet, which was in turn aided by the extension of the Pacific Electric Red Cars into town.
The insular character of South Pasadena took an unfortunate turn in the 1940s, when the city began to write into deeds restrictions against the ownership of property by anyone other than whites.
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, members of the thriving Japanese community in the city were evicted from their homes and sent to relocation camps and were not allowed to reclaim their property at war’s end. It was not until the 1960s that South Pasadena’s exclusionary housing regulations were finally discarded.
That ugliness is in the past. South Pasadena today is a highly diverse, affluent city. Though the Raymond Hotel has long since been demolished, and the cantankerous denizens of Cawston’s ostrich farm no longer roam the banks of the Arroyo Seco, the city weathered the loss of the tourist trade by embracing its rich legacy of classic residential and commercial architecture.
The Red Car’s replacement, the Metro Gold Line, runs through the heart of a revitalized, walkable downtown, just steps from neighborhoods that look much as they did almost 100 years ago.
And the city’s star shows no sign of dimming: The Rialto Theater featured prominently in “La La Land,” a movie that, appropriately enough, also makes a point of celebrating the past.