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Beyond the gates

By now, Phil Spector must certainly wish he had stayed at home Monday night, in his faux chateau in the city he so famously called "a hick town where there is no place to go that you shouldn't."

That city, of course, is Alhambra. And Spector was right. If you wanted to get in trouble, you'd have trouble finding it there. Alhambra has no clubs, little live music (unless you count the city-sponsored outdoor entertainment on weekend nights). The city's one small mall is anchored by a Mervyn's, its only department store. There used to be a Sears, but it closed. There used to be a synagogue, but that closed too. Now Alhambra is dotted with many denominations of Asian churches and an increasing number of evangelical houses of worship that cater to a mostly Latino flock.


FOR THE RECORD:
This article, published Feb. 8, 2003, incorrectly stated that Spector went to Dan Tana's and the House of Blues on Monday night. Spector went out on Sunday night and into early Monday morning. —


If your idea of after-dark entertainment is dinner at Tony Roma's and a Coldstone Creamery ice cream afterward, both are available in a recently gentrified area of Main Street, the city's most upscale hub, which boasts a Starbucks among other stop-off spots. And there's a new state-of-the-art Edwards cinema complex quite nearby, which city fathers boast about. It seems, for the most part, a wholesomely sleepy city.

So Spector went west on Monday night, to Dan Tana's, to the House of Blues in Hollywood. To the part of L.A. that never sleeps. Exactly what happened after that is not yet certain. But one thing is sure: A woman was found dead in the imported Italian marble foyer of Spector's Alhambra home known as the "Pyrenes Castle" -- and her death has put both Spector's castle and his city temporarily on the map.

Spector, the soundboard genius who created the "Wall of Sound" recording technique, is a mystery to the town's residents. Sheltered in his citadel high above a city of modest homes, the music mogul was as anonymous in Alhambra as he is renowned in the world of rock 'n' roll, until he was arrested Monday as a suspect in the death of actress Lana Clarkson, 40. Spector was released after posting $1 million bail.

All week long, international camera crews have swarmed overhead in helicopters, interrupting Spector's neighbors' sleep. Other media crews drive up and down the narrow street to photograph the home's tall iron gates, through which little can be seen. On Wednesday, a CNN camerawoman and United Chinese Television cameraman Ricky Yuan were among those hoping to snap the once-mighty music man.

Yuan's bosses had sent him to El Pollo Loco in Alhambra, where Spector had reportedly been sighted eating. "I rushed over there, but I didn't see him," Yuan said, disheartened. Alhambra residents, maps in hand, also drove up and down the hill in wonderment that there was a celebrity and a so-called castle anywhere in their city -- a home many had never heard about until it was mentioned on the news.

Most said they had no idea who Spector is or what he's done in the music world. They were more interested in the castle than in the man.

A castle? In Alhambra? Gawkers came from near and far, simply curious to know where Alhambra is and what it's like. Some said they couldn't imagine why a rock 'n' roll icon, no matter how reclusive, would settle in this bedroom suburb whose main distinction seems to be that there is nothing distinctive about it. A city that likes itself that way.

Even Alhambra's mayor, commercial Realtor Mark Paulson, says he was surprised five years ago "when a famous person" bought the $1.1-million dollar property atop one of Alhambra's few hills. "It's very uncommon for celebrities to live in our city. They don't select this as a place to settle down. It's just not on their radar screens." And with some reason.

Small-town simplicity

Take the 10 Freeway east from downtown L.A., drive about eight miles in heavy traffic under increasingly sooty skies and you'll think you're nowhere special at all. Exit into Alhambra and you'll realize you're right -- and wrong. Alhambra, which is touted on signs as "the gateway to the San Gabriel Valley," is special in its aura of small-town simplicity. It is a community in slow motion, a mostly flat land with a few main thoroughfares that are lined with fast-food and auto repair stores, surrounded by miles of soothingly broad and quiet streets on which there are thousands of aging, neatly kept private homes.

It is a city chosen by its residents precisely because so little happens there -- and there is less opportunity for trouble. "The best word to describe Alhambra is 'calm,' " says Jennifer Gutierrez, 17, a student at Alhambra High School. She does not mean boring or dull, she says. "Kids here like it. We don't want to go anywhere else. It's peaceful, family-oriented. Comfortable and stable. Parents don't have to worry about their kids." It is a sentiment that was uttered by dozens of residents during the days after the high-profile crime, allegedly committed by the town's most prominent and possibly least known resident -- and certainly the one who had the least in common with all the rest.

Alhambra's population of about 85,000 is 47% Asian, 35.5% Hispanic and 13.8% white, according to the 2000 census. The median income was $39,213. The city has its dark underbelly: Some graffiti has been sighted in the industrial part of town, and two homicides took place there in 2002. But Alhambra's defining characteristic might well be, as Mayor Paulson puts it, "the fact that we all blend together so very well."

Except, of course, for Spector, whose neighbors said he doesn't exactly blend. "He was more, like, invisible," said a woman who lives a few doors from his back gate. She says she rarely saw him, never spoke to him, didn't know who he was or exactly what he did. All up and down the hill of modest homes that surround Spector's million-dollar citadel, the word was the same. "Rarely saw him, never spoke to him, didn't even know who he was."

Even employees at Penny Lane, a music store on Main Street, didn't know who Phil Spector is or why he's famous. "I'm too busy with school and work to know about that," said Art Santalla, a store employee and communications major at Pasadena City College. Ricomex Santiago, a part-timer, said he's "never even heard of Spector."

Citadel of sorts

Julio Perez, 30, supervisor at a local Mobil station, grew up playing in a park that is close to the castle. "So I knew it existed. But I'd heard it was bought by [skateboard king] Tony Hawk, and that he was living there." Why would any celebrity choose Alhambra? Perez had to think. "It's so close to L.A., to the 10 Freeway, it has nice parks and it's a church community," he said. "It would be a nice secluded getaway."

Named for a 14th century Moorish citadel, Alhambra is still a refuge of sorts -- so out of the loop of trendiness, such a non-destination spot, that it offers a special kind of peace to those who simply want safe passage through life among people like themselves.

Spector didn't fill that bill. Neither did his "Pyrenes Castle," built in 1925, on 3 acres, from plans drawn by an architect whose main claim to fame was that he designed the Alhambra Post Office. It was the dream home for farmer and sheep rancher Sylvester Dupuy, loosely modeled on Basque chateaux he remembered from his boyhood in France.

The turreted beige house, with red tile roof, is about 8,600 square feet, with 10 bedrooms and 8 1/2 baths. From its many windows and balconies, Dupuy could overlook the vast, lush land that had made him rich -- and that was sold after his death, 10 years later, for tract housing developments.

So the castle remained unique amid the flood of far smaller, much less expensive homes that filled the flatlands and climbed the hill to surround the castle.

Owen Guenthard, executive director of the Alhambra Chamber of Commerce and an Alhambra resident for more than 60 years, says the castle is "certainly out of place in the neighborhood. It would be out of place almost anywhere." But it's the perfect spot for "someone who's a recluse, as Spector is reported to be. He's lived there a few years, and from what I understand, he has had absolutely no interaction with anyone in the community."

What happened on Monday is "not the kind of notoriety our community would want," Guenthard allows, but he doesn't think the city or its residents will be affected in any way. Long-term, he says, the only foreseeable change is that "Pyrenes Castle" may soon be for sale once more.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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