To hear South Pasadena Mayor Harry A. Knapp tell it, the low walls and landscaping that separate Via Del Rey in South Pasadena from Van Horne Avenue in Los Angeles are nothing more than a traffic barrier.
But to City Councilman David V. Rose, they are a powerful symbol of how South Pasadena is perceived by the outside world. And that perception is, often enough, that the predominantly white city is trying to wall its mostly Latino neighbors out.
Rose was the lone dissenter when South Pasadena City Council members voted late Wednesday to modify but retain the barrier blocking the two communities from each other--a solution to a problem that many said was much ado about nothing. But the issue stirred the passion of others, generating an overflow crowd and occasional jeers at City Hall.
Knapp said the suggestion that the city is racist by keeping the 27-year-old barrier in place was "a red herring." Rose agreed that perception was wrong, but said it would not go away as long as the barrier remains, calling it "an odious object in the eyes of the greater community." For these comments, Rose was jeered, yelled at and taunted with threats of a recall.
At issue is a barrier, a few hundred feet long, that prevents traffic flow between South Pasadena to the north and the El Sereno and Monterey Hills neighborhoods of Los Angeles to the south. Nearby residents have called the barrier--with its low block walls at either end and trees, hedges and a walking path in between--a mini-park, pocket park, garden and, occasionally, an eyesore.
In her successful 4-1 motion, Councilwoman Dorothy M. Cohen specified that although the traffic barrier itself will remain intact, the 2-foot high adobe walls will come down and the remaining area will be relandscaped. "It's a psychological thing," she said of the change.
Knapp, who acknowledged that the Van Horne side "does have a keep-out atmosphere" to it, said he hopes South Pasadena can work with Los Angeles to make both sides of the barrier equally attractive. Currently, the Los Angeles side of the barrier is virtually barren, while trees and plants grow on the South Pasadena side.
The need for the Via Del Rey-Van Horne barrier has been questioned since February, when Times columnist Al Martinez wrote a piece attacking the wall and calling for then-Mayor Rose to "take down those walls." Rose said that because the barrier has become a divisive issue for South Pasadena and in the community at large, he put the issue to a council vote, in part to silence criticism.
The meeting drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 to the council chambers and another 200 people who watched the proceedings on close-circuit television from an outside patio, with many sporting stickers proclaiming "Save Our Mini-Park! No Via Del Rey Corridor!"
The crowd mostly cheered but occasionally booed speakers with zest. When Azusa Mayor Cristina Cruz-Madrid--admonishing the audience that the barrier "is not viewed as a traffic issue by the rest of the world"--spoke for more than her allotted three minutes, audience members shouted her down and Councilwoman Cohen cut her off mid-sentence.
"You are taking advantage of our good manners," Cohen told Cruz-Madrid, a former El Sereno resident. "Good night." The crowd responded with applause and a few sharp whistles for good measure.
Some speakers praised South Pasadena's openness and diversity. Others condemned Martinez and Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco, who supports opening the barrier.
But most of the speakers cited traffic when arguing to retain the barrier between the "Altos" community of South Pasadena, a planned development built in the 1950s and '60s, and Van Horne, which was widened by the city of Los Angeles in the late '60s and subsequently became a major thoroughfare.
Some longtime residents of the area recall the first time the street closure was debated.
"I was here 28 years ago talking about the same thing," Edna Ponce complained, drawing laughs from the audience. She supports the barrier and says that, even then, the public debate over the wall seemed unnecessary.
Others worried about the safety of children attending Monterey Hills Elementary School, about half a mile north of the barrier, if the street were opened to more traffic.
Abelardo de la Pena Jr., a South Pasadena resident, was one of only three speakers who opposed the wall. "I see the wall and all that it represents as a symbol of divided communities," he said. "I support the removal of the wall and the joining of two communities."
But Angela Diaz, who grew up in El Sereno and now lives in South Pasadena, was not convinced that tearing down the wall would help either neighborhood, citing higher crime rates on the other side of the barrier. "I think the people of El Sereno should pay attention to their own community," she said "We'll pay attention to ours."
The long evening ended the same way it began: with a discussion by Knapp about how the city must work to improve how people perceive it. After about two hours of discussion, the council took a swift roll-call vote and Knapp slammed down his gavel at 10:10 p.m.
Asked if he was surprised by the outcome of the vote, Rose said, "I had sort of an idea" of how it would go. "But as long as the road is closed to through traffic," he said, "the perception will remain. Whether there's a 2-foot wall, or no wall, or something 60 feet long."