Burb's Eye View: She's keeping history straight

Centennial celebration marks incorporation, not founding of Burbank.

You either make history, or you live it. Some people have the chutzpah to do both.

If you’ve ever met Mary Jane Strickland, you know what I mean.

Last week I called her to ask about the city’s 100th birthday. I had briefly attended the Chamber of Commerce’s centennial gala on Saturday and I got a good flavor for the city’s wide variety of businesses and neighbors. But I wanted to know more about the new city I call home, so I figured the head of the Burbank Historical Society could teach me a thing or two. I called Strickland two days later.

If I want to know about the events around the centennial, she said, I’ll have to call the city. In the meantime, “I have a running battle with them because it is not the founding of the city” that we are celebrating.

Apparently this is an ongoing battle: Someone in Burbank makes a claim about history and Strickland is there to refute it, correct it — or, in seemingly rarer instances, support it. Not that I could blame her — when you begin the Historical Society in 1973 and still run it 38 years later, you pretty much own that history. Add to that Strickland’s knack for research and her deep Burbank roots (her father was the city’s first police chief before he worked in the treasury department during prohibition and, later, at Columbia Pictures), and you’ve got the authority on Burbank’s past.

The centennial brings up an important argument: When does a city become a city? Is it when the first parcels of land are sold and it gets its name, as Burbank did in 1887? The city already celebrated that particular centennial — and it was recent enough that people like City Manager Mike Flad were around for it.

Flad was just about college-age in 1987 when the city honored and remembered the 100th anniversary of the first plots in Burbank. He’s reminded of the city’s incorporation date, July 8, 1911, every day he goes to work — it’s written on the floor of City Hall where he works.

“It’s an interesting debate,” Flad said. “For a government body, the centennial is [100 years after] the formation of a government — we’re talking about the formation of a community here.”

The history books tend to agree. In “Burbank: An Illustrated History” by E. Caswell Perry, the area proposed for the city of Burbank in 1911 was 2.59 square miles. The vote to incorporate on July 8, 1911 was 80 to 51.

But the community here was established 24 years before that. It’s that community that Strickland seeks to preserve and protect. And why shouldn’t she?

She can claim Burbank history as her own because she helped make it. She’s an original “Rosie the Riveter,” having worked on P-38s at Lockheed during World War II. In the subsequent years she worked in many facets of Burbank’s government, and remembers the days when hiking was the top attraction and supple farmland was everywhere.

“I witnessed that as a kid — you could stick anything in the ground and it would grow here,” she said.

That the city might put out a pamphlet advertising the 2011 “centennial” without noting its incorporation may seem a trivial thing, but Flad admits Strickland is keeping everyone honest.

“You pick any intersection in town and she’ll be able to tell you about it,” he said. “It’s great that she’s the gatekeeper of the…recounting of Burbank’s history.”

Communities of all stripes would do well to have as staunch a gatekeeper as Mary Jane Strickland.

She laughed: “I told the city manager, ‘That’s our job to keep history straight, and you’re screwing it up!’”

BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant to Burbank. When he’s not learning that Burbank’s first order of business in 1911 was to install street lighting, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com or on Twitter at 818NewGuy.

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