How often have you heard South Pasadena described with affection as Mayberry, the town where Andy Griffith lived in the old TV series, or as Pleasantville, referring to the movie of the same name?
There are things that are truly unique about South Pasadena and worth celebrating. Residents revel in the quality of education and the variety of independent businesses, and appreciate that the city is close to the culture of Los Angeles but far enough away to be seemingly in its own world.
I celebrate all of those things, and so do the members of a community action group called ARC — the Anti-Racism Committee of South Pasadena — that was brought forth in the wake of the protests surrounding the death of George Floyd last summer.
Stefani Williams and Elana Mann live in South Pasadena, and love it and also celebrate what it means to their families.
The women and other members of the group tell residents to take a look at the population figures from a historical basis.
According to a 2018 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, South Pasadena is 42% white, 31% Asian, 20% Latino and 3% black. The 3% number reflects what ARC sees as a troubling aspect of the city’s past.
One of those historical factors slapped Mann and her husband in the face when they bought their home here about six years ago. They got all the paperwork, and it included a racial covenant. The agent told them just to write “reject,” but the covenant clearly said the house should be sold only to a white buyer. Mann’s husband is part Vietnamese and she is Jewish.
Racial covenants were a fact of life through the 1950s in South Pasadena and other cities in Southern California — one of the facts the group wants citizens to learn about.
Another factor that may reflect the slow growth of the Black and Latino communities is that through much of the 1940s South Pasadena was — along with several other cities in Southern California — a “sundown town,” according to historian James Loewen. That meant that if you were a member of those minorities and were not a servant living in a home, you were supposed to be on a train going somewhere by sundown.
Nearby Glendale had similar policies and had 68 African Americans among its 81,900 residents, according to Loewen’s book, “Sundown Towns,” which has served as a tool for Glendale’s and other cities’ governments as they consider their racist pasts.
So many of the racial problems were alive and well in several L.A. suburbs in the late 1940s and beyond.
There is also in South Pasadena’s history a lawsuit in 1955 involving a Black swimmer who wanted to use the Plunge, a public pool that was where Orange Grove Park currently exists on Mission Avenue.
Mann and the group aren’t putting the city down, so let’s not get defensive.
She calls South Pasadena a “friendly, great town” where she has gained many friends and has watched her young children play with other kids in the neighborhood.
Mann, an artist who said she had done some community action, said the protests “awakened” her.
“I love living here. I also know of many racist incidents that have taken place, and I am shocked by the repeated violence against the Black Lives Matter protesters,” she said.
Williams is principal at Rockdale Visual & Performing Arts Magnet school in L.A.
“I’m part of the problem,” she said. “There were things that bothered me — a lot of micro-aggressions, incidents that happened to friends with the local police and incidents I would hear the kids speak about — and I would just complain to a friend, or occasionally write a letter to the City Council or attend a board meeting, and that was where it stopped.
“I wish I had had a louder voice, been more of an activist and not stayed silent about the things I saw as problematic,” Williams continued. “Seeing the youth in the street made me really own how personally I dropped the ball — how our generation had dropped the ball.
“We can’t pretend we didn’t know. Our kids should not have to be out there protesting. Our generation was too complacent.”
The mission of the group is to be “committed to addressing the deep wounds of systemic racism in our city as well as working toward racial justice in government policy, public safety, education, housing, art and community services,” ARC says on its website.
“Our vision is for a South Pasadena where there is full equality, solidarity and well-being for all,” it says.
The site contains history that many residents may not know, or have forgotten. But I’ve had discussions with longtime residents who still remember the days of covenants and where certain blocks or neighborhoods discouraged or prevented sales to minority buyers.
“This isn’t punitive,” Mann said. “It’s not about punishment, but we look to a restorative justice model. This means creating a welcoming space for all South Pasadena residents to be in dialogue.”
The group, which estimates that it now has about 70 members, helped in organizing a listening session about policing in the city — a meeting that both women said police welcomed. Some of the concerns included incidents of domestic violence.
As one of its goals, ARC will be teaming with a regional group in a Zoom meeting Feb. 11 to discuss this topic and hopes to continue dialogue with the city on policing and low-income housing.
ARC is giving residents a chance to say why they stand against racism by writing their individual answers on lawn signs. There are already two on my street and about 30 around the city.
The group is determined to show that even in the midst of a pandemic, social change and justice can bloom. Everyone is quoting Abraham Lincoln these days, so I will too. He talked about making a “more perfect union” and that is what ARC is trying to create.
“I love this community and we can effect change — small and large,” Williams said. “We can talk to people about what is going on. We are such a small community. These are our neighbors — people we see at the market, on the soccer field and in school, which makes it even more important for us to talk.
“To talk over ideas is a gift. Yes, it’s a gift during the pandemic that we have been able to meet in the Zoom environment and try to have an impact on making our community better. I have met people in the community whom I might never have met if we were in different places in our lives. It is a gift.”
Editor’s note: ARC’s excellent website contains a well-documented and researched history of South Pasadena. You can also find a calendar of upcoming events including the Feb. 11 presentation on domestic violence. Click on the calendar section for details. The next meeting after that will be March 11 on Zoom.