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A Los Angeles Primer: Old Pasadena

If we call the seaside Santa Monica, home of Third Street Promenade, one of Los Angeles’ major “satellite cities,” then we must also grant the title to Pasadena, which goes its own way in the opposite setting, under the San Gabriel mountains. Both incorporated in 1886, both boast populations around 100,000 (Santa Monica a few thousand lower, Pasadena a few thousand higher), and both have gained reputations for substantial, if not outlandish, wealth. Both independent municipalities have also, in their separate ways and positions — Santa Monica to the west, Pasadena to the northeast — maintained a psychological disconnection from, not to say a disdain for, the metropolis between them. In Robert Altman’s The Player, Tim Robbins’ movie-studio VP undergoes casual police questioning. “You’re putting me in a terrible position here,” he says, nervously. “I’d hate to get the wrong person arrested.” “Oh, please!” responds Whoopi Goldberg’s detective. “This is Pasadena. We do not arrest the wrong person. That’s L.A.!”

Still, residing in a place like Pasadena has never stopped anyone from, when it suits them, claiming to live in Los Angeles — it does, after all, lie within the eponymous county. It also, like Santa Monica, provides something of a pressure valve to those unaccustomed to the too-big city it borders: those bewildered and disoriented by Los Angeles proper can make a retreat there, a return to the more traditional look, feel, and form they can readily comprehend. Nowhere will they feel more at ease than in the original business district, almost without exception called Old Town Pasadena on the street, but now zealously branded, for whatever reason, as Old Pasadena. Concentrated in the blocks around Colorado Boulevard and Fair Oaks Avenue, this historic building-rich core — called, in promotional materials, “The Real Downtown,” — has in recent years reinvented itself as a walking-friendly shopping district, thick with all manner of buying opportunities. One often hears enthusiasm for Pasadena, and the satellite cities in its league, put in terms of the observation that “you have everything here,” a feeling the presence of zones like these no doubt fuels.

Read the whole thing at KCET Departures.

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