'Many' hats

Pasadena Board of Education member and author Elizabeth Pomeroy on politics, publishing and Many Moons Press

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/26/2013

Elizabeth Pomeroy has always been interested in historical literature. As a graduate student at UC Berkeley she wrote a book about Queen Elizabeth I. As a columnist for the Pasadena Star-News she penned weekly treatises on local historical treasures in and around San Gabriel Valley and beyond. So it came as no surprise when she founded Many Moons Press in 2000, which has been a vehicle to publish her own work as well as local authors with books of California history, nature and literature. 
She is a woman who wears many hats —indie publisher, city historian, college professor and local politician. She has served as board member of the Pasadena Historical Society, the Pasadena Sister Cities Committee, the Sierra Club and the city’s Recreation and Parks and Library commissions. She was reelected earlier this year to her seat on the Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education. She also attended events this summer to help celebrate the city of San Marino’s centennial year.
Having read her “Lost and Found” columns for the Star-News, which made up her first book, the San Marino Historical Society enlisted her to write the city’s history. It was released as her latest book, “San Marino: A Centennial History.” After taking two years to finish that project, she is now ready to get back to Many Moons Press.
A new look
“We do have a new project,” Pomeroy said. “Some of what we’ve published has been reprints of wonderful old books that have gone out of print. They all focused on Southern California. What we’re working on now is a new edition of ‘The Southern Sierras of California’ by Charles Francis Saunders. This is a view from the 1920s about our local mountains and what they were like long before the Angeles Crest Highway, when the only way to get up there, to what we now know as Red Box and Chilao and Switzer’s Camp. Right now, those are all along the highway, but they used to be just wild places where people went on foot, horseback, mule, trains and all that.”
The newest addition to the Many Moons family will be released in spring. The original version of “Southern Sierras,” published in 1923, is a hardcover with that centuries-old book feel. Many Moons will be releasing it as a soft cover book with a new cover design by Hortensia Chu, who is giving a uniform look to Many Moons’ books. Chu also designed the micropress’ logo. The cover will be a new painting done by local artist Joseph Stoddard.
So far, Many Moons has published eight books. Pomeroy herself has written six: her doctoral dissertation, which is a literary study; her renaissance literature book about Queen Elizabeth I; a book about the Huntington Library, where she was a reader and worked on the development staff from 1975-85; her newspaper columns as “Lost and Found”; a book about John Muir; and the San Marino centennial book.
She worked at the Huntington at a time when admission was free of charge, which she said was in Mr. Huntington’s will. That was later overturned and now they charge. Even there she employed her love of writing and history.
“Since I was a writer, and writers apply their writing in lots of different ways,” she said, “I wrote a lot of grant proposals and I wrote about the Huntington to persuade people to give grants and support.”
Making connections
Pomeroy was a teacher’s aide at Berkeley and UCLA, and she has taught at middle schools, high schools and universities, but her favorite teaching experience has been at Pasadena City College, where she taught English classes for 10 years.
“I loved doing that,” she said. “There was so much diversity of the students. Many Spanish speaking, many Asian students. I learned from them. Students were engaged and I really enjoyed finding out about their cultures, getting them to write about growing up in China or Mexico or Honduras or wherever it was.”
Her last year at PCC was 2009, before some of the turmoil that has roiled the campus as of late, such as the several votes of no confidence in President Mark Rocha, the hasty cancellation of the popular Winter Intersession and sexual controversies surrounding two professors.
“I wonder if what’s happening at PCC is partly a result of this time of scarcity that we’ve been having,” said Pomeroy. “When there are scarce resources then people get more adversarial and possibly it damages the sense of sharing or collegiality. I am aware that the PCC administration is being pretty receptive now to initiatives from PUSD about building some of these bridges, like our high school and college English and math teachers conferring. What do students need to know before they come to PCC? The president of the college also comes to a lot of our school district activities.”
When she was finishing up at PCC she was recruited by the National Women’s Political Caucus to run for the school board.
“That was the connection right there,” she said. “When I finished with teaching and I had more time, as a teacher at PCC, I could tell that some students came without having done much writing. Even though they had finished high school, their writing was pretty primitive. By being on the school board and getting very familiar with at least our local high schools, I could see some things that could be improved.”
A learning curve
Pomeroy said that the National Women’s Political Caucus, based in Pasadena, was interested in her running for the school board because up to that point there had either been one or no women on the board. Some good friends of hers who are out to get more women into elected office urged her to run.
“I’m not especially a political animal, but I’m very devoted to education, as I’ve either been a teacher or student or both for my whole life,” she said. “It was a learning curve, all the policy matters, the budget, so many state mandates and issues that I had to learn about.”
She joined the board at a time when the political hostility of its members was particularly pronounced. She said that perhaps school boards are especially prone to that type of rancor, even more so than city councils or other bodies. Nonetheless, she remained on good terms with people who otherwise didn’t like each other. She found common ground with each board member on which to maintain working relationships.
“I tried to stay out of the fray,” she said. “And I wouldn’t say ‘above’ the fray because that wasn’t it, but I just tried to stay out of the arguments and work with each person on the things that we cared about.” n
To learn more about Pomeroy’s publishing company, visit manymoonspress.com.

Staking out a spot

Camping overnight along the route can be more fun than the Rose Parade itself 

By Justin Chapman Pasadena Weekly, 12/26/2013

Those who brave the cold and the dead of night on the streets on New Year’s Eve are witnesses and participants in a rare spectacle in Pasadena: sleeping overnight along the Rose Parade route. As you’ll find out if you dare to join the ranks this Tuesday night, camping on the route is about much more than securing top notch seats for the annual Rose Parade on New Year’s Day. Indeed, overnighting is a unique and exciting event in and of itself.   
The Tournament of Roses is expecting about 750,000 people to turn out New Year’s Day to watch the floats, bands and equestrian groups march the 5.5-mile route through the city, starting from Ellis Street and Orange Grove Boulevard, stretching along Colorado Boulevard, turning up Sierra Madre Boulevard and ending at Victory Park.
Crisscrossing the city, hundreds of thousands of people set up blankets, sleeping bags, coolers, tables, chairs, barbeque grills, fire pits (in fire-safe containers which are one foot off the ground and 25 feet from buildings) and more. There is a sense of saturnalia in which everyone lets go of their inhibitions for the sake of having a good time. Cars that dare drive down Colorado get covered in eggs, total strangers come together to share food or play football in the street, music permeates the air and there’s an unmatched thrill of counting down to midnight along with hordes of people.
Chris Johnson, who now resides in Riverside, for years slept over with his friend’s family on Colorado. They, like a lot of other people, would go to the route a day in advance to get their spots. Members of the family would take shifts saving the spot. The city lets people claim a sidewalk viewing space along the route starting at noon the day before the parade. According to Lt. Tracey Ibarra of the Pasadena Police Department, at least one person must remain with their chairs at all times to reserve their spot.
“It would get a little hectic because there are always people out there saving spots for others so sometimes it would be hard to find a spot,” said Johnson. “There are no protocols for getting a spot. No communication with the city needed. Basically you go and find what you can.”
Johnson saw some crazy things on the route that he said he will always remember, such as being randomly egged by complete strangers, a rare occasion any other day of the year in any other city.
“Someone shot some pink liquid out of a super soaker from a car once,” said Johnson. “After awhile whatever this liquid was started to burn a little bit. Fights broke out down the street, but people also came together and after the streets were closed to vehicles I remember playing in a football game with a lot of people. We also had fun with the cars that went by us as we sat out on the sidewalk. People would buy marshmallows and throw them from their cars at people and we would throw them back. It was all great fun, but as the years went by the cops did get stricter. The first two years they allowed the throwing of marshmallows but the third year they said if they caught us doing any of that they would take our seats and we would have to leave.”
Indeed this year the police will be cracking down on silly string, fireworks and throwing any items at another person or vehicle.
“Most people don’t think it’s harmful to throw certain things, but getting a tortilla in the face while you’re driving can be quite distracting,” said Ibarra.
A combination of Pasadena police officers along with other local, state and federal authorities will be patrolling the route that night and during the actual Rose Parade and Rose Bowl college football game.
Pasadena resident Paul Stabile Jr. and his family and friends have been staking out their spot across the street from a friend’s house on Sierra Madre Boulevard for about 20 years. He’s been doing it so long he doesn’t remember exactly when they started. As for the police being strict, he said it’s hit or miss.
“It comes and goes,” he said. “Some years they’re strict, some years you don’t even see them.”
Though he said it’s become a little tamer over the years because there aren’t as many people flinging stuff around, he has fond memories of incidents you won’t see anywhere else.
“One year a city bus stopped so the driver could yell at some kids because he was pissed they were throwing marshmallows at his bus,” said Stabile. “Then we pretended like we were throwing marshmallows at his bus, so he reversed and yelled at us. That was a pretty good one. One parade day we saw two police motorcycles run into each other and fall over.”
But of course there is still plenty of fun to be had.
“My favorite part of spending the night at the Rose Parade route was hanging out with friends and meeting new people,” said Johnson. “Having that many people on the street spending time together and celebrating the New Year was an amazing experience that I will never forget.” 

The good fight

Hundreds plaster LA with Robbie Conal posters of Nelson Mandela 

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/12/2013

Art Aids Art, the Altadena-based nonprofit organization that collaborates with and empowers poverty stricken women in a South Africa township has teamed up with LA-based artist Robbie Conal for the release of a special edition poster featuring Nelson Mandela, who died last week in Johannesburg at age 95.
Conal is known for his infamous street “Art Attacks” addressing war, social injustice and environmental issues. The collaboration was inspired by the upcoming 20th anniversary of Mandela’s inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, a culmination of his life’s work for racial equality.
“The printed posters happened to arrive on the day of his passing,” said Dorothy Garcia, co-founder of Art Aids Art, which will distribute 5,000 posters throughout South Africa in Mandela’s honor. It is expected to be one of the largest public art projects in South African history. 
In Khayelitsha, located in the city of Cape Town, “The response [to Mandela’s death] was one of overwhelming grief and loss, for so many people regard him as a father,” said Art Aids Art co-founder Tom Harding. “But there has also been celebration of a life well lived in the spirit of ‘ubuntu,’ the southern African value that translates to ‘there is no me without you.’ Our endeavor is to provide local residents with an image of ‘Tata Madiba,’ as he is affectionately known, a reminder of the spirit he embodies — hope, unity, dignity, perseverance — and a tangible object to proudly display, a symbol of the love so many feel in their hearts.”
On Friday, Conal and about 200 volunteers gathered at Canter’s Deli on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles to conduct his latest Art Attack, which consisted of plastering the city with about 800 of the Mandela posters. During Conal’s instructions on how to glue the posters to various surfaces, three LAPD officers showed up to speak with the artist. They read his meeting announcement online and knew what the group planned to do, which they told Conal was illegal without a permit. Conal gave the cops posters and told the group to plaster the posters in other municipalities. 
“Aren’t there, unfortunately, many more egregious infractions of the law to protect our citizenry from than a motley rainbow gaggle of grieving yet enthusiastic citizens putting up celebratory images of one of the greatest freedom fighters and inspirational statesmen who ever lived the night after he passed away?” Conal asked.
Larger than life
Following the news of Mandela’s death, there was an outpouring of support online from just about everybody, including local community leaders.
“Few can be described as changing the course of history — Nelson Mandela is one of them,” said Congressman Adam Schiff (D-Burbank). “We have lost a leader who guided his people and nation from the evils of apartheid and towards a brighter future as the ‘rainbow nation.’ The true measure of his greatness was his extraordinary magnanimity and lack of bitterness towards those who had imprisoned him for a seeming eternity. When he emerged from Victor Verster prison in 1990 and for the rest of his life, Mandela preached peace and reconciliation. His example and towering moral authority were enough to prevent a bloodbath during the early 1990s. South Africa’s peaceful evolution is due in large measure to his outsized influence. One of the true giants of the last century is gone.”
Mandela was indeed a larger-than-life figure with a seemingly inhuman capacity for forgiveness and compassion. After he spent 27 years in South African prisons he negotiated with his captors to bring a peaceful end to apartheid and avoid a civil war that nearly everyone felt was inevitable.
While in South Africa last year to see Art Aids Art in action, the Pasadena Weekly traveled to Robben Island to see Mandela’s prison cell. The island guide took the tour group to the limestone quarry where Mandela worked for 13 years. The limestone is so bright that it blinded many prisoners, and indeed for the rest of his life people were not allowed to take flash pictures of Mandela because his tear ducts had dried out. He was also unable to cry. 
The resistance leaders, including Mandela, were held in the maximum-security building, separated in their own cells. The guide said there were four main activities  the prisoners would do when they were left alone by the guards: political education and analysis; stealing and reading newspapers; cultural activities like dancing, songs of freedom, stage plays and standup comedy; and literacy education, because about half the prison’s population was illiterate.  
In the maximum-security wing is Mandela’s former cell, a heartbreakingly small, plain space to spend the better part of two decades. Mandela had told the guide on one of his 14 trips back to the island since his release that one of the hardest parts of his prison experience was not being able to see children, and that there is no way to explain how disheartening that was for him.
Empty gesture
In the 1980s in Pasadena, there were perceived economic reasons to continue to support the oppressive South African regime. Pasadena was one of the first cities that took formal steps to divest from South Africa during apartheid, but as former Mayor Bill Paparian pointed out, it was an empty gesture at first. In 1986 the then-Board of City Directors, as the City Council was known, adopted an ordinance banning city investment in companies that did business with South Africa. However, the city itself did not have any investments with such companies. 
“The ordinance had no application at all because there were no investments in companies doing business in South Africa,” said Paparian. “It was an empty-suited policy.”
Paparian was elected to the board in 1987 and started asking questions about the divestment policy. When he pointed out that the Fire and Police Retirement Board had stocks related to South Africa, he said the old guard at City Hall became uncomfortable.
“There were enough investments with South Africa to make people uncomfortable,” he said. “Ultimately we prevailed and the divestment policy was applied to the retirement fund.”
The concern by some was that divestment from South Africa would mean losing money or jeopardizing investments. In fact, the retirement board refused to sell their South Africa-related stocks for two years for that very reason, according to an Oct. 6, 1988 article in the LA Times. The city ordered the pension board to divest and sell the stocks within a year. Paparian said at the time that even if divestment would mean a loss in profits the city should be willing to bear that burden rather than support companies that deal with an openly racist government.
“That is the price you pay for taking a principled position,” Paparian is quoted as saying in the article.
Fellow City Director Rick Cole agreed. 
“It seems real simple to me,” Cole is also quoted as saying. “Maybe we can make more money, but that’s not the type of profits I want any part of.”
Cole also went on to become mayor of Pasadena.
“I’m reminded that Nelson Mandela was a global humanitarian,” said Paparian. “As an Armenian I remember when he was invited to Turkey to receive the Atatürk Peace Prize in 1992 and he refused to go because of Turkey’s abysmal human rights record. It’s important to remember that not only did he courageously lead the way for the liberation of the indigenous people of South Africa, but he was also a human rights champion globally.” n
For more information on Art Aids Art’s Mandela poster project, visit artaidsart.org.

Life at the Center of the Universe

Caltech’s Sean Carroll on space, time, God, death and being human

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/5/2013

Sean Carroll spends his days pondering the origins of the universe and the nature of time. He then communicates his discoveries to the public in an effort to explain how the universe really works through a "scientific way of looking at the world," a method that has earned him celebrity status.

Carroll has written several books, including "From Eternity to Here" and "The Particle at the End of the Universe," and he’s made appearances on Morgan Freeman’s "Through the Wormhole" and "The Colbert Report." Recently, he consulted on an episode of "Bones," which premieres tomorrow night at 8 p.m. on FOX.

A theoretical physicist at Caltech since 2006 who just returned from giving lectures in London and Paris, the 47-year-old hails from Philadelphia and has lived in Boston, Chicago and Santa Barbara. He currently resides in Echo Park.

Two weeks ago, "The Particle at the End of the Universe," about discovering the Higgs boson particle, or as it’s been called in the mainstream media, "The God Particle," was awarded London’s Royal Society’s Winton Prize for Science Books.

Most recently, Carroll introduced author Charles Yu at Red Hen Press’ 19th anniversary luncheon at the Westin in Pasadena. In January, Carroll will be participating in the Veritas Forum debate on science and religion at Caltech. He’s also preparing to serve as guest lecturer on a Scientific American-sponsored cruise through Hong Kong, Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore.

"It’s kind of amazing that I get paid to do this," he said. "But it’s kind of fun when you figure things out."

As busy as he is, Carroll recently sat down with the Pasadena Weekly for a brief discussion on the universe, space, time, God, life after death and the overall significance of human beings.

Pasadena Weekly: What is time?

Sean Carroll: The simplest way to say it is that time is a label on the universe, just like space is. We live in a world that is full of stuff that’s moving around, changing as time passes, and time is just a label on all those different moments. What’s difficult is not ‘What is time?’ That’s fairly straightforward. It’s how time works that is difficult. Why are we all born young and then age and die? Why is it always in the same order? Why do we remember yesterday but never tomorrow? How does time work at the subatomic level with quantum mechanics and laws of physics we don’t understand very well? How does it work at the birth of the universe? These are all good questions to which we don’t know the answers. We know how it functions, in theories and in our everyday lives. Time is a parameter. It says that the universe happens over and over again, just like the frames of a film strip, and time is a label on which moment you’re talking about at that moment. There’s nothing special about the present moment. The laws of physics treat all moments of time equally. So it’s tempting to say all moments of time are equally real. The danger is when people start saying, ‘Well are you saying all moments of time exist now?’ That’s an ill-formed sentence, because they exist but they don’t exist now, now only this one moment exists. So you get into a philosophical question which is best thought of as not what is real but what is the best way to think about mapping our experience onto these theories we have of the universe.

In ‘From Eternity to Here,’ you talk about how the Big Bang was the most orderly state and since then the universe has been getting more and more chaotic. How does that impact an individual’s life?

As an individual you don’t need to know that the Big Bang was low entropy or orderly. However, the fact that it was orderly is absolutely central to your life. It absolutely determines everything about how time works in our present universe, because the fact that the universe was low entropy and orderly to begin with means that it will over time become more disorderly and ultimately it will be as disorderly as it can get. We’re nowhere near that now. It’s going to take something like 10100 years, and the universe has only been around for 13 billion years. So we are in the middle of this process that the universe is going through of becoming more and more disorderly, and in fact we are a spin-off of that process. We can only exist because the sun provides us energy in a very useful, low entropy form, and then we use it up and give it back to the universe in a useless, high entropy form. So we’re sort of parasites living off the fact that the universe is increasing in entropy.

What do you think is the path of the universe? Will it expand forever, contract forever? Is it part of a multiverse or is it something else?

I don’t think that the universe will be cyclic. I don’t think it will expand and contract in some infinite pattern. I tend to guess that it will expand forever. But we’re not exactly sure what the future holds, or the past for that matter. There are good reasons to believe that we are part of a bigger multiverse, but that’s certainly not anywhere near established. The leading theory of the universe is that it will expand forever. Currently we know that our universe is not only expanding but accelerating because of something called dark energy. It’s very possible, plausible, even likely that that will just continue for all time. If that’s true, then the stars are burning their fuel right now and giving off light but they only have a finite amount of fuel, so eventually they will die out. They will fall into black holes, but those black holes are going to radiate away. Stephen Hawking told us that even black holes are not forever, they eventually evaporate into the world around them. And then it’s just empty space, forever and ever and ever. Cold and dark and lonely and not a hospitable universe. Take that into account when you do your life insurance policies, right?

How did something come from nothing?

We don’t know, but we know that it’s not impossible by any stretch. It’s not as if there’s some logical obstacle that prevents us from understanding that. There’re two obvious possibilities and we don’t know which, if either, one of them is right. One is that there was truly a beginning to the universe, which means there was a moment before which there was no space and time, before which there weren’t any moments. In that case it seems bizarre to us because we think of what happens now being caused by what happened before. In this theory, where the universe had a beginning, that wouldn’t be true because there was no before. But that’s just because we live in a very tiny part of the universe and we’re used to things being caused and so forth. The bigger question for cosmology would be is there a sensible theory of the universe in which there was a first moment of time? And the answer is sure, there could very well be. We don’t know yet whether it’s true. The other possibility is that the universe is eternal, that it just goes back forever and ever. We had a Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago but we don’t know whether that was truly a beginning or whether it was just a phase the universe went through. So it’s absolutely possible and in fact my favorite idea is that there was a universe before the Big Bang and we just need to learn how to extrapolate our theories that far.

Is God incompatible with what we know about science?

There are different varieties of God, so it’s hard to say what one’s stance on God is until you choose what god you’re talking about. Science doesn’t disprove God or anything else. It doesn’t disprove the idea that the reason why the moon goes around the earth is because angels are pushing it. There’s no need for that idea. We have a perfectly good theory of gravity that does perfectly well at explaining why the moon goes around the earth. That’s the attitude most cosmologists and physicists have toward the universe. We can’t disprove the idea that God created the universe or sustained it, but we have absolutely no need for that idea either. So it’s true some scientists are quite religious, but it’s a much smaller fraction of scientists than of nonscientists who are religious.

Why do you think people have been so receptive to your work?

Like Woody Allen said, 90 percent of success is just showing up. I actually enjoy and make an effort to spread the word, to talk to broad audiences, to write on my blog, writing books and things like that. It’s very important because the kind of science that I do is not about curing cancer or building a better transistor. There are essentially no practical implications for what I do, but it’s valuable because we are a curious species. It’s very important that we share with the wider community what we discover about how the universe works. A big part of it is to bring the scientific way of looking at the world, the approach to thinking about the world that scientists have. We can’t think our way into the truth. We need to think of all possible truths and then go out and look at the universe and figure out which ones are right by a very empirical, hypothesis testing, trial and error kind of procedure. Thinking like a scientist, understanding what your own cognitive biases are, testing your ideas against data, these are all things that everyone should have as part of their cognitive tool kit. We as scientists should work harder to actually answer the questions that people have. I’m going to be participating in a debate in May about ‘Is there life after death?’ We don’t know for sure whether there’s life after death, but it would violate everything we know about the laws of physics if it were true. I think that’s a piece of evidence against it. If that’s right, if there is no life after death, then it has enormous consequences for how we live our lives here on earth. I would like to spread that message as much as possible and have the scientific perspective on our world be just as much a part of the wider cultural discussion as economics or politics or literature.

What do the laws of physics say about life after death?

We think life is not energy but a process. It’s a chemical reaction in the crudest terms. It’s like the world’s coolest chemical reaction because living organisms are extremely complex and highly interconnected networks, and we don’t claim to understand it at a deep level. The question is not ‘Where does the energy go at death?’ It’s ‘What happens to that process?’ So dying is like snuffing out a candle. You don’t ask ‘Where did the flame go?’ The flame is an outcome of this chemical reaction going on in the candle. The flame doesn’t go anywhere. It just ceases to be brought into existence by the process. When you see something or somebody die, something changes. What science has brought to the table is that what changes is not that something has left them, but the processes that are going on inside them have changed.

Does studying the universe make human beings seem insignificant?

We’re a very tiny, not very significant part of the universe. And this is a blow to our self-image. People don’t like to hear that we’re not the center of the universe. I like to turn it around. It’s true that most of the universe doesn’t care about us. We live in a galaxy with 100 billion stars and a universe with 100 billion galaxies, but we’re the interesting part of the universe. We are the part of the universe that can think, feel and do things. The significance of us is not given to us by the universe; it’s something we need to create for ourselves.

Visit Carroll’s Web site at preposterousuniverse.com.

Beauty and the Beasts

Joan Williams, Miss Crown City 1958, recalls being snubbed by the city for being black

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 11/28/2013

Pasadena has come a long way since the days of racial segregation, but the city is far from exempt from acknowledging its own past acts of discrimination.  
One incident in particular still reminds one longtime resident of just how far the city has come, and how far it still needs to go.
In August 1958, Joan Williams was a clerk in the accounting office in the Water and Power Department at City Hall. She was, in fact, the first African American hired to work at City Hall. With the exception of Ray Bartlett in the Police Department and Bill Duncan in the Fire Department, most other African Americans employed by the city worked in the Sanitation Department. But the city wasn’t even aware that Williams was African American. With her light complexion, she could pass as Caucasian.
In those days, the city had its own float in the annual Rose Parade. And each year city officials named a female city employee Miss Crown City, a Rose Queen-like honoree who represented the city and rode on the city’s float in the parade.
Williams, who was 26 at the time, was chosen by her coworkers to be among 15 girls placed in the running for the title. According to Williams, the duties of the post included cutting the ribbons at the grand openings of Sears in Hastings Ranch, J.W. Robinson, where Target is now in the Playhouse District, and other establishments, as well as other perks, such as welcoming the new Rose Queen and participating in civic events with then-Pasadena Mayor Seth Miller. But the main prize awarded to each year’s Miss Crown City was the privilege of riding on the city’s Rose Parade float.
“Black people in Pasadena were very proud because they certainly knew that I was African American,” Williams said in an exclusive interview with the Pasadena Weekly. “People I worked with just made an assumption that I was something other than what I am. The black people who lived in the city that were native to Pasadena and had grown up here considered it quite a feather in their cap that I had been chosen because of the kinds of discrimination that had gone on in Pasadena.”
Williams said that after she was chosen as Miss Crown City, the city found out she was African American and denied her all of those benefits.
“At the time, we lived on Solita Road and a reporter from the Independent Star News came to my home to interview me and met my African-American husband and my two little girls, and I guess he went back and said, ‘Guess what?’ And from that point on it just went downhill.”
First her coworkers and bosses at City Hall stopped speaking to her. Then someone from the city called and informed her that they were canceling the float because they could not afford it that year. According to an article in the Jan. 15, 1959, edition of Jet Magazine, a city official said too many other floats were already entered in the parade. Williams said she never thought the excuses were legitimate. The city has included a float in the parade sporadically since then, the most recent being in 2006. A Caucasian woman named Kathleen Hoose was chosen for Miss Crown City 1959, but there are no records to show that the program continued after that.
Williams was snubbed in other ways as well. Miller, who had crowned Williams at the coronation ceremony, later refused to take a photo with her at the annual city employees’ picnic at Brookside Park, she said. She was also not allowed to cut the grand opening ribbons of Sears, J.W. Robinson and others.
“It was authentic,” she said. “They did make me Miss Crown City and they did put the crown on my head and there was a ceremony and all of that. That part took place. The other parts did not take place.”
She did have a portrait taken with her crown, as ordered by the city. She also received a commemorative plate with a rose on it, which read “Miss Crown City 1958.” According to the article in Jet, the only other recognition Williams received were two tickets for the reviewing stands along the parade route, two tickets for the Coronation Ball and two tickets for the Rose Bowl football game, where she and her husband Robert, who was a fighter pilot in World War II, “sat in the end zone as anonymously as other fans.”
Williams continued to work at City Hall for another year before having her third child and getting a job at Kaiser Permanente and then the Medicare office on Walnut Street. She retired in 1994. She said she eventually left her job at City Hall because of the way people treated her after they found out her race.
“When you get up and go to work every day you want it to be a pleasant experience because you’re spending more time with those people than your family almost,” she said. “It was awkward.”
Williams has never received an apology from the city for what she described as an “ugly” experience. Mayor Bill Bogaard told the Weekly two weeks ago that before any official action can be taken, like offering an apology for an incident that is 55 years old, all the facts and circumstances would have to be made certain.
“The city has a history involving African-American relations which is far from perfect,” said Bogaard. “I am proud that considerable progress has been made in regard to embracing differences and diversity in our city. I’m committed to continuing that kind of tolerance and openness because I think it makes Pasadena a very special community. With respect to taking official action now on actions of the past, to me it would depend on what a full understanding of the facts and circumstances might be. But the city’s efforts at this point are focused on where we are today and where we want to go in the future. Our efforts are spread thin in pursuing that kind of strategy for making the city better.”
Pasadena City Council member John Kennedy said that if the city engaged in the type of behavior that Williams alleges, it would be appropriate for city government to take some action acknowledging a wrong had been done.
“Hopefully there will be a process by which the facts can come to light and then the council can determine, based upon those facts, what would be the next appropriate action,” said Kennedy, who is African American and has known Williams his entire life. He went to school with her son, Chip. “I’ve known Joan to be just an extraordinary human being. I’ve not known her as someone to seek praise or accommodation. In terms of people coming together and goodwill, if the city has done something that’s inappropriate, the city certainly has the capacity to offer a sincere acknowledgement of that.”
Williams agreed that the city has come a long way in terms of ending racial discrimination, but to her, the progress that’s been made has come too slowly and with too much struggle.
“They’ve been kind of dragging their feet,” she said. “I think a lot of things had to be pointed out. Really and truly, it was a new day. Men who had fought for this country, like my husband, had come home [from World War II], willing to give their lives for this country and they had to come home to that kind of crap. That’s exactly what it was. They weren’t going to take it anymore. People were more vocal. My impression of Pasadena was that in those years it had a pretty large African-American community, but they were people who had come here years ago working for the well-to-do along Orange Grove and in San Marino. The majority group here just expected black people to be complacent.”
She pointed out that the Tournament of Roses Association itself has had a checkered record when it comes to diversity.
“It’s only been in recent times that they’ve taken in people of color,” Williams said. “Not just African Americans, but Asians and Mexican Americans and others. We’re Americans. Have things improved? Yes they have, but not without having to fight for it. They didn’t do it out of the goodness of their hearts, that’s a fact. It’s been much slower than it should have been.”
As for the idea of the city offering her the crown again as an apologetic gesture, Williams said she would be gracious but wasn’t interested in that. But she did have a message for the city.
“Just see to it that in the future you don’t do this to other people,” she said. “If I had not been married with two beautiful children and had a life, I might have been crushed. My mother and father were from San Antonio, Texas. They came to California to get away from that kind of thing.”
Still, she said, “Pasadena’s a beautiful city … with all its flaws.”