Freeway Fighters

South Pasadena has come to be defined by ‘The Fight’ against the 710

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 2/28/2013

At the turn of the last century, there were few other places that anyone would rather be than sunny Southern California. And one of the best, if not also one of the most exciting places to be was South Pasadena, home of a widowed first lady, Lucretia Garfield, and visited by diplomats, industrialists, even President Theodore Roosevelt, who stopped here once on his way back from Panama, staying at the luxurious Raymond Hotel.

While Fair Oaks Avenue and Fremont and Mission streets were still dirt roads, the Raymond dominated the landscape for miles in every direction and drew wealthy clientele from the East Coast.

“The Raymond Hotel actually attracted rich visitors to the sunny skies and warm climate of South Pasadena,” said South Pasadena City Librarian Steve Fjeldsted. “It was a world class luxury hotel that attracted well-to-do tourists from back East for the most part and put South Pasadena on the map in the minds of lots of people. It burned down twice and, after the second time, it was never rebuilt. By that time, this area had grown up quite a bit and it had done its job to attract a lot of people and a lot of attention to this area.”

Another major draw to the area in the early part of the last century was Edwin Cawston’s world famous ostrich farm, which at the time was located right next to the Arroyo Seco. According to local historian Rick Thomas, ostrich feathers symbolized wealth and upper-class refinement and remained popular in America for nearly 50 years.

“It really was for the feathers and the fashion,” said Thomas. “Cawston made a whole entertainment element to it. Eventually, it went out of business because women’s fashion changed.”

However, with economic growth came the need for increased mobility. With the area’s population growing, and the advent of the automobile, South Pasadena quickly found itself sandwiched between the Long Beach (710) and Foothill (210) freeways, which the California Department of Transportation, Caltrans, has tried to connect for more than 50 years.

In 1949 the city of South Pasadena passed its first resolution against the proposed route, and by the 1950s Caltrans had begun the seizure of hundreds of homes in South Pasadena, Pasadena and El Sereno through eminent domain and hardship sales.

If any single thing has come to characterize South Pasadena over the past five decades, it has been the dogged resistance of this little city to the state, and ultimately winning … so far.

The struggle to stop the state from connecting the freeways, or, “The Fight,” as Thomas calls it in his Images of America book, “South Pasadena,” has been going on for more than five decades.

“In the ’70s, it got shelved and nothing happened for about 10 years,” said veteran freeway fighter Joanne Nuckols, who has served as chair of the city’s Transportation Commission. “Then, all of a sudden, Caltrans decided to pull it off the shelf in the mid-’80s and everything started up again. That pretty much lit a fire under everybody that we really needed to look at this.”

The cities of Los Angeles, La Cañada-Flintridge, Sierra Madre, Glendale and South Pasadena all have passed formal resolutions against the proposed route, but cities like San Marino and Alhambra continue to support Caltrans’ proposal. Pasadena has expressed strong concerns about the project, but it has stopped short of formally opposing it because they believe their hands are tied by the voter approved Measure A. That proposition called for completing the extension between the two freeways. However, it did not specify how the extension should be completed.

“South Pasadena fiercely protects its small town environment,” said Thomas. “Unfortunately, this town is so uniquely positioned to be the travel point from Los Angeles to the San Gabriel Valley, so it just gets in the way of transportation corridors. The whole city was considered endangered early on. We don’t even need that designation anymore because we have so much clout.”

While The Fight has been the source of much controversy over the years, it has also contributed to defining South Pasadena in other ways.

“The preservation movement and The Fight kept the small-town atmosphere,” said former Mayor Harry Knapp, another longtime freeway opponent. “The freeway fight gave some uncertainty to developers, even now, and preserved that small town feel that we’re really trying to keep.”

Today, even with an overland connector route permanently off the table, The Fight continues, with city leaders now opposed to plans to connect the two freeways with two giant 4.5-mile-long tunnels.