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.” 

Bursting with ideas

TEDxPCC presents its first speakers event Saturday in Arcadia

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 11/21/2013

Pasadena is so full of “ideas worth spreading” that it has three independently organized TED talk events, otherwise known as TEDx.   
There’s TEDxPasadena, TEDxCaltech and on Saturday TEDxPCC will hold its first ever event at Arcadia High School Performing Arts Center, which the TEDxPCC Web site describes as a “gathering of leading thinkers and doers who will share in an inspiring and thought-provoking experience.”
The all-day event begins at 9:30 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m., featuring 15 speakers who will opine and orate on the topics of education, science and social justice. 
Tickets, which are $35 for students and $100 for general admission, include a lunch and beverages throughout the day. Organizers are expecting about 850 people to attend.
According to Eric Espinosa, executive producer of TEDxPCC, logistical issues prevented them from holding the event on the Pasadena City College campus. He said a third of the team members are current PCC students or those who recently transferred to four-year institutions. This being their first TEDx, the group received some much needed guidance from organizers with TEDxCaltech and TEDxPasadena.
“Those organizers are actually my mentors,” said Espinosa. “Greg Apodaca from Pasadena has been very helpful, and Mary Sikora from Caltech has been guiding us through the process as well. There’s a difference when it comes to running a standard license TEDx, like Pasadena, and a university license TEDx, like Caltech and PCC. It’s a different kind of ball game when you approach each kind of license. With the university license, there’s a lot more bureaucracy and politics where, as standard, you’re going at it alone.”
Nonprofit TED started in 1984 as a way to bring together people from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design. Today, along with two annual conferences, TED includes the TED Talks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations. The TEDx program “gives communities, organizations and individuals the opportunity to stimulate dialogue through TED-like experiences at the local level. TEDx events are planned and coordinated independently,” according to TED’s Web site.
Espinosa said the application process with TED to create TEDxPCC was more rigorous than applying to college. He had to show that their team could contribute to “the TED community.” He also had to work with TEDxCaltech and TEDxPasadena to avoid overlapping each other. Apodaca said TEDxPasadena will not produce an event this year, in part to support and avoid confusion with the upcoming TEDxPCC event. TEDxCaltech had an event in January.
“There are three big TEDx events that are very close to each other,” he said. “The downside when you have these kinds of events is you have to stagger it so you don’t conflict with each other and dilute sponsorship so we can all have a piece of the pie. We all support each other. Every four or five months we meet with all the organizers in Southern California.” 
The TEDxPCC team has also begun to put the “Ideas Worth Spreading” slogan into action with a movement called “Projects Worth Spreading.” They have transformed an empty lot across the street from PCC into a community garden and use the space to show off designs.
“We use it to demonstrate the possibilities of what an empty lot could be turned into,” he said. “It’s something we’re kick-starting within the TEDx community. We’ve spearheaded this campaign to beautify an empty spot, not just in Pasadena but anywhere there’s a TED community.”
Arcadia High School is located at 180 Campus Drive, Arcadia. Visit for tickets and more information.

Pressing on

Pasadena’s Red Hen Press celebrates 19 years of ‘literary excellence’

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 11/21/2013

The world of publishing may be changing rapidly, but for one local literary press life has never been better. Its success shows there is still an unquenchable thirst for exceptional literature in Pasadena and beyond.
This month Red Hen Press, which has been operating out of Pasadena since 2010, marks its 19th year publishing high-quality poetry and prose. Last week, the nonprofit press hosted its anniversary luncheon at the Westin Hotel, which included speakers such as Charles Yu, C.D. Wright, Alice Sebold and Sean Carroll.
Founded in 1994 by Kate Gale and Mark Cull, Red Hen has grown substantially from a “micro-press” to what it is today — a critical local publishing house that supports diversity in literature and promotes literacy in underperforming schools. The press was located in Granada Hills until 2010, but now Gale and Cull are very happy to be in Pasadena.
“What really brought us here was community interest in an arts organization, in a press, specifically,” said Cull. “Mayor Bill Bogaard wanted us here. He wanted to be the mayor who brought a literary press to Pasadena.”
“Obviously, Pasadena has everything else,” said Gale. “It has music, it has art, it has JPL and Caltech. It’s an iconic arts community.”
In 1997, Red Hen decided to publish prose as well as poetry, a milestone for the small press, which would have remained small had they not made that decision to branch out. They felt it was a better model economically and continue to be excited about publishing a combination of styles. Along with moving to the Crown City, Gale said that acquiring the University of Chicago as a national distributor in 2008 was another major factor for the growth of Red Hen. She said it made them grow up as a press.
Now Red Hen publishes 20 titles a year, holds series of readings in greater Los Angeles and New York City, awards $5,000 a year to poets and authors, publishes the Los Angeles Review and teaches poetry and donates books to schools under their Writing in the Schools (WITS) program.
“We started Writing in the Schools in 2003 because part of our mission statement was around building literacy,” said Gale. “The fact that we were giving out books to schools where kids didn’t have books was really exciting.”
“We deliberately targeted schools that were underperforming,” said Cull. “A number of times the books we gave the classes were the only books they had in their English classes that year.”
It takes a village
Gale and Cull agreed that running Red Hen in Pasadena as opposed to Los Angeles has been very beneficial for them. Gale said that there’s not a lot of publishing companies in Los Angeles, which she described as a less than ideal place for a smaller publisher because of the high cost of living.
“There’s this sense that we belong in Pasadena, which is hard to have in greater Los Angeles, when you’re sort of flopping around in a city of 8 or 10 million,” said Gale. “The ideal place would be a small community that’s already literary and you could be embraced and where the cost of living is much lower. One of the biggest issues with publishing in LA is the cost of living is so high so your payroll is necessarily going to be higher than it would be if you were in Kentucky.”
She believes that it really does take a village to have consistent success and exponential growth in this business. Red Hen Press is named after the story of the little red hen who asks for help making bread. No one wants to help but everyone wants to eat the bread when the work is done. In the beginning, people wanted their work published but didn’t want to do the work needed to get the press off the ground. Now, Gale says, the little red hen can’t do it by herself.
“Somebody has to be a visionary and somebody has to be running the show,” she said. “What has to happen is that a significant group of people get excited about what you’re doing and jump in and are willing to advise you, help you, write checks, just tell you you’re terrific and what you’re doing is terrific. We’ve been so fortunate, particularly in Pasadena. People have really made it clear that they believe in us and that they know this can happen. That’s what pushes an organization to last 20 years.”
Cull added that it’s important for the community to support an organization like theirs, as well as local independent bookstores, such as Vroman’s. He said that while people know they can get books conveniently and cheaply from Amazon, in the end they’re hurting themselves.
“This is a community where people realize they’re hurting themselves by not supporting independent writing and literature, because if they don’t it’ll go away, and then what?” he said. “Pasadena is a perfect place for a press like this. People care about what we do. They realize this is in no way something that’s financially lucrative, but it matters a great deal.”
‘Excellent’ reads
Red Hen has several imprints that help further their mission of promoting diversity, such as Arktoi Books, which publishes a lesbian writer every year. They also seek to publish literary excellence, which admittedly can be subjective.
“Red Hen has a certain aesthetic,” said Gale. “There’s a tendency toward work that’s sort of Kafkaesque, that has this dark, strange thing going on. What we’re looking for is a level of mastery and excellence. However, what one editor considers excellence varies a lot. For the writer wondering why their work gets rejected? Maybe their schedule was full or possibly their aesthetics didn’t match up with the writer’s. So Red Hen has its own aesthetics, but I feel what we’re looking for is something that has layers of meaning going on and a level of excellence. We’re shooting for the best.”
What they end up with is a canon with a wide range of authors and styles. That canon includes several Pasadena-area poets and authors, including Lisa Krueger, Douglas Kearney, Ron Koertge and Bart Edelman. Red Hen had already been publishing those authors when they moved to Pasadena, but Gale said they’re open to picking up new Pasadena authors.
“We have one month a year, which is June, when we take on new submissions,” said Gale. “Our authors get to continue to submit. We’re a press that really believes in authors rather than books, so once we’ve acquired an author they’re welcome to submit something else year-round.”
In anticipation of its 20th anniversary, next year Red Hen and its poets and authors will continue their reading series on both coasts, including events at Boston Court Performing Arts Center and Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena.