Throw us a Bone

by Kevin Uhrich, Pasadena Weekly, Dec. 31, 2014/Jan. 1, 2015

TV newscasters apparently love the Pasadena Weekly. In fact, rarely does a day go by that one does not hear a headline or short story that’s appeared in the paper read back to them over the air.


It’s both flattering and sometimes infuriating, and it’s happened again, this time involving our recent story about Joan Williams. Williams is a longtime Pasadena resident who was crowned Miss Crown City in 1958 but was denied the special perks that went along with the title — like riding in the Rose Parade — after city officials learned of her African-American heritage. A number of news stations apparently saw our story by Justin Chapman, “Justice on Parade,” about Williams finally being honored by the Tournament of Roses and riding in this year’s Rose Parade, and decided to “pick it up.” At least one station, ABC 7, attributed the story to PW, but Channel 5, which is owned by the same company that owns the Los Angeles Times, did not.


But this kind of thing is not unusual. TV and sometimes newspapers will pick up our stories and run them without attribution. Such was the case with our 2012 story about local writer Carla Sameth, whose gut-wrenching first-person account of being beaten up by sheriff’s deputies while riding the local commuter train, called “One Day on the Gold Line,” captured the attention of a number of TV news agencies, which ran their own versions of what they had read in our paper. In that case, only one reporter, Beverly White of NBC 4 News, bothered to do the ethical thing and point out that the story originated in the gold old P-Dubya.


And it happened last summer with a story titled “Junk Mail,” in which intern Lance Wyndon reported the email account of a John Muir High School teacher had been hacked and nude images of the instructor were distributed to parents, other teachers, students and even members of the Board of Education. 


We agree with the news judgment of those picking up our stories. They should be covering these types of issues, and we are happy that they do. All we ask is for these giant news operations to throw us a bone once in a while.

Justice on Parade

Nearly six decades after being snubbed by the city for being black, Miss Crown City 1958 is finally riding in the Rose Parade

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/24/2014

For Joan Williams, life has come full circle.

In 1958, 26-year-old Williams was nominated by her co-workers at City Hall to represent Pasadena as Miss Crown City, which was a Rose Queen-like honor at the time. As part of her duties, she was scheduled to ride on the city’s float in the Rose Parade, but was denied the honor — along with being cut from several public appearances — after city officials discovered the light complexioned Williams was African American. Now, 56 years later, at age 83, Williams will finally be riding in the 126th Rose Parade — in the leading Theme Banner Float, no less.


“I am delighted and really appreciate that the city recognized that they needed to make some kind of gesture towards righting that wrong,” said Williams. “Pasadena has shown the community that they’re on the right path and that they’re recognizing these things and that it’s something they need to follow through on.”


The Pasadena Weekly originally reported her story on Thanksgiving 2013 in an article titled “Beauty and the Beasts.”


“We’re pleased to have Mrs. Williams riding in the Rose Parade,” said Bill Flynn, executive director of the Tournament of Roses Association. This year’s parade theme is Inspiring Stories.


“To be on that float is especially important because it will point out that with people of good will working to correct these mistakes, change can come,” said Williams. “We hope it won’t take so long, but when you look at our history, none of it has happened overnight, none of it has happened without a fight. The fight goes on.”


Williams said that she recognizes this is about more than just her, that the community needed this injustice to be corrected as well.


“In 1958 when I was chosen, there was a community of old Pasadena families like the Bartletts and the Duncans and the Jacksons and Ruby Williams, who were so elated and so happy that this had happened, and then to have it turn out the way it did, it was just a big disappointment,” she said. “Many of them are not around now to see the recognition of this wrong and this apology more or less to the community, but I know they would appreciate it.”


On April 5, the Pasadena-based nonprofit health organization Men Educating Men About Health (MEMAH), which puts on the annual Get Healthy Pasadena health fair at Pasadena City College, honored Williams at a gala dinner at the Western Justice Center. During that event, Congresswoman Judy Chu also presented an award to Williams. Local restaurateur Robin Salzer and Orange County assessor Webster Guillory were also honored. City Council members Jacque Robinson, John Kennedy, Steve Madison and Terry Tornek were in attendance, and they later directed city staff to investigate the situation. Individual council members apologized to Williams, but to date the city has not offered a formal apology for the incident in 1958.


In May, Robinson, who is vice mayor, called on the city to do just that, and offered Williams the opportunity to ride in the parade with her in a car. In October, Flynn and Mayor Bill Bogaard took Williams out to lunch and offered her a spot on a float.


“I was excited to learn that the Tournament has invited Joan Williams to ride in the Rose Parade on Jan. 1, and am delighted that, with encouragement from her children, she has accepted,” Bogaard said. 


According to Williams, the duties of the Miss Crown City post in 1958 included cutting 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.


Williams was “selected from a field of seven finalists by a committee of judges from newspapers and the Tournament of Roses Association,” according to an Aug. 3, 1958, article in the Independent Star News. The article included photos of Williams designing her own clothing, playing golf at Brookside Golf Course and listening to jazz records. Her favorite was Ella Fitzgerald.


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 co-workers 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 Police Department clerk named Rosalie Whitehouse held the Miss Crown City mantle in 1957, and 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 before he knew she was African American, 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 other businesses.


Williams continued to work at the Municipal Light and Power Department 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.


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.” This year, the Tournament has again offered her two tickets to the parade.


Robert Williams was one of the Tuskegee Airmen whose story helped inspire the movie of the same name starring Laurence Fishburne. Robert also co-wrote and co-executive produced the film, which was released by HBO in 1995 and won a Peabody Award and three Emmy Awards.


The Tournament of Roses’ offer to Joan Williams was announced around the time an open letter by the Pasadena Community Coalition was sent to the Tournament’s president, executive committee members, the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, the ESPN president and the BCS executive director, excoriating the Tournament for the lack of African Americans on its staff.


“This gives the public the impression that the Tournament of Roses is a racially exclusive operation and uninterested in the social diversity of our modern society,” the letter read, which was written by coalition member Martin Gordon.


As for Williams, who will be a great-grandmother this month, her story ends on a positive note.


“When I tell my great-grandchild that story, for him it will have a happy ending, whereas for my own children and grandchildren, when they heard the story, they were appalled,” she said. “Oh, how I wish my husband was here to experience this, because he felt so badly for me at that point in 1958. It was just another occasion of racism raising its arm, but if we as a family dwelled on that we’d be some very unhappy and angry people. In order to survive this kind of thing, you have to find the humor in it and decide how you’re going to live your life and not let it get the best of you.”

Masking the Truth

Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly uncover the deadly details of China’s smog crisis in ‘The People’s Republic of Chemicals’

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/18/2014

The truth is a bitter pill to swallow for the Chinese government, which has been putting all of its energy into ratcheting up the nation’s economy and making money while glibly ignoring the health of their people and the quality of their land, water and air.


By all indications, the communist/capitalist country’s future looks even bleaker, with no signs of its drive to become a global economic superpower slowing down anytime soon, according to “The People’s Republic of Chemicals,” the latest book by investigative reporters Chip Jacobs and William J. Kelly.


More than a biting critique of China’s economic choices, which have led to the country’s current environmental crises, the book is also call to the Chinese government to curb its pollution and do the right thing, not only for itself, but the rest of the planet.


In the past few decades, China has gone from impoverished, insular culture to a global economic industrial powerhouse. And that unchecked growth has had consequences of outrageously painful magnitude. Just ask the millions of Chinese residents who have lost relatives to various forms of cancer and other excruciating and completely unnecessary diseases directly caused by coal and other industrial exhaust. 


Cancer villages, peasant uprisings, corruption at every level of society and tales of human struggle are interwoven with a gripping narrative. This truly impressive treatise of investigative reporting is a searing indictment of humanity’s disregard for itself. Every page leaves readers shaking their heads in disbelief, with every fact and figure illuminated by ornate prose and evocative passages.


Through advocacy journalism, environmental activism, smog analysis, case studies and human stories, the book provides historical context that is absolutely critical to understanding why the Chinese so unashamedly abandoned their health in exchange for American currency. It explains why Chinese culture has come to be so different from most other nations, how it has been more or less a closed, xenophobic society that has grown into a culture dominated by paranoia and fear. It shows how a government that is afraid of information, and afraid of an educated, intelligent populace, is bound to make catastrophic mistakes.


Kelly and Jacobs, authors of 2008’s “Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles,” take us on a detailed and compelling recounting of China’s history, through the centuries of imperial oppression, the opium trade, the downfall of Chiang Kai Shek and the rise of Mao Zedong. They look at the dubiously named Great Leap Forward, the deadly and tyrannical Cultural Revolution, then the switch (aided unapologetically by the United States) to full-fledged state-directed capitalism by way of Deng Xiaoping (the “Architect”), who, according to the book, “put China on the road to becoming the world’s most productive nation, with a concentration of power and chemical plants, steel mills, metal smelting facilities, mines, factories, and assembly plants previously unknown in human history.” 


Their goal was to make China the leading economic superpower in the world, and today money is everything. Young women starve themselves for weeks to save enough money for Gucci bags and young men simply can’t get married without having a good job, a car, an apartment and money. Status and cash now reign supreme in China.


While it is easy enough to tell them to control their excesses, multinational oil, coal and other industrial production companies have trillions of dollars invested in these industries. They’re making too much money to change course now. It would need to be a society-wide decision, but no one wants to be the first to give up profits and kowtow to the demands of environmental activists.


So there it is: greed is the direct cause of pollution. As Kelly and Jacobs so eloquently illustrate, this is probably going to get much worse before it gets better.


“The economy of the People’s Republic today isn’t like the lumbering Soviet’s was, even though its government frequently acts like a Kremlin-style puzzle palace. Nor is its manufacturing ethos comparable to Hitler’s prewar Germany. Europe, the US — it’s not comparable to them, either. New species that it is, China 2.0, some believe, will eventually succumb to the ‘Environmental Kuznets Curve’ that plot-points the intersection where a modernizing society demands better air and water from its caretakers. Yeah, right. Neither we nor the experts trying to untangle this quilt of ambiguities can predict how and when Asia’s populace will reach their breaking point.”


It certainly doesn’t seem anyone there is interested in real solutions. Just look at all the shenanigans they pulled to make their air somewhat close to breathable for Olympic athletes in 2008, as if they were really fooling anyone.  After the games were over, the air got even worse. Kelly and Jacobs coined the term “growthsmogagist” to describe the money-hungry, GDP-growth obsessed smog apologists who pervade every level of Chinese society. China is now a pollution panopticon, a type of prison in which everyone polices themselves and each other in an attempt to “save face,” whatever that means in a place where you can actually chew the air. 


When my fiancée and I traveled to China for three weeks in spring 2013 to attend our friends’ wedding, 16,000 dead pigs were floating down the Huangpu River. We visited Shanghai, Ningbo, Hangzhou, and Beijing. The air pollution in each of those cities was horrendous. There was just this thick layer of filth that permeated the air everywhere we went. To top it off, just about everyone smokes in China, and it’s allowed indoors, even in restaurants. So we’d go inside to get some respite from the pollution and it would be just as bad indoors. It made breathing difficult after a while. 


The most interesting part, though, was how Chinese residents denied the extent of the problem. “Oh, it’s not that bad,” someone said to me when I pointed out the fact that we hadn’t seen the sun once in four cities over three weeks. This person had lived in the United States, so they knew better. But Chinese culture dictates that only the Chinese can criticize China, and just about everything is considered an insult. 


One of the cities we visited, Hangzhou, is called a paradise on earth, and we certainly found it to be just that, as it’s the city in which we were engaged to be married. As one famous song puts it, “There is a paradise in heaven, on earth there is Hangzhou.” It is one of the most beautiful places we have ever been. How sad it was that we couldn’t see how beautiful it should have been, because of the overwhelming pollution. 


Beijing was particularly bad, certainly the worst out of all the cities we visited. There was a permanent hazy, smoggy fog that hung in the air, making it hard to see long distances with any clarity. Being outside was like being in the bedroom of a lifelong smoker.


Coming home to Los Angeles was a breath of fresh air in comparison, which tells you all you need to know. For the gritty, staggering details — as well as what needs to happen in order to reverse this terrifying ecological calamity — read “The People’s Republic of Chemicals.”

“The People’s Republic of Chemicals.” by William J. Bill Kelly and Chip Jacobs, 333 pp., $24.95, published by Rare Bird Books.