Center of My World: Pasadena, California
I know every inch of my neighborhood, from the mountains in the North to the murals that streak the walls of local businesses. I currently live in the North West area of Pasadena, California. My community is made up of predominantly working class Brown and Black people. Real estate agents have always considered the land in North West
Pasadena to be undesirable. Although, folks are beginning to move into my neighborhood because it’s location is in close proximity to an outdoor shopping center called Old Town, Pasadena. This business district is the center of prosperity of Pasadena, although its wealth is not widely shared. The unequal reality that my community faces is never acknowledged or seen by the general public. Those who create capital for the city of Pasadena are overlooked, exploited, and ignored.
It takes me about fifteen minutes to walk from my house to Old Town Pasadena. The streets are extremely narrow in the North West and begin to widen as I make my way towards Colorado Boulevard. I see day laborers on every street corner and folks waiting for the bus on Orange Grove boulevard. Palm trees loom over my head as my community transforms into an outdoor shopping center. I begin to see movie theaters, nightclubs, Urban Outfitters, outdoor cafes, and pubs. Most of the buildings also have offices and apartments on the upper floors. Old Town plays a significant role in the success of Pasadena because tourists spend their money on the hotels, restaurants, stores, and rental car agencies in the area. There are multiple gold line stations in Pasadena that allow workers and visitors to enter the community easily. There is also
the 134 exit which provides access for folks to arrive in Old Town. These freeways and train stations symbolize progress for many. Although for the marginalized folks in certain areas of Los Angeles, these structures have displaced and destroyed communities. The highways have made it easier for folks to get to their jobs, but it has come at a cost; it has impacted working people’s homes, health, and livelihood.
Old Town is a representation of the historical inequalities in this city. I have worked in this community since I was sixteen years old and I have seen folks get exploited by their employers on a daily basis. The glamorous version of the city is fueled by the sacrifies and profiteering of undocumented folks. The widening income gulf, low wages for many, and high rent are results of a system that has historically oppressed people of color. There is a connection between the spatial and social order of Pasadena to plantation spaces of the south. The plantation served as a location to control and protift off Black bodies. It served as a large scale place for physical labor, similar to Old Town Pasadena. The plantation was built with a long straight pathway which led directly to the front of the house. Enslaved Black folks were housed in small spaces and their homes were in the background of the community. The larger homes for the slave masters were in the center. Today, Brown and Black workers continue to be seen as dispensable and exchangeable under a capitalist system. Their homes are still hidden from the public eye in Pasadena and are on the outskirts of Old Town.
The segregation in Pasadena is also a direct result of historical racial violence. The North West community has always been hidden from the public eye. “The Negro population lives in two fairly compact areas, both on the west side of the city, one in the northwest and the other in the southwest,” (Crimi, Pg.25) This quote is from the article The Social Status of the Negro written in 1942 which examines the occupational position of the Black folks in Pasadena. The author James E. Crimi explained how Black folks who moved into the North West during the late 1800’s served the affluent areas of Pasadena. The article does not directly address the wages received by the wealthy employers of Pasadena, although Crimi concludes the essay by including direct quotes from Black folks during this period. “I wish something could be done about the terrible working hours domestics face. Makes us almost hate White people who have so much money and don't want to be decent to colored help when it comes to pay! They hire us meaning to' pay us less,” says the domestic worker who was interviewed for this journal.
North West Pasadena later began to shift and became a homogenous area inhabited by Latinx communities during the 1970’s. Undocumented folks are some of the most
vulnerable people within in this community. Their employers continuously profit off their vulnerability and social status, by withholding pay and threatening to call ICE on them. Working communities across generations have created wealth and prosperity in Old Town. The article Tale of Two Cities written by Peter Drier depicts the contemporary status of the low income worker today. Currently one-third of Pasadena workers earn less than $15 per hour. Most low wage earners, 59 percent, work full time and full year, and another 26 percent work part-time and full year. Without equitable wages, the community clearly becomes uninhabitable for low income folks.
Pasadena ranks second among California’s 50 largest cities in terms of the concentration of income among the wealthiest residents and the gap between the richest and poorest households. The Old Town shopping mall is the center of Pasadena because it serves as a midpoint where affluent and working class folks meet: one to sit and eat a fancy dinner and the other to wash the dishes for miserable wages. They interact but the worker is always the invisible one.
The center of my community is extremely different from what tourists see. They view Pasadena as the home of the Rose Parade, Caltech, the Rosebowl, and museums and theaters. The low income folks of my community in the North West view the center of their community as Villa Park, a community center located near Orange Grove. This space has been utilized to host cultural events, soccer games, weddings, quienceañeras, and protests. I have grown playing on these fields, eating from the street vendors, and taking dance lessons at the community center. This space has fostered a sense of unity that could never occur in Old Town Pasadena. But the inequities must be dismantled. It starts by recognizing the fruits of people’s labor along with their humanity. How this looks under a justice framework is: livable wages, decent housing, safety, adequate transportation, good school for the kids, etc. As Dr. Cornel West says, “that is how love looks like in public.”
Photos by Kali Van Dusen
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Crimi, J. E. (1941). THE SOCIAL STATUS OF THE NEGRO IN PASADENA, CALIFORNIA. A Thesis Presented to the Faculty of the Department of Sociology The University of Southern California.
Drier, P. (2019). Pasadena: A Tale od Two Cities. 1-36.
James T. Rojas, “The Enacted Environment of East Los Angeles,” Places 8, no. 3 (1993): 42–53.
Mckittrick, K. (2013). Plantation Futures. Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism, 17(3), 1-15. doi:10.1215/07990537-2378892
Professor Peter Ekman “American Cities and Social Change” (Lines on the Land: Lecture) Santa Cruz, University, Santa Cruz, California, October 18, 2020.