Pasadena: My Neighbors Have Nice Flowers

Okay, so Kieran Healy made fun of the Macy’s building, prompting Amy Lamboley and Professor Bainbridge to leap to Pasadena’s defense. They both recommend the Huntington, foolishly ignoring the desert garden while extolling the virtues of roses and herbs.

You can’t defend a city against a charge of distasteful urban experience by playing up a tiny handful of cultural attractions. The Norton Simon is lovely, but it’s not a part of daily life like discount stores and banks. So those of us who actually live in Pasadena are to be forgiven, I hope, if we consider its sidewalks and strip malls to be of greater import than its Rembrandts and Gamble Houses, and the Huntington is in San Marino anyway.

Despite how it might look on the Crooked Timber thread, I like living in Pasadena. I see roses and camellias every day (for free!) in my neighbors’ yards. I walk past several endearing bits of architecture and neighborhood enterpreneurship on my weekend errands (which are indeed within walking distance!). Even though it took a degree in geophysics to shake my native Midwestern skepticism, I’ve finally learned to appreciate the mountains in my bedroom window. And much as I deplore suburban sprawl, I think Amy is on to something important in her final paragraph:

What makes a Southern California city like Pasadena seem less like a real city than a typical Eastern or European one is that these attractions are spread across the city, rather than concentrated in one city center. And instead of banishing the ugly, utilitarian buildings to the periphary (as Paris, for example, does) they are instead interspersed with the gems. It’s not a style of city planning I particularly wish to defend, but I will say that the Descanso or the Huntington are peaceful and isolated in a way that Central Park will never be.

Oh, and it’s important to give some respect to the cactuses in the desert garden. They are as awesomely fascinating as they are malevolent, and when the Big One destroys all the aqueducts we will need their secrets to survive.


  1. Rana wrote:

    I love those cacti. One of the nicest perks of doing research in the Huntington was that I could stroll the gardens during lunch when the archives closed. Wonderful!
    And even though I’m not fond of the big cement squares, I think that SoCal gets a bad rap regarding its appearance. But, then, I can walk by an empty lot filled with trash and become fascinated by the weeds and made nostalgic by the gravel and dust, so maybe I’m not the best person to ask.

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