Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Branching Out

In South Pasadena, we love our trees so much we even let them grow in the street.

Many of you have probably noticed these lovely old oaks happily obstructing traffic in the middle of the private section of Chelton Way. But most of you probably don't know their controversial story...

Back in 1907, the area had been subdivided into what was known as the Ellersbie Park Tract by a wealthy woman named Carolyn Dobbins. She had spent a holiday at South Pasadena's posh Raymond Hotel. One day, while looking out over the expanse pastoral land surrounding the hotel, Mrs. Dobbins noticed the thicket of oak groves. She decided she was going to buy the parcel of land, leave her hometown of Philadelphia and move her family to South Pasadena to build a house in a paradise shaded by magnificent trees. The trees you see in this photograph are remnants of Mrs. Dobbins' dream landscape -- and designated as Cultural Heritage landmarks.

But that's not the best part of the story. Back in 1950, sweet, upstanding South Pasadena got a jump start on 1960s rebellion by fighting a spirited battle to save several of Mrs. Dobbins' other oak trees. The ones in question happened to be growing in the middle of Edgewood Drive. South Pasadena city government deemed the trees a "menace." The City Manager at the time called them a traffic hazard, "obstructions," with "no place in a modern community." The government wanted change. The residents wanted their trees, believing they were integral, valuable parts of South Pasadena. They wanted to keep them right where they were.

After heated City Council meetings, with passionate pleas made by numerous citizens, the council inexplicably made the decision to save two of the trees -- but cut down a third.

This is where things got interesting. One would think our kindly, rule-abiding townspeople would have accepted the compromise. Instead, when city workers showed up with their saws and a city ordinance granting permission to remove the hundred year old oak, they ran across a mob of angry townspeople. I am not sure if there were any pitchforks, but public record reported an automobile blockade, at least one snarling dog and a less-than-cordial group of men, women and children waving sticks, brooms and rolling pins.

"There is too much useless destruction going on in the world these days," one South Pas resident told a reporter for The Review. "...in a small way we're fighting for the same things our boys in Korea are fighting for. The maintenance of freedom and the carrying out of the wishes of the majority." Another anonymous resident wrote a letter to The Review in the form of a poem:

I think that I shall never see
A Council lovely as a tree.

The tree brings beauty to the town.
The Council orders it chopped down.

The writer concluded his Joyce Kilmer homage with this couplet:

Laws are made by men like these
But only God can make the trees.

The mid century treehuggers' story went 1950s viral -- gathering interest across the nation and symbolizing a group of ordinary people standing up against a government that didn't listen to its citizens. Telegrams and letters of support arrived from all over the country. "Save the trees!" They said. "Axe the City Council!"

After so much national coverage, the city government backed down and the trees were spared. While the beautiful old trees that stirred up such a debate eventually died of natural causes, their younger siblings on Chelton Way still thrive as reminders of South Pas heritage, preservation and, yes, proud symbols of ass-kicking rebellion. Right here in our polite little town.

For more on the great tree controversy, as well as other amazing stories about South Pasadena's past, you can't beat Jane Apostol's definitive South pas history book, South Pasadena 1888-1988 A Centennial History Second Edition with Chronology: 1988-2008. For more on Jane, you can take a look back at my interview with her from last year.

19 comments:

Dixie Jane said...

it's good to see trees take precedence over traffic. I immediately thought of Joyce Kilmer's epic poem too.(How can I forget? I had to sing the music version before the class in the 3rd grade.) I'm thinking of at least one giant tree in Northern California where cars drive right through it. There's nothing like brooms and rolling pins to get your point across. Women have known this for years.

Judy Williams said...

WOW what a fantastic story. I can just see the angry mob dressed in their 50's shirtwaist dresses and kitten heels, wide lapel suits and kids in striped tee shirts and PF Flyer shoes. I love the whole idea of it.

I immediately saw similarities with the debacle of Dan Watson's position as Police Chief. It's comforting to know that South Pas citizens still let their voices be heard. This tree is a wonderful symbol of that.

I never realized what a tree person I am until the past 20 years. I stand under them or just see them and heave a sigh.

Thanks for the fabulous history lesson. I'll stand a little taller and maybe even hug my rolling pin that stays mostly tucked in a drawer, knowing that my voice CAN make a difference.

Mister Earl said...

Great story. Nice to know that some things never change: trees, Councils....

Jean Spitzer said...

I wasn't familiar with this street. Interesting story/photo.

Mike said...

This is awesome. I really love the idea of people waving rolling pins and brooms. This must be that street by Garfield park with the little low lying gate.

Great story, Laurie.

San Diego Farmgirl said...

What a fantastic story, I love it! I hope you share this story in a future Patch post. Like Judy, I have a new respect for my rolling pin! =)

Anonymous said...

That's what has been missing. We should be bringing rolling pins to city council meetings. Oh, the wisdom of our ancestors.

Anonymous said...

As Ogden Nash wrote: "I think that I shall never see, a billboard lovely as a tree. In fact unless the billboards fall, I'll never see a tree at all."

Judy Williams said...

Oh I forgot about Ogden Nash. Love his humor!!!

Pasadena Adjacent said...

yeah!!

How much do I love a good story? Although I've been on that street visiting the home of a senior artist, I had never heard the back story on the trees. Wow!! And I think I might of gone to school with a Dobbins or two

Petrea said...

This is one of my favorite South Pas stories, and you tell it so well! In his book, "Images of America: Siouth Pasadena" Rick Thomas published a photo (p. 41) of the citizens defending the tree. In it you see men and women old and young, plus cars, kids and--yep--rolling pins.

Shanna said...

Great, great story!

Mister Earl said...

Suddenly all the antique shops and kitchen supply stores in the area are reporting a run on rolling pins.

WV: palinal. This is a drug that you take when you can't cope with right-wing politics any longer. Puts you into an idiotic haze.

Mary Rogers said...

I think that if you did a documentary on South Pasadena you would win an Academy Award. You bring the town alive from the history to the tiny things people do not bother to notice. Thank you for your blog.

I hope you are feeling better.

Trish said...

since that story broke so many years ago, there have been numerous other fights, with rolling pins or just words, over those trees. Some documented, some not so much.

Various friends lived there over the years and somewhat like the Via del Rey closure issue, people get heated talking about such things. I'm just glad to know we didn't bring out shotguns to defend the trees, just dogs, brooms, rolling pins and cars! Who said SoPas is the Wild West? ;-)

I do however, like the idea of rolling pins at the council meetings...gives new meaning to whipping the council into shape!

Laurie said...

THank you so much, everyone. I now have a new respect for my rolling pin. And Petrea, I had completely forgotten about Rick's great photo of this event. Rick Thomas, by the way, is an incredible wealth of photographic treasures. His books on the region are integral for anyone interested in our history. Plus, he's just a really cool guy. You can all read more about him in Petrea's wonderful recent article about him at Patch.

Petrea said...

Laurie, thank you!

Rick will be signing books at the South Pasadena Public Library on December 2nd at 7PM, by the way. He really is a great guy. Stop by and say hi.

dbdubya said...

A little more on the trees and Chelten Street. The City wanted the trees cut down because they were a hazard to motorists. The way it was resolved was for the City to turn the street over to the property owners, thereby removing the liability from the City. So Chelten and Ashbourne, which also has trees in the middle, are private streets. The property lines are the middle of the street and the property owners are responsible for maintaining the streets. This became an issue a few years ago when some of the residents wanted to close the streets to through traffic. It became a major controversy for the neighborhood.

Laurie said...

I can always count on you, DB. You're my favorite SoPas encyclopedia!!! :-)

We miss you around here, BTW.