Creating an Authentic Place: Tales from Two Southern California Cities


What makes a place “authentic”? In places we cherish, we look for something unique and tangible. But personal experience of a place is not merely a product of the landscape and “built environment.” It is also shaped by myths and perceptions.

As City Manager of two California towns, I’ve grappled with the treacherous crosscurrents of reality and myth, of change and preservation.

Azusa, California is a working-class suburb where the majority of the population are from the stock of Mexican immigrants over the past century, along with a largely comfortable mixture of the rest of Southern California’s extraordinary diversity. Ten years ago, Mayor Cristina Cruz Madrid memorably described it as “the caboose on the foothill train,” standing in sad contrast to its more affluent middle-class neighbors along the majestic (but often smog-obscured) San Gabriel Mountains. An ambitious effort to shake that image has had mixed results but some very real accomplishments.

Ventura, California is a beach town with higher aspirations. Its city government promotes it as “California’s New Art City” and aims to be a model of smart growth, environmental sustainability and civic engagement. Ventura’s citizens laid the foundation for this ambitious agenda when more than a thousand of them participated in a citizen-driven “visioning effort” at the beginning of this century. But it remains unclear how deep or widespread the public enthusiasm for these notions truly is.

Both these towns struggle with distinguishing their actual, imagined and desired identities -- and destinies.

People have lived in Azusa. for six thousand years. Phonetic variations of “Azusavit” were recorded by Spanish padres as the village origin of the native “neophytes” inducted into labor at the nearby Mission San Gabriel. Yet despite this long history, today’s Azusa blends with little distinction from the tract homes, apartments and commercial strips of the thirty other cities that two million San Gabriel Valley suburbanites call home. But it’s making considerable strides in re-anchoring a sense of place.

The symbolic turning point came in 1995, when voters overwhelmingly rejected a scheme to introduce casino gambling as the panacea to the city’s declining fortunes. Voters installed a new City Council and chose instead to focus on beautifying the sagging Downtown. When the pedestrian-scaled street lamps that were installed were mistakenly painted purple, the Council persevered despite ridicule. Two dozen new businesses made believers out of skeptics. Purple was embraced as the city’s distinctive color.

Development of new homes sought to attract middle-class homebuyers. Public schools adopted a “no excuses” determination to boost test scores. A rash commitment to plant 2,000 new trees in the year 2000 ended up adding over 3,500 new trees. The seeds of those efforts have flowered in a renewed spirit of citizen volunteerism. Neighborhood improvement zones were launched to “improve all of Azusa, one neighborhood at a time.” An ambitious new General Plan proclaimed “a 21st Century vision for Azusa” as “the Gateway to the American Dreams.” More than a million square feet of office/warehouse/light industrial “flex space” was added, a residential development slated for 1250 homes broke ground and the long-neglected Downtown began to show new signs of life.

But change is never painless. To some, new development seems to violate the city’s “unique natural, historic and cultural heritage.” There is considerable concern that new structures might be undermining the cherished small town character.

This has led to a continuing political struggle. Is the new development creating “a distinct identity and sense of place” or altering the community’s existing character beyond recognition? This reflects a deep ambivalence of local residents about change. So much of current development is simply generic “product” that even the value of new investment (and more permanent benefits of expanded jobs, housing and tax base) may seem like a poor trade-off against the loss of the familiar.


That question is even more clearly drawn in the coastal town of Ventura. The community is officially known as “San Buenaventura,” the name that Father Serra, the legendary founder of the California missions chose to honor Saint Bonaventure, an Italian, but the name also evokes the spirit of a city of good luck. That good fortune seemed to run out, however, with the end of Ventura’s oil boom in the sixties. The city’s historic core declined, even as farmers and ranchers turned to raising largely undistinguished tract homes on the city’s outskirts. After the 101 interstate sliced through, Ventura began a long, slow fade – especially compared to Santa Barbara, its neighbor just 22 miles up the coast which styles itself “the American Riviera.” .

Like Azusa, Ventura in the last few years has gotten back on track. The once seedy and largely deserted core came back to life – largely thanks to the grit of individual entrepreneurs. The City did back construction of a theater and parking structure, which helped accelerate an indigenous restaurant and retail revival. Then came the “Seize the Future” visioning effort that thrust forward new leadership determined to make Ventura a “national model” for “smart growth,” “livable communities” and “civic engagement.”

But the push for new investment and “new urbanist” development has run into the same predictable “not in my backyard” response seen in Azusa and many other communities. (link to Kiefer and Bradford NIMBY pieces). There’s much talk about preserving the “soul” of the community. This includes a shifting and even contradictory mix of protecting the town’s laid-back beach town attitude along with its largely unspoiled hillside and ocean views, its stock of old buildings and its quirky landmarks.

Nothing is more symbolic of this than the debate over the fate of the “Top Hat Burger Place.” The 450 square foot Downtown hamburger stand stood in the way of an aggressive developer’s plans for three-story condos over boutiques. Sentimentalists and preservationists banded together with anti-elitists to insist the stand stay or be relocated at the developer’s expense. Others welcomed the demise of what they saw as an eyesore reminiscent of Downtown’s hardscrabble past and rolled their eyes about claims that the plywood structure qualified as an historic landmark.

On a split vote, the City Council approved a compromise that donated a slice of a city-owned parking lot nearby as the relocation site for the Top Hat. Given the current real estate recession, it was no surprise when the development project tanked, leaving the apparently ‘recession-proof’ hamburger stand in its current location.

Now, American Apparel is opening the first retail chain outlet in Downtown. Could this be the harbinger of Ventura’s transformation into another trendy “lifestyle center” of national chains?
Such concerns are not new. More than a century before Wal-Mart steamrollered old-fashioned downtowns across America, Woolworth’s, Sears and Penney’s created the foundation for a consumer society dominated by giant chains.

Can places like Azusa and Ventura maintain a special identity amidst the gale force winds of the global economy? Some extreme advocates favor opting out and resisting every change in the landscape even in dilapidated neighborhoods. The other extreme pushes for undermining local neighborhood and district character to benefit out-of-scale real estate “projects” replicating some generic formula, be it “mixed-use town center” or “townhome village.”

Towns need to find something better than a tense balance between these two extremes. First of all they need to put a distinctive stamp on new development so that it remains scaled to the local character. This is the struggle many cities – including Azusa and Ventura – must undertake if they want both to preserve “a distinct identity and sense of place” in the era of the global economy while remaining vital and economically diverse. They do not have the option of becoming a hermetically sealed stasis town like Carmel, where tourists come to experience an historic theme park of a town. Instead, like most real places, they must face difficult choices about what to retain and preserve – and what to improve and replace. Perhaps the best standard to follow may be to discern what feels like “home” to residents. Ironically, that premium is likely to also attract visitors and commerce that may ultimately threaten that very distinctiveness. But that is a problem that most struggling communities would look forward to grappling with.

Rick Cole is the City Manager in Ventura, California, where he has championed smart growth strategies and revitalization of the historic downtown. He previously spent six years as the City Manager of Azusa, where he was credited by the San Gabriel Valley Tribune with helping make it “the most improved city in the San Gabriel Valley.” He earlier served as mayor of Pasadena and has been called “one of Southern California’s most visionary planning thinkers by the LA Times.” He was honored by Governing Magazine as one of their “2006 Public Officials of the Year.”