How much of my story came from this place? Would I still be the same person had I grown up elsewhere? How much of this city is in me? Or I in it?
Brand Boulevard has certainly changed in the forty-one years since my birth, though it is still – and probably always will be – the other-named Main Street of Glendale. Once lined with small businesses, it is now dominated by chains and luxury apartment buildings. But it is still home, despite decades of living elsewhere. I walk along the sidewalk – the manicured plants here and in the median are also “new” – and ask myself what this place means to me. The honest answer is: I don’t know.
Glendale is a large suburb of Los Angeles, just to the northeast of the city. Home to about 200,000, it sits between the smaller, but better known, Burbank and Pasadena, as well as LA’s mighty Griffith Park. It is known as a fairly quiet suburb, affluent areas in the north and higher density lower income to the south. When I was growing up, the Glendale Galleria – one of the preeminent shopping malls even today – was really the only reason to visit. Today, Glendale is considered reasonably cool, with luxury buildings going up all over the downtown core.
Glendale was founded in 1884 on what was once part of Rancho San Rafael. Remnants of this Mexican history remain in Casa de Adobe and the Catalina Verdugo Adobe, two of the original dwellings from the Rancho days. (Read about the Catalina Verdugo Adobe here.) Much of the early development of the city was done by Leslie Coombs Brand (yes, of Brand Boulevard, the Brand Library, and so on). The Library was once his mansion, the grounds being Brand Park today.
After World War Two, Glendale’s history is a bit dark. Until as recently as the 1960s (my grandparents, my mother, and my aunt were already living here by that point), Glendale was a “sundown city,” where nonwhites were required to leave the city by sundown or risk arrest. From 1964 to 1966, Glendale was even the West Coast headquarters for George Lincoln Rockwell and the American Nazi Party. (I wonder how much of this my mother’s family was aware of. For one thing, they were and are Jewish.)
For me, growing up in Glendale in the 1980s, remnants of some of these things were still around. While my schools had significant Hispanic and Asian populations, there were very few Blacks. Jews were even more rare. At Glendale High School, my sister and I represented half the Jewish population out of roughly 4,000 students, and I was the only one in my graduating class. While there was a synagogue in Glendale (Temple Sinai was a huge part of my childhood, and where I met my two forever best friends, who each went to one of the other two high schools in the city), that lack of representation led to issues for me. I was called a kike on a nearly daily basis, had to fight multiple teachers who scheduled exams on Jewish holidays, and even had a swastika drawn on one of my notebooks I left out while in middle school. (I dropped out of drama in high school when auditions for the fall play were held on Yom Kippur, and the teacher told me that if I were really dedicated to acting I would skip my religious obligations to be there.) I can only imagine other minorities experienced similar things.
(I don’t want to imply that my childhood was terrible. Despite the negative experiences I had for being Jewish, I grew up with some amazing friends, a quality public school education, a plethora of activities to choose from, and a location that allowed for easy access to some of the best things Los Angeles has to offer. It is these reasons that so many people now choose to live here, hence the need for so many more housing units downtown.)
One ethnic minority is incredibly well-represented in Glendale: Armenians. In fact, Glendale is even well-known in Armenia, and has by far the largest such population in the Armenian diaspora. As such, I was raised knowing that my people were not the only ones to experience genocide. (Sadly this should have led to camaraderie but did not.) I was also raised with the spectacular – and now widespread – Zankou Chicken, an Armenian chain featuring amazing roasted poultry and a garlic sauce that is to die for. (Click here to read about the Armenian history of Glendale.)
While Glendale of the past may have had some issues, Glendale of the present is a decent place. And it offers some cool experiences for visitors. For most, shopping is still the reason to come. The Galleria is going strong, and next door, the Americana is a lovely outdoor shopping center. (Whether you agree with the owner’s politics – I don’t – objectively the place is gorgeous.)
Across the street from the Americana, on Brand Boulevard, lies the Museum of Neon Art. It is small, but worth a visit. There are three components of the place. First, it is home to a staggering collection of original neon signage from Los Angeles (although most is in a warehouse), including the original neon marquis of the Chinese Theatre. Second, it has a rotating exhibit of modern neon art. Finally, the museum offers classes in how to create your own neon art, something I am committed to trying one of these days. (Thank you to the Museum of Neon Art for hosting my visit.)
Downtown Glendale is also home to the historic Alex Theatre, and one of the top community theatre companies in LA: the Glendale Center Theatre. Community theatre in Los Angeles is on the level of professional companies, as all are professional actors, and this theatre in the round does amazing work, specifically with comedies and musicals. No Oedipus Rex here. (The theatre was recently sold, so here’s hoping it reopens as a similar venue.)
Though technically across the border in La Canada Flintridge, Descanso Gardens offers a lovely oasis in the middle of the city. Go during camellia season. (Click here to read about Descanso Gardens.) You can also visit the Japanese garden inside Brand Park.
My number one tourist experience in Glendale might shock you, but it is a cemetery. Forest Lawn has been around since 1930, and it is stunningly beautiful, with monuments that look more like European castles than cemetery churches. It is the final resting place for many of Hollywood’s elite, including Errol Flynn, Elizabeth Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, and Walt Disney (the Disney gravesite isn’t in a publicly accessible area).
While many of my childhood favorites have long since closed, Glendale also has a few restaurants worth experiencing. First off, try the aforementioned Zankou Chicken. You also have to try Porto’s on Brand. It is the top Cuban bakery outside of Miami or Havana. Get a guava pastry, still under a dollar. Or check out Continental Gourmet Sausage Company for some of the best sausages I’ve ever had!
It is hard to say who I would be today had I grown up elsewhere. This place, Glendale, California, has given me a lot. My family is here. I met my best friends here. I also experienced extreme hatred, something that instilled my strong sense of fairness and compassion that I have today. Walking around, the emotions of both the positives and negatives come back to me. Home is a strange concept, but one that resonates here.
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