Pasadena, Texas (not to be confused with Pasadena, California) borders on southeast Houston. It has always been a working man’s town with much of the population employed by the refineries located along the Houston Ship Channel. Contrary to popular belief most of the lucrative places of business actually reside within the boundaries of Houston, Deer Park and Laporte, leaving Pasadena with very little of the chemical industry income that fills the coffers of those other cities and towns. It is in many ways a kind of hard luck place that somehow never quite made it to the big time enjoyed by its neighbors in spite of efforts to do so.
When I was a child Pasadena was lily white. I used to hear rumors that minorities understood that they might work there but they needed to be out of town before sundown. I don’t know if that was actually true but I am positive that a very active branch of the Ku Klux Klan operated quite openly on Red Bluff Boulevard. I never saw it myself because I wasn’t a resident of Pasadena when they were in their heyday but friends who grew up there swore that klansmen would stand on the roof of their headquarters wearing full regalia and holding rifles during meetings and showings of propaganda movies.
When I applied for a teaching job in the Pasadena Independent School District back in the eighties the man who interviewed me noted that there had been a time when I would have been blackballed for being a Catholic. In fact, he recalled that when the Catholic Church attempted to build a parish in that area their efforts initially met with fiery arson. He was happy that the prejudices of the past were gone and that Pasadena was more open to diversity but I sensed from his comments that some of the old thinking was still very much present.
The old Pasadena that I knew as a child was a conglomerate of tidy homes in simple neighborhoods mostly filled with blue collar workers. The yards were generally well landscaped and the streets were reminiscent of a “Leave It To Beaver” kind of world. We often shopped in the area for a change from places like Gulfgate and Palm Center. Once in a great while we even went to the Pasadena Drive In. Indeed it was a quite nice back then but I always had the feeling when I was there that it was a great deal less sophisticated than the places where I grew up.
After Mike and I had been married for a time we decided to move to a brand new apartment in Pasadena. Our place was modern and spacious and a vast improvement over our first tiny home. It was filled with young couples and lots of children. It seemed to be on the cutting edge of elegance. We were quite excited about being there.
I met a number of individuals who had been born and raised in Pasadena. They were quite proud of their town which seemed to be on the rise. New neighborhoods were cropping up everywhere and a mall was in the works. I enjoyed living there but longed to get a real home of my own. Luckily Mike and I found one near Glenbrook Valley in southeast Houston making our stay in Pasadena rather brief.
I had little reason to return to Pasadena over the years other than to visit friends who lived there or to take care of business at the Pasadena ISD administration building. I worked at South Houston Intermediate, a campus that was often reviled by those who taught in the more elegant neighborhoods of Pasadena. Our students were a grand mix of Hispanics, Asians, poor Whites, and Blacks. I thought that they and my fellow teachers were wonderful but I soon learned that much of the populace of Pasadena found all of us to be lacking. Our kids often felt self conscious whenever they visited more amply appointed campuses. Eventually, however, the entire town began to change and the teachers and students of South Houston assumed a leadership role in charting the way to academic success with low socioeconomic students.
I reluctantly left South Houston Intermediate in the late nineties and essentially lost touch with Pasadena for a long time. My mother often enjoyed heading that way when I met her for our Friday evening dining and shopping adventures. We headed down Edgebrook to Fairmont Parkway on many occasions and enjoyed a part of Pasadena that has moved far away from the most historic areas. I had not seen the old haunts in decades.
Today I had some business to attend to inside the old Pasadena that I had visited in my youth. My route took me past familiar landmarks that had seemingly long ago become forgotten. There was a neglected look to the streets, homes and businesses that had once been so tidy. The shabbiness was actually quite shocking because it had taken over areas where there had at one time been quaint tea rooms and luxurious spas. I mostly saw used car lots and thrift stores in the retail spaces that had so long ago given the area an aura of success. It was difficult to believe that the town had fallen on such hard times with the exception of the outskirts in its far southeastern reaches. It was as though the citizenry had abandoned entire sections of the city, leaving them to their own devices. It was in many ways quite sad.
I could not help thinking as I drove past the part of Red Bluff Boulevard where the klan once so contemptuously held their rallies that perhaps there is a kind of karma in what has happened to most of Pasadena. Some of the leaders had tried so hard to keep out minorities and Catholics and others who did not meet their standards and they ultimately had been defeated. Rather than acceding to the progress of integration they had just kept moving until they were ultimately crowded into a small area along Beltway 8 with the rest of the town being neglected and ignored.
My trip down memory lane somehow felt uncomfortable and as if to remind me of where I was, a guy in a huge diesel truck honked to alert me that I wasn’t moving fast enough for his taste. As he passed, giving me the one finger salute, I could not help but notice the huge American flag flying from the bed of his truck and the confederate flag sticker on his bumper. Somehow he seemed to exemplify much of what I suspect went wrong in a town that had seemingly had so much potential. If only the people had stayed to welcome their new neighbors of different races and religions perhaps Pasadena might today be very pleasantly different. Flight has killed once elegant cities like Detroit and it saddens me to see that it has affected Pasadena as well.
I arrived home from my little journey feeling so happy that my cul de sac is like a little United Nations village. There is strength and much heart in the diversity that blossoms so beautifully right near me. I’d like to think that my neighbors and I are enlightened in ways that some of those who came before us were not. We understand that our differences are only superficial. Inside we are essentially the same. It’s too bad that an entire town had to fall apart so badly. For me it is a lesson in how not to meet the challenges of change.