“Every year at the annual gathering, her father said the same thing. If anything happens, if there’s a disaster, if the city shuts down, we are on our own up here.” Looking for utopia’s past and imagining utopia’s future with the citizens of Altadena.


by Martine Syms

Digital Project Published on November 24, 2015

The School of I Will Survive

Junie is a relic. She lives in Altadena, in a ranch-style house on El Molino. She is comfortably asocial—a hermit living in a city—a pessimist if she’s not careful; a student, endlessly curious; a feminist; African American; a former Baptist; and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.

Every morning she rises at first sunlight. She pulls on dark pants and a heavy shirt. Inside the house she wears black sneakers, the unfashionable kind. On the porch is a second pair, outdoor shoes. She takes different routes on her walks, but it’s always up, up, toward the mountains. The San Gabriels are beautiful at dawn and she likes to be out in their shadow. The stoplights no longer work and there are few cars. Some days she beelines, others she zigzags. Her favorite route is across Woodbury, up Windsor, towards the Gabrielino Trail. If she’s been a good girl on her walk and not stopped off for a doughnut, she treats herself to a copy of the paper. If not, she gets the news on the radio and from her neighbors, if necessary.

The community is less populous, certainly, but its residents outlived the rest of California by a wide margin. By last official count, the area is 40 percent white, 27 percent Latino, 27 percent black, and 6 percent Asian. This is utopia to some.

The H5 virus was swift. It spread like wildfire once it got into the water supply. After the outbreak it was even harder to get around Los Angeles. Congestion moved from the street into the body, and everything stopped. When mutations overcame the vaccines, the repeatedly besieged survivors began to protest. As the death count grew, the National Guard was called in to restore order. Altadena was protected by a paramilitary group who bombed the bridges, so the only way into the town was through the Angeles National Forest. The mountains were filled with armed squatters. They’d been there already and were prepared to stay.

Junie was born after it all happened. She is a teacher. People walk with her and she shows them how to make oneself at home anywhere. She calls it The School of I Will Survive. Lately, she has been feeling dis-ease, and it’s not the virus. She thinks it is ontological indigestion.

Her walks begin with a brief history lesson. She talks about the so-called Gabrielino and about the Hahamog’na tribe. She’s assembled a piecemeal archive of Altadena. There are gaps. The absences look like her. Every third Sunday she has a class. It starts in the late morning. They convene around the trailhead at the end of Altadena Drive. She arrives early to prepare.

One by one her followers begin to appear. They look tired, hungry, and scared, as if the hours they plan to spend together will be their last. She wonders how they found her. Each one approaches and presents the item they want to trade for her knowledge. She’s never turned anyone down. Today she gets a knife, incense, flour, and a pair of earrings.

Why are you here? Junie asks the group. They never know.

She tells each of them to fill a page in her notebook with what they do know. It’s for the archive. A chubby girl asks Junie whether she’s afraid of catching it. No, she isn’t. But that doesn’t mean she’s not concerned. Junie learned The Knowledge from her father. He grew up with nothing, so he knew how to make everything himself. She wanted that.

She was raised nearby. She knows the mountains. She spent every day swimming in the waterfalls, hiking, climbing rocks, pretending she was in another time. Her father had been the head of the neighborhood committee when he was alive. Every year at the annual gathering, he said the same thing. If anything happens, if there’s a disaster, if the city shuts down, we are on our own up here. There’s no such thing as an emergency if you’re prepared. The Hahamog’na didn’t have a word for lost.

When they come across an edible plant, she slows down. She stands in front of the growth and asks, Do you know what this is? They never know. In the first mile they find buckwheat, mustard, and prickly-pear cactus. Junie takes the dry buckwheat leaves and grinds them in her palm. She wants the seeds. When the grain becomes a fine dust, she puts it into a small cotton bag. When they reach camp, she’ll mix it with the flour and cook biscuits. She lets a bald man crush and carry the mustard. They nibble on a few leaves before continuing. What more do you need?

The cactus is harder to get. She doesn’t trust them enough yet. She grabs at the fruit and cuts a few pads with her knife. She stabs the fleshy part and holds it up while she demonstrates how to remove the barbs. No one else wants to try. She takes a dramatic bite. It tastes like a sour green pepper. She slices off a chunk and passes it around.

The sun is directly above them, and she doesn’t want anyone getting heatstroke. They’re too far from the road now. They rest in the shade and she tells them about Robert Owens. Owens was the richest black man in Los Angeles. He made his money providing wood and such to the US Army. They’re close to El Prieto, where he lived. She looks around trying to imagine his world. Was he The Only One?

Junie picks an everlasting flower. The syrupy smell reminds her of her mother. Helichrysum petiolare, she announces to no one, medicinal, drink as a tea to treat asthma and chest problems, the leaves can be applied directly to wounds. They should keep walking if they’re going to reach camp before dark. Junie gathers yucca leaves on the way. She wants to teach them how to make soap.

When she’s not walking, she’s writing her history. She doesn’t want to be forgotten and she doesn’t want to forget. It’s survival of another kind. I Will Survive. She starts to sing. Hush now, child, and don’t you cry / Your folks might understand you by and by / So in the meantime, move on up toward your destination / Though you may find from time to time complications. She likes traditional songs.

One of her followers, a chatty old woman, points out sweet bay. Junie eyes her with curiosity. The woman’s right. That is a bay plant. Smell it. She tells the woman to take a handful. They can make tea from the leaves and roast the nuts. All of this is new growth. Before the epidemic, there was a brush fire. Even now, Junie has to be careful with loose embers. One stray spark, and the whole thing is gone again. It’s fire season, and there’s a drought. It’s not the time to be reckless.

When they get to the stream, Junie takes off her pack and climbs into the water. She lies down on her back and closes her eyes. Her followers stare. They’re gathered around the edge; some sit on rocks. They still look tired, hungry, afraid, but less so. She laughs. They don’t know what to do. It’s so hot, she explains. Her clothes will be dry as soon as they start walking again. She sits up, brings her hands together, and slurps the water. She splashes her face a few times and leans back.

A few of the followers dip their hands in the water too. A few others pour water over their heads. They’re getting comfortable with one another. Suddenly, a woodsman appears in the bush. The group tenses, but Junie smiles. Have you seen any rattlesnakes today? she asks. Nope, not today, he replies. He’s walking the opposite direction.

She sees fresh watercress. It grows in slow-moving water. She cuts a few bunches for them to eat later. She passes a stalk around for everyone to taste. A storehouse of vitamins and minerals, the creeping plant is easy to identify by its pinnately lobed leaf. As they make their way across the stream, Junie slices off a few alder reeds so each of her followers can make a bow drill.

Before they leave the water, Junie passes each apostle a piece of yucca. She shows them how to pull the fibers apart with their fingers. Everyone has to make twine as long as their soon-to-be bow drill. She makes the twine with them, twisting and pulling the fibers into a neat line. They sit, scattered around the water, focused on the task. She notices the pride swelling inside each of them. They doubted themselves. Self-doubt has no place in the wild. She never would’ve lived had she kept that up. She used to search for meaning in her walks. Why was she alive and not the others? Now she believes in the work itself. Her presence is certainty enough.

Once the cords have gotten long enough, she teaches the group another trick. She wets some loose fibers and begins lathering them together. Light, green suds foam between her fingers. It’s soap, she says, everybody try it. Finally they make their way to camp.

They forage curly dock (high in beta-carotene, vitamin C, and zinc), goosefoot (diamond leaves and reddish stalk), black nightshade berries (they look like currants but taste like tomatoes—deadly nightshade berries look exactly the same but will kill you), and dandelion greens (the root can be used as a laxative).

When they get to the campgrounds, they start to build a shelter. They’re a team now. Junie wants them to build a simple lean-to. Earlier she harvested extra yucca rope to keep it together. The structure is low. The ridgepole is waist high, and the walls are three feet thick with wood. It takes two hours, with all of them working full steam. They create a bed of leaves, even though they have sleeping bags and blankets. She wants them to see how it’s done.

After they finish the shelter, they’re ready to eat. How are you going to eat with no fire? she teases. They clear an area for food and dig a fire pit. She shows them how to make the bow with the alder and string, passes out a few mule-fat spindles, and places boards and sockets on the ground for them to practice with. Soon a young naturalist gets an ember. Junie carefully waves a hand over the coal, because breath contains moisture. She deposits the ember into a nest of dried cottonwood bark, softly blowing until the wood catches flame. The group erupts in applause.

They make buckwheat biscuits and cooked greens. She grabs the sausages from her bag. They need protein after the long walk. It’s sunset. The sky is a marvelous dusky pink. They eat and drink wine. They’re friends now, at least for tonight. When the time is right, Junie reads from her notebook. She doesn’t want them to forget. She begins, “In Altadena they have found those qualities that make life worth living … ”

Can You Find Utopia? (Junie’s Notes)

Here they might find the privacy and solitude of the country, which have always been necessities for their work, and at the same time all the conveniences and improvements that a city could yield, without the undesirable phases of city government and taxation. For the children, the best of schools were available and convenient.

The greatest appeal has always been in the beauty abiding here. Every window provides a magnificent view. To the north, the great mountains sweep on. On a clear day they can see south to the ocean and the peaks of Catalina. Everywhere is warm, dry sunshine, the fragrance of innumerable flowers.

Altadena is a place of personal paradise, a little piece of the California dream. The locals feel it is their right, and they guard it jealously. This is not so unusual; doesn’t everyone want this, really? A place of one’s own. To be left alone.

It’s high ground, thirteen miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. The land is arable, a tangle of postwar tract housing mixed with Victorian farmhouses, Craftsman-style bungalows, and once-glorious estates.

Altadena is an unincorporated suburb that sits between wilderness and city. The boulevards are lined in deodars, imported from the Himalayas by banker John Woodbury. Foothills surround the area, swelling in the background of every view. Around dusk the coyotes and mountain lions stalk the neighborhoods, inspiring fear, folklore, and gunshots.

It’s a sensual city.

Negroes have long lived in Altadena.

In the early-morning light, the clear blue skies outlined the dark mountains. Clouds rested on the peaks.

The real world is not this beautiful or tranquil.

When Sidney was hired to star in The Defiant Ones, he and Juanita rented a redbrick house in Altadena.

Robert Owens was a former slave, born in North Carolina, who bought his freedom and arrived in Los Angeles from Texas.

There were perhaps fifty black people in Los Angeles County. Owens quickly carved out a niche for himself supplying wood, building materials, and livery services to the United States Army.

He logged the area that became known as Black Mountain or Nigger Canyon, which branches off the Upper Arroyo Seco to the northeast and becomes part of Millard Canyon, and built himself a cabin there in its upper reaches.

Owens soon earned enough to buy his family back in Texas out of slavery, and his wife and three children joined him in the hills above the future Altadena.

They were enthralled by the beauty of the arroyo and the charm of the house.

It seemed incredible that they could live in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country and be able to walk for ten minutes and see deer running through high green grass.

Years ago there was a news story on this street covering the multicultural residents: Nina was Jamaican, her husband Iranian; Sally’s husband was Hungarian; someone was from England; Maria was Mexican.

Practically all non-Caucasians are west of Lake and east of the arroyo and north of Colorado.

They would welcome neighbors on a personal basis without regard to race, creed, or country of origin.

They felt at home in Altadena.

It was a small town with family-owned restaurants and drugstores, and three local supermarkets.

Their stops at the market or gas station found people friendly and apparently uninterested in their color differences.

An occasional cross burning on the lawn of a new family, along with other less blatant forms of intimidation aimed at keeping blacks out, such as the “gentlemen’s agreements” perpetuated by a majority of realtors, helped to maintain the status quo while delivering the message “You are not welcome here.”

The property was built in 1947. It’s a three-bed, three-bath single-family home, approximately 1,996 square feet on a 6,283-square-foot lot.

The crackerbox has been transformed over the years. First an addition was made, the stucco siding removed; later the house was painted hunter green with a tan trim, and a landscaper added local succulents to complement the Bermuda grass.

The front of the house smiles. The door is bordered by two picture-style windows.

A large Chinese-elm tree overwhelms the front yard. It’s surrounded by decorative stones and may or may not have a face. There is always a car parked beneath it at the curb and another in the driveway.

The living-room walls are painted a tawny amber, a shade called New Mango or Turkish Dusk. The room is crowded with furniture: two credenzas, a side table, a dining table, a bar cart, a china cabinet, a stereo cabinet, a hutch, a chaise lounge, a love seat, a settee, a sectional, an ottoman, a built-in fireplace. On the mantel are figurines, family photos, and bric-a-brac.

Miscellaneous. No Race Restriction. Altadena. Glorious view Flintridge & mountains. 4 bedrooms, 2 baths. Tile roof. 3/4 acre. Fenced landscaped. $30,000 value for $7,500. $1,500 cash. Call Monday.

They stood in silence absorbing the beauty and quiet of the canyon. It was perfect. The next day Barbara called to tell them the owner refused to sell to a Negro.

About this time Mrs. Mabel Brooks of Altadena telephoned the Los Angeles Examiner, requesting to place a classified advertisement in their issue, concerning a house she described to them.

When asked by a representative of the paper what heading she wished the advertisement placed under, Mrs. Brooks instructed them to make a proper one.

Mrs. Brooks was very much incensed at the heading given her advertisement, but nothing could be done against the Examiner.

Certainly the district was unrestricted, and if it were a $30,000 home for $7,500 on easy terms the reader could naturally assume that it would be a splendid location for a Negro doctor, attorney, or what-have-you.

So why not advertise for one?

Mrs. Brooks received replies from Negroes but refused to show the property. Some were a little indignant.

Distrust of authority, and of government, is an Altadena tradition. Its citizens remain libertarian in outlook. They don’t want anyone snooping around their converted garages, regulating domesticated animals, or telling them where to live. The population is heterogeneous (mostly), contentious, and fiercely private. They don’t trust their neighbors either.

There was little sense that the two former Black Panthers were anything other than ordinary men.

Boudreaux, sixty-four, was a regular at Print & Copy in Altadena, where he printed thousands of flyers for political events.

Recently, he had made copies of a pamphlet titled “Torture Methods Similar to Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib Used Against Members of Black Panther Party.”

Altadena has a long history of racial integration and a live-and-let-live attitude.

It also is where former Black Panther and writer Eldridge Cleaver was buried after his death in 1998.

Their politics are still the same. It’s just that they’re not active.

Freedom of thought is so intimately connected with man’s happiness and dignity that it is more important than the preservation of the Constitution.

They all know what happened to the Constitution during the war—it was a scrap of paper, in very truth.

Those who were confident of its guarantees took a great risk when they defied the war hysteria and stood by and for the Constitution and landed in jail.

The very worst war is the war against words, and that is what is happening in California.

If they don’t like our words, why do they not answer with better words instead of clapping us in jail?

They cannot—they know our protests are too real—too true—too fundamental; and by this inhuman, uncivilized treatment they only augment the righteous discontent and add to our numbers.

In Altadena they have found those qualities that make life worth living.

An accompanying soundtrack of utopian/post-apocalyptic funk composed by PPU recording artist Benedek

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