‘Better Together – Six Feet Apart’ This 4th of July | Finding Unity During an Unparalleled Independence Day

Festive artwork lines Mission Street and Fair Oaks Avenue and the city has added a few picnic tables to the grass area next to the Ironworks Museum, or the site of the weekly farmer’s market, for afternoon and evening dining on the national holiday

South Pasadenans will not celebrate America’s birthday in the traditional sense with an old-fashioned pancake breakfast, homegrown parade or patriotic fireworks show this year, but in a COVID-19 world where cases continue to increase in some parts, especially Los Angeles County, local officials are urging residents to stay at a safe distance and honor the city’s Independence Day theme – “Better Together – Six Feet Apart.”

Word from city officials is “We’ll get through this,” as the disruption to the usual activities only means that something new is on the horizon in 2020. “We encourage the community to support their local businesses by shopping and having lunch or dinner out (in a safe manner),” said Sheila Pautsch, South Pasadena’s community services director, noting that the city has added a few picnic tables to the grass area next to the Meridian Ironworks Museum, or the site of the weekly farmer’s market, for afternoon and evening dining.

The usual Festival of Balloons has been replaced by the Festival of Art – at least for this year.

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Pautsch points out, the Chamber of Commerce and South Pasadena Arts Council (SPARC) have commissioned local artists to paint windows of businesses with colorful and creative displays. Families have showcased artwork along Mission Street and Fair Oaks Avenue and Transition South Pasadena, a movement that focuses on building community through environmental and sustainability projects, added handmade banners while contributing significantly to the city’s small town feel.

“To say the Fourth is be the same would be an understatement,” Pautsch said, yet knows the spirit of South Pasadena’s ‘can do’ attitude. “We as a community need to make sure during these uncertain times to have fun and be safe and know that next year the Fourth of July celebrations will be back.”

A tradition since 1982, the day as everyone knows it, starting with a pancake breakfast at the South Pasadena fire station, opening ceremonies on the footsteps of the library community room, parade in front of thousands down Mission Street, and a lively fireworks show inside the local high school stadium, came to an abrupt halt this year due to the coronavirus, its death rate mounting at more than 130,000 in the United States and in excess of half a million around the globe.

“This time of year is normally busy with local organizations and residents preparing a float, routine, banners and posters to display during the Festival of Balloons parade,” said Pautsch. “It is an exciting time for our community.”

South Pasadena Mayor Robert Joe would like community members to “remember the Festival of Balloons and all the great times we have had celebrating it over the last 38 years,” he said. “Due to these unprecedented times, we will not be able to conduct our community’s celebration as traditionally done. However, in lieu of celebrating this year’s Festival of Balloons, we will be celebrating the Festival of Art. Through this Festival, we hope to demonstrate the pride of our residents. I would like to recognize our Community Services Department for putting this festival together, and assuring our community a celebration despite these difficult times.”

With the arrival of Independence Day, Joe would also like “to take a moment to remind our community of the freedoms we have and especially during these unprecedented times, this is now more meaningful than ever,” he said. “We, as a community, have shown resiliency and that will always be one of the best attributes our community has.”

Steve and Jamie Inzunza, owners of Mamma’s Brick Oven Pizza & Pasta in the 1000 block of Fair Oaks Avenue, are saddened on many levels to learn of the cancelation of the South Pasadena’s Fourth of July festivities. “Often, traditions are the fabric that holds the community together, and this one goes back almost 40 years,” said Steve. “If it happens to rain that day it will feel like tears from Ted Shaw and Dave Margrave, the civic leaders who spearheaded the (original) events (when it all began). Currently, we are challenged. However, America has always thrived on adversity. The baton has been passed from prior generations, and I think this year’s theme reflects a great spirit. There is nothing we cannot do if we work together.”

He likes the phrase “South Pas Strong” when describing the city’s determination, perseverance and resolve in fighting through the tough times, turning a difficult situation – an experience no one wanted – into something positive.

For Geoff Yantz, the superintendent of public schools in South Pasadena, “these midsummer celebrations are about family and being thankful for the freedoms we all enjoy,” he said. “I really appreciate the July 4th festivities in South Pasadena and will especially miss being a part of the parade. It’s fantastic to see so many families come together and line the streets to celebrate Independence Day. 2020 is all about new traditions, and while they are different from what we are accustomed to, many of these new activities are enjoyable in their own ways especially if we try not to compare them to what has been done in the past. This year, I am planning to take a short road trip to San Diego to celebrate with my wife and three kids. We’ll visit the beaches (if they are open), take some early morning walks, barbecue in the afternoon and play board games together.”

He often says that for SPUSD administrators, faculty and staff, “2020 seems like the year without a summer. Everyone is working so hard to plan the safest, smartest reopening possible, if public health guidelines allow us to do so. Taking a few days of rest now, helps to ensure that we come back refreshed and ready to tackle a jam-packed July and August. I am grateful that we have such a committed team working on creative solutions for the students of South Pasadena.”

Janet Anderson, principal of South Pasadena High, weighed in with her thoughts regarding the national holiday. “Although the need to physically distance will certainly alter people’s plans for public Fourth of July reverie and may also limit family gatherings beyond the immediate family, I see possibility in this year’s observance,” she said.  “COVID-19 has inadvertently given us the gift of time for reflection.  In the absence of fireworks and pageantry, I hope that this Independence Day, families will use the occasion to have meaningful conversations about what is truly meant by “liberty and justice for all,” and the notion of equality.  This is actually a perfect time to dig deep into our belief systems and determine how we can make changes that honor all people.  Hopefully, this year we can identify our values, learn how to have important conversations, and then plan for some actionable steps to make our quest for peace and equality a reality.”

Mayor Prom Tem Diana Mahmud acknowledged, “It’s particularly disappointing that the pandemic has forced cancellation of all our Independence Day events this year,” she said.  “I believe our residents have considerable angst over the pandemic’s disruption to their everyday lives and its uncertain effect on not only our health but our future.  This, combined with the tragic death of George Floyd and the renewed focus it has brought to the issues of systemic racism and income inequality is deeply unsettling to all of us.  It would have been terrific to have the opportunity to come together as a community for the day.”  

Three out of four members of Mahmud’s immediate family are considered at high risk of contracting COVID-19 so the mayor pro tem, in line to become South Pasadena’s next mayor in December, will likely observe the day quietly, “taking time out at some point to stroll past the holiday artwork created by our residents,” she noted.  “And I’ll try to take some time to reflect upon the meaning of the day, especially in today’s context.”

Mahmud sits on the council with Dr. Marina Khubesrian, who plans to celebrate by wearing red, white and blue and also going for a stroll along Mission and Fair Oaks with [her husband] Mark and hopefully one or both of their children.

“I am glad that our community has joined together to have a Festival of Arts,” she said. “The chamber and Festival of Balloons Committee were joined by SPARC and Transition South Pasadena to have a more sustainable theme that did not involve balloons this year. I’m looking forward to seeing the special shop window displays by local businesses; the original window paintings by local artists and student artists coordinated by SPARC; the strings of hand sewn banner decorations by Transition South Pasadena, posters created by local residents along Fair Oaks and Mission.”

Like others, she likes the theme – “Better Together – Six feet Apart. “I’m hoping to see some neighbors and friends and wave hello from a distance,” continued the good-natured councilmember. “After strolling and some shopping, we are going to grill up some corn, veggies, hotdogs and veggiedogs and have a picnic in the yard. We will likely do Zoom calls with family and friends later in the day.

For Albert Ocon, president of the South Pasadena Little League, the Festival of Balloons is really South Pasadena’s moment of celebration and the best way to bring in new people to the community. “From the amazing Kiwanis’s breakfast at our firehouse to the fireworks it is a day of celebration with and within our community,” he enthused. “Our children were in strollers when we participated in the parade with the library book club, then through various activities and organizations.”

With his involvement in Little League “it was the perfect time to show off our newly won championship banners and enjoy a minute of fun and community before the all-star tournaments really heat up,” he explained.  “It often feels like a send off to tournament play, with the support of the community on full display the kids walk down the street celebrating their accomplishments or just proud participation. We will miss it terribly this year, but are hopeful that next year it will be back stronger than ever. Happy 4th of July South Pasadena!”

Although celebrating the 4th of July in 2020 won’t be the same, July 4th reminds South Pasadena Police Chief Joe Ortiz of its real importance. “On this day, our nation celebrates the birth of the United States of America as an independent nation,” he said proudly. “Amidst the current challenges and pandemic of this world, we really do live in a great country. With the Safer at Home guidelines, I often drive through our neighborhoods and have seen things I haven’t seen since the 1970s.  Parents are spending more time with their children, playing out in front of their homes, going for walks, bike rides, and reacquainting themselves as a family unit.”

In a way, Ortiz calls it “a blessing” to see. “Folks turning lemons into lemonade is just how we do things in South Pas,” he said with a smile.

During these unprecedented times, Ortiz finds himself spending more time with his wife of 30 years. “The bride and I go for walks, cook and eat more meals together and find ourselves going on long drives again, just like the old days,” he said. “This year, the bride and I will celebrate the 4th of July with a stroll along Mission and Fair Oaks to experience what the Festival of Arts has put together, maybe grab a bite to eat in the downtown area and find time to be grateful for all that we have.”

SPARC Founder Lissa Reynolds, without the fanfare of the parade and fireworks show, “will order food to go from Fiore Market Cafe, and hopefully our son will visit for a distancing picnic in our driveway!” she quipped. “We will probably watch an old movie with our dog Chester beside us (Chester is thrilled having us around all the time!).  I love holidays even during the coronavirus because I don’t do any meetings on Zoom that day and try not to answer my phone or look at email! These days I go out on our balcony to watch the sunset each evening and latter at night watch the stars. The upside of staying at home is having so much time to be with my husband James, it’s quite nice.”

Like others in town, Reynolds and her husband will also drive along Mission Street to take a look at the SPARC Art Windows.

The chamber, SPARC, Transition South Pasadena and the Festival of Balloons Committee have gone the extra mile to give the city streets a colorful splash while encouraging residents to patronize stores that have reopened – at a careful distance, that is.

“It’s been a challenging few months for everyone, and now it’s time to have some fun in our community,” said Laurie Wheeler, president/CEO of the South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce. “If you haven’t strolled through South Pasadena lately, the July 4 weekend is the perfect time to come out with the family to enjoy food from your favorite restaurants and shop local.”