Amid prosperity, concern for poor

Well-being: The haves, in growing ranks, worry little about the nation's leaders but a little more about the have-nots.

July 16, 2000|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SOUTH PASADENA, Calif. - People are content here, in this town with its one high school, its one library and its one-chair barber shop. And why shouldn't they be? Stepping onto the main drag of Mission Street is like traveling back in time to a lost vision of small-town America.

You can sip coffee at a friendly hangout called Buster's, or tuck into a sundae at the marble countertop of Fair Oaks Pharmacy and Soda Fountain. The public schools work. Crime doesn't pay. Houses are pretty, and sidewalks are shaded. The neighbors know you by name.

There is a modern twist, too, found in the faces that greet you in the street - growing numbers of Asians and Latinos among a shrinking white majority.

Demographically speaking, the town offers glimpses into America's future even as its streets hark back to the past. And with a bounty of prosperity, residents have adapted easily to the new blend.

"We're the fortunate ones," agrees Margaret Roco, 67, as she sits at an outdoor table at Buster's. She has lived here since 1974.

"You hear the expression, `It could be better,'" adds her husband, Jose Roco, a native of the Philippines. "But better what? I'm happy right now with the way things are going."

This sense of well-being lasts only as long as it takes to drive the 10 miles into central Los Angeles. Not far beyond South Pasadena's island of tranquility is a sea of metropolitan chaos, overcrowded neighborhoods where the new demographics also prevail but things seem only to be getting worse.

"There are a lot of people who are homeless, poor" in Los Angeles, Margaret Roco says. "When I was young, we didn't have so many homeless.

"People struggled, but there wasn't such a wide range between rich and poor. I don't really know the solution, but there has to be some kind of better way."

Such is the dilemma of the good life here.

With the nation at peace and no upheaval on the horizon, times are better than ever, but only if you can afford the price of admission - a two-bedroom house here can easily set you back $350,000.

And with the nation's agenda being set by a government perceived as ever more timid and remote, few people here believe that any of the have-nots will be working their way up to this neighborhood anytime soon.

Throw in an undercurrent of anxiety over declining morals and civility, and South Pasadena is right in line with themes that have become common nationwide, based on a series of election year conversations with people across America, a nation in the midst of the longest peacetime economic expansion in its history.

From the boomtown buzz of Wall Street to a new high-tech town in the agrarian South, those who have prospered have begun worrying about those who haven't, some out of compassion, others out of fear.

Poised to elect the first new government of the millennium, they have little confidence that their choices in November will make much difference.

And, in the way of other generations, many yearn for a past in which everyone seemed to behave better.

"I have felt that as a nation that we are a rudderless ship," says Barry Martin, a bookseller who owns Book'em Mysteries on picturesque Mission Street.

"All of the euphoria over the good economy has distracted us from how bankrupt we are from the standpoint of strong leadership. ... It's all about telegenics today. It's all about not offending anybody. We're over-spun and over-researched. There is no glue to bind us together as a people in a nation with greater diversity than any time since its founding."

But make no mistake. The economic euphoria is genuine in a place like this. People are indeed doing well and pleased about it.

"We recently bought a home, and I'm very happy about that," says David Perez, 34, who drives a truck for the city of Los Angeles. "I'm the first in my family to buy a house.

"We always rented, but just a couple of years into our marriage and we own a home."

"I think there's an idea of optimism that's very comforting," says his wife, Lorry, 30, a city administrator in Los Angeles.

If all goes well, David Perez figures to retire in a few years to start his own business restoring vintage cars, currently his hobby.

The Perezes are in an idyllic setting for discussing such dreams. On a weekday evening they stroll the edges of South Pasadena's once-monthly farmer's market.

It takes up a block, and amid the sort of fruit and vegetable stands one finds anywhere are several California flourishes - a baker touting his "sugar-free, fat-free, yeast-free" bread; a peddler of wheat grass juice, squeezing it on the spot; a booth offering gardeners "natural pest control" in $4 canisters teeming with ladybugs.

A musician plays a steel drum version of "America the Beautiful." The weather is a cloudless 75 degrees. The only blemish is a sign reminding everyone in big red letters, "NO DOGS Allowed. California Health Code Article 15, Section 114350(d)."

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