Being originally from Los Angeles, I come back during the holidays like millions of Americans this season. Each time I am back, I see something a little different: a new development, a stripmall more worn down, new bus stops, wayfinding signs, etc. While at times the feeling is bittersweet, it is also interesting to note the changes in trends and urban morphology of a place I still call home.
As I write this, I am sitting in a rather hip cafe with a demographic of high school students to people in their mid to late twenties. I have seen this cafe before, going to various renovations to what it is now, and even the businesses in here before it (at one point, it was a video game cafe – serving overpriced drinks with couches and game consoles.) There have been waves of trends in the area. At one point the shops along Main Street in Alhambra catered to more family and communal activities, such as places to run errands or have large dinners. It has since shifted to include gift items, boba shops, an art store, and presently, very trendy retail and artisan shaved ice. I remember when I was younger that many of the stores here were not meant for me, but with time, more shops caught my interest. This is not a remark on gentrification, but on the demographic shifts of the local population – youth to young professionals, Asian or Hispanic or Latino focused, more restaurants and bars than I remember was present.
Aside from the vendors, the physical space has changed. I have seen a theater torn down and become a multi-store office building. Happily, buildings with Main Street frontage are denser and higher, and the sidewalks, while narrow, have some exemplary streetscaping. There are less and less parking lots in front of stores (not to say that have completely disappeared, just not visible.) There is more of a common architectural language now, and seeing the snapshot of evolving history is quite beautiful.
Yet it is also funny to reflect back on where you grew up, and attach nostalgia to it. I recognize that Main Street Alhambra is still better on many fronts – more cohesive, more safe, more “updated,” but part of me still yearns for the awkwardness what was before – when less polished places directly correlated with more character, when you are exposed to bouts of awkwardness when a bar is adjacent to a coffee shop high school students study in. It was not as clean or organized, but it was raw – and lessons were learned in the process of mixing.
This article is written more of an op-ed reflection, rather than an argument for one or the other, when when planners, developers, and designers come in to promote the vitality and viability of a place, these rosy memories of rough ends, akin to proud stories of walking through the snow up-hill bothways to get to school, come out. It’s a fear of losing nostalgia and memory, and while the urban pattern will always be changing, reflective of current demographic and market demands, something new has to replace something old.