At Year’s End, Life Edges Toward ‘New Normal’

First published in the Dec. 31 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.

Oscar Areliz and Christian Leonard contributed to this report.

Many activities returned in person in 2021. Few returned the same.
The coronavirus pandemic induced a wave of changes — some small, others major — across the United States, California and South Pasadena in 2021. COVID-19, which has killed more than 800,000 U.S. residents, still leered over the resumption of public events, face-to-face classes and crowd-thronged sports games. And with the rise of the virus’ Delta variant, as well as the rapid spread of the new Omicron variant, officials announced additional restrictions and requirements, often centered around the coronavirus vaccines.

But it wasn’t only health orders that reshaped daily life. Other movements, sometimes spurred by inequities and systemic gaps exposed during the pandemic, called for societal reforms both local and national. And with an assault on the U.S. Capitol, continued outcry for racial justice, large-scale labor disputes and warnings from scientists about the effects of climate change, it appeared the “new normal” wouldn’t simply mean seeing more masks.
As the spread of COVID-19 in California declined and vaccinations increased, state officials gradually rolled back many of the restrictions to which residents had grown accustomed. On June 15, Gov. Gavin Newsom — who later soundly defeated a recall attempt — lifted most of the state’s coronavirus-related rules. Customers returned to bars and restaurants, capacity limits gone.

A teacher at Arroyo Vista Elementary School screens a kindergarten student on the first day of in-person classes this school year. When South Pasadena’s elementary schools brought students back to classrooms in February, new measures included mandatory mask use, distanced desks and daily health screenings.

At the start of 2021, the county had confirmed that 853 South Pasadena residents had tested positive for COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic, while nearly 30 had died from the disease. As of the Review’s press deadline this week, the cumulative case count for the city exceeded 2,100, with 49 recorded deaths. (The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health only logs positive test results and does not indicate whether residents have tested positive multiple times.)
Meanwhile, with the yearlong rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, 84.5% of South Pasadena residents aged 5 and older have been fully vaccinated. As of this week, that included 63.8% of children aged 5-11, all children aged 12-17 and 91.9% of those aged 65 and older, according to statistics compiled by the L.A. Department of Health.
In the wake of the winter surge, South Pasadena Unified School District began to resume in-person instruction in a voluntary hybrid system last spring, beginning first with the elementary schools and eventually bringing middle and high school students back. Athletics resumed, with nearly all sports having abridged and often chaotic seasons back-to-back.
For the current school year, SPUSD engineered a successful resumption of in-person instruction and a more typical athletic schedule, with mandatory testing of in-season athletes and masking for indoor sports.
Of course, plenty happened here in South Pasadena outside of the strict context of the coronavirus pandemic. The Review has highlighted some of the more important, meaningful, bittersweet and tragic of those stories here, in no particular order.

Arminé Chaparyan Hired as City Manager

After removing Stephanie DeWolfe as city manager in September 2020, the City Council hired Arminé Chaparyan as the new administrator to lead the city.
Chaparyan, who grew up in Pasadena after she and her family emigrated from Armenia in 1987, was hired in May 2021. She had been an administrator in nearby San Gabriel at the time, and also previously worked for the cities of Santa Clarita and Ontario.
Upon taking the job, Chaparyan has pledged to fill chronic vacancies in City Hall, which had accumulated through attrition or resignations, and rebuild the trust from the city’s residents and business community. Among other initiatives, she had gone through a number of public reviews and evaluations of city functions to improve her comprehension of the city’s various issues.
“There are significant opportunities to look at things holistically,” she told columnist Andy Lippman in August. “I want to build a team and reset things. The No. 1 priority is to get back to the basics of good government. The last 18 months have been hard on the city, and we want to hit the reset button.”
The council hired Chaparyan after rescinding its first offer, to Christopher Jordan, after there was some public backlash regarding the circumstances of his departure from two previous city management gigs.

At Long Last, SPUSD Moves Main Office

Officials with the South Pasadena Unified School District were thrilled to finally cut the ribbon for a new main office this summer. The district agreed to purchase the building at 1100 El Centro St., just across from its longtime location, in January, and later sold 1020 El Centro St. to a developer.

Last year, the South Pasadena Unified School District had identified its new home and reached an agreement to buy it.
They were continually held up, however, by the contract clause that made the transaction official only after the district finalized an agreement to sell its old location. After multiple purchase agreements were started and fizzled out, the school board early this year borrowed the necessary funding and agreed with sellers to pull the trigger on the new purchase regardless, a decision that helped ensure the move would be completed before the next school year.
As luck would have it, the district ultimately secured a buyer for its historic longtime headquarters. Frank Gangi, the Burbank developer who brought Mission Meridian to South Pasadena in 2006, acquired the property for $12.5 million.

City Settles Lawsuit with Vanessa Marquez’s Mother

More than two years after South Pasadena police officers fatally shot actress Vanessa Marquez during a wellness check, the city settled with her mother over a wrongful death lawsuit.
Per the agreement, Marquez’s mother, Delia McElfresh, was paid $450,000, the bulk of which came from the city’s litigation risk pool. She had filed the suit in both the Los Angeles Superior Court and federal court systems last year, after the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office cleared the South Pasadena Police Department of wrongdoing.
Marquez was killed in 2018 after officers and paramedics had responded to her South Pasadena apartment for the wellness check, determined they would take her in on a 72-hour psychiatric hold and retreated when she brandished what was later determined to be a replica BB gun. Two officers took a defensive position and shot her as she descended the stairs when she appeared to point the BB gun toward them, as seen on body camera footage.
The incident has become a signature memorial date in town and has fueled calls for law enforcement reform and improved mental health crisis responses.

MingZhi Zhu Shot, Killed While Driving Uber in L.A.

Tragedy struck in April when a shooting rampage began in downtown Los Angeles, leaving a South Pasadena man dead.
MingZhi Zhu, a 42-year-old Uber driver, was killed by a gunman while waiting at a red light at the intersection of Figueroa Street and 7th Street at around 1:45 a.m. April 27. The shooter had killed and wounded others that night before leading police on a low-speed freeway chase. That pursuit ended when police successfully barricaded the gunman; police ultimately killed the shooter when he took aim at them.
The South Pasadena Police Department and the South Pasadena Chinese American Club both rallied that morning to assist and care for the man’s wife and their two children. A GoFundMe following the tragedy raised more than $280,000 for the family.

Janet Anderson retires after 41 years with SPUSD, 21 at SPHS

Talk about legacy.
Once the senior class vice president at South Pasadena High School, longtime Principal Janet Anderson retired this summer after spending 21 years there. The retirement capped 41 total years with the South Pasadena Unified School District, a career that began when she was called in as a substitute teacher and saw her work a variety of roles at each of the five schools here.
Under her tenure, SPHS implemented swaths of new programming and pedagogy, including contemporary anti-bias training and Stanford University’s famed Challenge Success program. This year, the district also put the finishing touches on various upgrades and improvements to the school’s athletic footprint, and Anderson welcomed her final group of students back to classrooms as the district emerged from coronavirus restrictions.

SPHS Track Captures First-Ever CIF Title

Though there was no state meet in spring 2021, the boys’ track team at South Pasadena High School nevertheless struck gold, bringing home the Tigers’ first CIF-Southern Section Division 3 championship in the sport.
The team finished with the winning 72 points this past spring, bolstered by Dominic Villa’s pole vault victory, Andrew Villapudua’s win in the 3200-meter and Nikolas Iwankiw’s winning shotput throw. Strong finishes in a number of other races and field events propelled the boys to the victory before the last race was over, making South Pasadena the first public school to win the division title since 2012 — when the girls’ team clinched their most recent title.
The previous top finish for the boys’ team was in 1943, when they were runners-up to Glendale High School.

SB 381 Passed, Signed to Offload Caltrans Homes

The major battle was putting a stop to the 710 freeway extension, but there remained a logjam with how Caltrans would dispense of the various properties it bought in South Pasadena to pave way for the tunnel.
The city got strong direction and guidance this year, thanks to SB 381 passing the state legislature and getting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature. The legislation, authored by state Sen. Anthony Portantino, allows South Pasadena to acquire the properties from Caltrans at the initial acquisition price, with a trade-off that they must contribute to affordable housing.
Under the bill, current tenants will get the first crack at acquiring the properties they’re renting, after which cities get a shot at acquiring them at acquisition price. At that point, the city can continue to rent them at affordable rates or develop them into affordable housing. Additionally, historic homes can be sold at market rates, with the proceeds earmarked for affordable housing development.

Suzie Abajian Departs School Board

School board member Suzie Abajian (center) was recognized by colleagues for her achievements and advancements in October, when she resigned after moving out of South Pasadena. Her seat is being filled, for now, by Karissa Adams, and there will be an election in November to fill the last two years of her term.

After handily winning reelection last year, Suzie Abajian resigned from the South Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education after moving outside of South Pasadena.
Much beloved by her colleagues for the classroom experience that informed her policymaking, Abajian’s departure in October was bittersweet for her, as she explained that she moved to be closer to other family members. She was first elected to the school board in 2015.
Among her various policy achievements, Abajian touted her pushes for culturally- and LGBTQ-inclusive curricula, the creation of the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee and for mental health and wellness programming during the onset of the pandemic and the transition to remote instruction.
Karissa Adams was selected to fill Abajian’s seat through November 2022, after which the remaining two years of the term will be filled by election.

Tigers Advance to Football Semifinals in Historic Playoff Run

File photos Players, cheerleaders and fans celebrate in November after the South Pasadena High School football team defeated Upland Western Christian in the quarterfinal matchup, advancing to the playoff semifinals for the first time in decades. Though they were defeated in that game, the Tigers were jubilant about their playoff run this fall.

The varsity football team made sure its first full season since 2019 was one to remember with a postseason run that ended in the CIF-SS Division 13 semifinals, a feat the program had not accomplished since 1976.
The Tigers defeated Temple City and rivals San Marino and La Cañada to earn the third and final playoff berth from the Rio Hondo League. South Pasadena wasn’t ranked among the top 10 at the end of the regular season, but the squad managed to finish among the four best in the division with playoff victories over Anaheim Magnolia and Western Christian of Upland. Montclair ended the Tigers’ impressive run with a thrilling 28-21 victory in the semifinals, denying South Pasadena’s first championship appearance since winning the CIF crown in 1975.
“We beat La Cañada, which is a huge rivalry, and then qualified for CIF and won the first [postseason] home game in over 40 years,” Tigers head coach Jeff Chi said. “I think they accomplished a lot for what they had. We’re never the bigger team; we’re always undersized in comparison to our opponents, but our kids are well coached, well prepared and they’re very gutsy. Collectively, we are better than any individuals.”

Cross-Country Boys, Girls Run at State Meet

Senior cross-country runner Sydney Morrow helped lead the girls’ team to a 10th-place finish for Division 4 in the CIF state meet this season, in which the girls’ earned the state berth for the first ever time. Morrow, who qualified as an individual for state as a sophomore, finished 21st overall in the race.

With the girls’ squad qualifying for the first time, South Pasadena High School cross-country made school history by sending both wings of the team to the state meet in Fresno.
The Tigers achieved the state berth after two competitive weeks of CIF-Southern Section prelims and finals, which saw several runners rebound from the exceptionally hot first race and propel the team to qualifying finishes in the more temperate second race.
Senior Sydney Morrow — who as a sophomore individually qualified for the state meet — finished 21st overall in the Division 4 race in Fresno, helping lead the girls to a 10th-place finish. For the boys, senior Liam de Villa finished competitively at 57th overall and led a boys’ squad to a 22nd-place finish in its fourth-ever state appearance.
Head coach Mike Parkinson aims to continue the team’s success next year with a talented crop of younger runners and coach this year’s seniors one last time when track season commences in the spring.