Though Pasadena claims to value honesty, integrity, and accountability, one author challenges the seemingly utopic history of the city through his debut fiction novel “Arroyo.”
Pasadena-born Chip Jacobs has spent the last three years studying the idiosyncrasies of the Colorado Street Bridge. While history books portray the bridge as a beacon of Pasadena’s withstanding financial and industrial success, Jacobs has uncovered gruesome truths about the structure locally dubbed, “Suicide Bridge.”
“Pasadena is a beautiful place, but it’s not perfect. No place is perfect that’s made by man,” Jacobs says, adding, “there’s a lot of coffee table books about Pasadena and about our history, and they’re great, but they don’t seem to capture human suffering, drama, and confusion—all things that build a city.”
Having worked in journalism for seven years, Jacobs found the industry was tailor- made for him because of his “curious” and “annoying” personality that made getting to the bottom of stories exhilarating.
There was one story, however, that changed Jacobs’ trajectory in the field of writing.
Jacobs published an article in Pasadena Weekly about a very obscure accident that befell the Colorado Street Bridge in the midst of construction. The catastrophe killed several construction workers, but the brilliance of the bridge shadowed over the lives sacrificed to erect it.
“It really bothered me that these men who died in this dramatic collapse had been forgotten, kind of brushed aside by history; swept over by the glory of this bridge and what it meant for the history of the city,” Jacobs says.
Not long after the story was published, Jacobs began receiving very passionate responses from the community. Some of the letters and emails believed the piece to be distasteful, but others highlighted their appreciation for the truth of what happened to the men killed while building the bridge.
“When you live in Pasadena you’re always connected with that bridge because you drive over it, you know somebody that has gone for a walk or a jog on it and has seen a dead body at the bottom. You’re inundated with lithograph paintings of the bridge in art galleries and in organizational literature. You’re absolutely dazzled by the aesthetics of it,” Jacobs says, adding, “you’re either someone who views it as a symbol of how far the city has come, or how far we have to go.”
Jacobs’ resume includes two nonfiction novels published. “Strange as It Seems: The Impossible Life of Gordon Zahler,” a story about a maternal uncle whom he couldn’t stand, but turned out the be the most astonishing man he’d ever met; and “Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Pollution in Los Angeles,” which offers a social—not technical—history of the smog crisis.
Jacobs says he had “all the ingredients to write a fiction novel”—a book-publishing history, a natural curiosity for the world, the ability to dig for the truth and a passion for writing.
“I had so many people tell me ‘with your smart-ass personality and imagination, you really should be going into fiction.’ So I did,” Jacobs says.
“Being a journalist, you’re capturing history on the fly, but I wanted to capture the drama on a deeper spectrum and of course do it with my own sort of flare,” Jacobs says.
And so, “Arroyo,” the novel, was born.
The hilariously grim story embarks readers on a journey through the lens of a young inventor and his dog, inspired by his beloved dog Auggie, in both 1913 and 1993 Pasadena.
Though the inventor was once the “biggest homer, all-American Pasadena boy possible,” in his second life he will discover his purpose as a whistleblower reincarnated to bring truth to the dark past of the bridge as it celebrates its 80 years.
As the inventor discovers the purpose of his second life with the help of his dog, the story walks the audience through the contrasting ideologies of history and myth, progress and vanity, even the contrasting approaches to various obstacles by dog and man.
“Teddy Roosevelt once famously said, not all movement is necessarily progress,’ and I think that does apply to this bridge at this point in our city’s history,” Jacobs says.
Although there are elements to the story that rings true of fiction, like the dialogue, Jacobs says it was extremely important to him that he reflects the information on the bridge accurately when writing the book.
He also insisted on keeping true to the area’s personalities, including hints of a local business owner’s voice, and a pharmacist who recorded the bridge’s history from his perspective as it was under construction. He says both accurately portray the shared feelings of hesitation and excitement for the area’s future.
The book seamlessly alludes to both an epoch of doll-style dresses and ice cream parlor and another era filled with technology and “Seinfeld;” however, while writing the book, Jacobs says switching between two worlds wasn’t effortless.
“Going from a journalist to being a nonfiction author to a novelist wasn’t always easy. I ripped up and threw away thousands of pages. I burned through printer ink like crazy. I got a hand injury from backspacing so much. I was so paranoid about digging in and touching down on that blank page—problems I never had when I was writing nonfiction. I mean it was grabbing me around the throat,” Jacobs says.
Jacobs’ father also died while writing the book, which sent him “sideways.” Beyond the shock of losing a loved one, the conflicted author was writing about a 1913 falsely utopic Pasadena world while in modern-day Pasadena as his world went dark and his family mourned.
“I was split down the middle of these worlds, but that helped me relate to this character even more than I already had because he’s doing the same thing. He’s trying to figure out who he is in this world of confusion and chaos,” Jacobs says.
Jacobs hopes “Arroyo” brings as much clarity and reflection on life and history while looking toward the future to readers as writing the novel did to him.
Jacobs says he believes past decisions affect Pasadena today and hopes readers can learn lessons that carry into their choices.
“Be careful about your secrets and machinations because they might just ricochet back at you in unintended ways,” Jacobs says.