SGV Connect 106: Chris Greenspon Interviews John Axtell
JA: I'm Jon Axtell, I'm a local Monrovia born SGV person; live closer to LA right now, but spend a great amount of my time here. CG: And do you prefer to be called a zine maker or zinester? JA: I think zine maker. Zinester makes me feel like I'm a comic book person or something. Not to say anything against comic people, but I think a lot of my work I'm trying to gear towards the more literary aspect of zines. CG: So why did you make a more literary leaning SGV zine? JA: I felt that growing up here, I didn't have a lot to read that was about the history of the SGV, about perspectives that other people had with their experience in SGV. And I think a lot has changed since I was a kid and I've found other writers along the way, but I felt like it was something that I wanted to write about and that there were a number of new friends that wanted to do that too. And so during the pandemic, a few of us joined together to make this zine. CG: Cool. So did you have a sense coming up that there was an SGV identity in a similar way, that there's a tangible Orange County identity, IE identity, and gigantic, nebulous LA identity? JA: That's a good question. I think it wasn't apparent to me when I was in it. It was only apparent when I left it and when I got further away from it, and I would say even more so when I came back to it. I understood a little better its place in the various identities of regional Los Angeles and LA County. CG: Take a stab at it. What is it? What does it seem to be to you ? And what were the culture shocks that made you realize I'm in a place that isn't like where I'm from? JA: Yeah, I would say one of the biggest, the first big culture shock for me was in school growing up, you know, there's this interesting phenomenon that others write about, much better than I do, about the idea of in such a diverse racial, regional zone, that white people are the minority in certain places in LA. And so growing up I was kind of the token white guy in my friend group. You know, it was my friends were Mexican and black and Korean and Taiwanese and Filipino, and I was the one white guy and, you know, I'm not in any way saying that I was marginalized, of course, but-- CG: I thought you were gonna say I'm not in any way saying that makes me cool. JA: Haha. It definitely didn't make me cool back in those days. But what it did give me a sense of was just, you know, understanding my worldview through the lens of those friends, and so in college and in other environments after college when I was around white people, that was a culture shock for me, like being immersed in white culture... Of course, I was in a white family system, but everything outside the walls of our home, you know, was a very diverse regional environment. And I think that's one of the things that coming back to the San Gabriel Valley, I really do value about this place that it's a place where so many different people from all over the country, all over the world, no matter their race and background, have made it their home, and have made it not just a home where they are trying to survive, but for many of them a place where they've thrived and were able to build communities of mutual support and to make those cities their own. And so I really value that looking back at it in retrospect and being able to come back to the San Gabriel Valley, you know, very frequently and be reminded of what a community like that looks like. CG: We're at Peck Road Water Conservation Park right now, which is a wonderful place. Having lived in other places -- some of them more supposedly picturesque -- what do you like about the landscape here, and what sucks about the landscape here? JA: I think this area growing up felt so harsh. It was industrial. It was there's a plane going over. I'll pause for a second. CG: Oh don't, no need, I've recorded enough interviews in this area to just learn to live with it. JA: Yeah. But getting back to the landscape. I think growing up here I really resented the landscape a lot, you know, the large gravel pits, passing by the big Miller Brewing sign. It felt kind of like an apocalyptic wasteland as a child. CG: Still does! JA: And it still does. But I think what I discovered over time was that it's a place where great beauty is found amongst all of that in these really special locations like this place, and that it's a place that has a lot of possibility to turn... You know, what we're staring out on used to be a massive gravel pit, you know, where people around that pit in the community are breathing in, you know, the dusty air and it was affecting their health and now to look out on this you know, beautiful lake and new vegetation growing, and trees around us, birds, you know, flocking to this location... It's a reminder to me of the will of the human spirit to be able to take these places that yes, we damaged but that we can reclaim and make beautiful once again, and make them places that allow for our communities to live and be with one another, find commune and connection with nature. And so that gives me a lot of hope. And I think that's one of the things that we'll probably see a lot more of in the San Gabriel Valley, and I'm inspired by it now in in a new way in which I wasn't when I was a kid. CG: Yeah, we're standing out in the middle of not sure what you call this kind of land formation where it's, you know, like a little podium or natural pier sticking out into the water... we're standing on a beautiful mini hill looking at at this manmade pond... And is this what you were going for with your zine? JA: I think yeah, there was capturing a little bit of this, the places that made us comfortable and and that we found solace in. I didn't write about Peck Road Park and actually, you know, on our SGV Zine account, we've been doing some local stories, and there's someone right now, working on a really beautiful piece on this area. She grew up right across the street from the Peck Road Park. So she's going to talk about some of the history and and her experiences there. But for me, it's places like this that really have brought me alive in this area. Santa Fe Dam too you know, that's a place that I've come back to and really found a deep love for and enjoy biking around there, and biking around the greater South Monrovia area, because so much of this landscape there are these respites among all of the you know, industrial harshness. CG: In the zine, were you and your contributors brushing back against any of the suburban norms or malaise of general feelings of the area? JA: I think so. I think that it can be hard to feel inspired as an artist or musician or creative person in the SGV. One of the things that I felt when I was a kid was that there just wasn't a lot going on in that world and I think later in the 2000s, there was a pretty robust DIY music scene that popped up here, but I missed a lot of that. And it's been interesting to see this last wave of the last 20 years, the musicians that have come out of here the people that have been inspired by the surroundings. I think it's still very difficult to be an alternative person in the San Gabriel Valley when it comes down to it. A lot of our surroundings still have remnants of, you know-- CG: Colonialism. JA: Colonialism. But also Judeo Christian, you know, very traditional Judeo Christian community. A church on every corner and, you know, obviously, a church for everyone and every ethnicity, every race... but it's a place that, traditionally is a very spiritual place. I mean, the greater Los Angeles area, of course, has always been a hotbed of belief and spiritual community. And so, I'm very interested in the ways that people are starting to create that community in other ways for you know, people that grew up here and maybe don't have those beliefs anymore. For people that are moving here from other places and maybe abandoned that belief or never had it. The region is geographically spread out and sparse. And so how do you build community in places like this? And I think we are seeing denser areas, you know, that where you're starting to get the feeling of smaller town, dense suburbia, but we're still really long ways from that. I think a lot of people travel pretty far distances to you know, conduct their weekly activities. CG: Having moved around, does this feel like the place with the quote unquote, "real LA" people, even though a large number of people here are first and second generation immigrants? JA: It does, it feels like most, like even generational families that live in Boyle or East LA have strong connections to the SGV or, you know, some of their family has migrated out here or their, you know, cousins or uncles live in the SGV. And so, it does feel like it's a place where generational citizens of Los Angeles at least in one point in their life end up living. And especially nowadays, when it's getting so expensive in LA proper, I think the SGV makes a lot of sense for people to stay there rather than trying to move into those really expensive and dense places. CG: Tell me about a piece in the zine that you're really stoked on. Not one of yours. JA: Yeah, I think one of the, I mean, all of them are so good. I'm just got some good background mood noises here. CG: Yeah, well go off. JA: Yeah. So I think one of the most exciting pieces was about the Whittier Narrows. And that piece written by Albert Ortega, actually, I need to look that up. CG: It is. JA: Oh, amazing. Yeah, so the piece about the Whittier Narrows by Albert Ortega was a piece that I just loved so much. I think the way that Albert weaved together his experience as a child there and you know what he saw in that place... You have a lot of people bring their lowriders over there, having family parties and stuff, but I thought it was just really amazing to hear Albert talk about that place from the natural lens. He kind of gives you a tour of the park and tells you about the flora and fauna and natural habitats and wildlife. And that was really inspiring to me to hear him talk about that. And it was a place that honestly was not a part of my upbringing. And so, in my mind, you know, allowed me to ground what that place is and what it exists to be to certain people in the San Gabriel Valley. So that was an exciting one. CG: So what to you are the iconic streets of the SGV? JA: Hmm. Well, you're Yeah, you're asking... someone who may be... CG: Oh, we're going for subjectivity here. JA: Yeah. I think the most iconic streets to me are Arrow Highway, of course, just in terms of being able to take in like a completely historic, you know, frozen in time sort of area. All of the amazing dive bars that exist there with really good signs. CG: You can cross pretty much the entire Valley on Arrow. You can go from Pomona to, well turns into Live Oak, but does live oak run all the way to Alhambra? JA: It must run at least into Monterey Park. Yeah. But yeah, I mean, it's, it's somewhat off the beaten path. You know, if you're really trying to get from point A to point B, but I think for those that actually live especially in the you know, southern part of Monrovia or southern part of Arcadia or Temple City, it's, it's an iconic location. I think. Another place I was gonna say is Azusa, the downtown Azusa. I love that area like going over the La Tolteca, and, you know, sitting in that spot like I have a decade's worth of memories in that zone over there. It is typically very busy, but their chips and salsa are like my favorite chips and salsa and SGV which is going to be heresy for so many other people. I'm sure they have a million places that they like more. CG: Any the other streets you want to shout out? JA: I also want to shout out Brisbane Street which is where I grew up in South Monrovia very iconic in my life. I spent many... I once spent I think it was three months, the county took forever to dig up some sewage pipes on our street and so I have these vivid memories of three or four months where we were basically dirt boarding on huge mounds of dirt on Brisbane Street. And yeah, it's it's it's a vibe over there. CG: So what's on the horizon for SGV 626 Zine? JA: Yeah, I think what I'm really excited about right now is continuing to expand the number of stories that can come out of this area. And you know, I'm doing this completely just out of my love and interest for that. And so what I've started focusing on right now is turning our Instagram account into kind of a living, breathing zine. A place where people can share their art and stories and photos and kind of create a sense of rooting and identity. And I think there are of course are many people that have a sense of their identity, but I'd like I'd love to document that and be able to support a platform for people to do that. So we hope to tell the stories digitally and maybe we'll do another zine at some point. The zine that we produced is supporting Matalija, who you've covered a local lending library in El Monte. And I'd love for it to be something that we do periodically to support local community organizations that are doing really great grassroots work, and have it be kind of a fundraiser supporting them. So we'll see, we'd love to do it quarterly but right now it's seeming like maybe it's an annual thing. But in between, I'm hoping we can continue to just share more art, share more stories, share more history about the area and collaborate with people like you that are doing that too and support your work. CG: I love hearing that. Jon Axtell thank you so much for coming on SGV Connect. JA: Yeah, it was great to take a walk around Peck Road Park with you.