Mayor Terry Tornek (photo: Aram Arkun)

Pasadena Mayor Tornek Gives His Take on the Armenians of the City of Roses


PASADENA, Calif. – Pasadena has a substantial Armenian population, though not nearly as large as that of neighboring Glendale. Mayor Terry Eliot Tornek noted that both individual Armenians as well as Armenian organizations are very active in the life of the city. Armenians, he said, “are very well represented in commissions and organizations,” and have a significant impact in terms of the welfare of the city.

Tornek, born in New York City in 1945, graduated Princeton University, and obtained a master’s degree from Columbia University in urban planning. He worked as an urban renewal representative in New York City with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development from 1968 to 1969, but moved to Massachusetts in the 1970s. He worked as Planning Director of Springfield, Mass., and served as a member of the Springfield City Council. In 1982 he moved to Pasadena to become the city’s Planning Director and helped establish the redevelopment plan for Old Pasadena.

Tornek has worked for over three decades in real estate, and is a founding partner of Hudson Properties, LLC. Before this, he served for over a decade as Executive Vice President at HASEKO, Inc. While working in business, he served twenty years as a board member of the nonprofit Pasadena Neighborhood Housing Services, and in 2005 was appointed to the Pasadena Planning Commission. He also served on the Design Commission.

He reentered politics with his election to City Council to represent District 7 in 2009, was reelected in 2013, and was elected mayor in 2015. In Pasadena, mayoral elections are direct now for four-year terms, with seven city council members serving along with the mayor. Tornek at the same time serves as chairman of the Pasadena Finance Committee, a member of the Municipal Services and Legislative Policy Committees, the City Council appointee to the Fire and Police Retirement Board, Pasadena’s representative to the San Gabriel Valley Council of Governments, and is president of the Burbank Airport Authority.

Tornek said, “My focus has been on the financial well-being of the city. I am a business person and a city planner by training.” He said that he appointed himself chairman of the Finance Committee. “I have been very concerned about expenses outstripping revenues, which is why I suggested we increase the sales tax as in Glendale and Burbank. It passed here by a wider margin. We are giving a third to the school district. I felt we had to do this to maintain the level of services that we have and take care of some of the deferred infrastructure issues that we have,” he said. He declared that 14 million dollars will be raised for the city and 7 million for the school district.

Aside from working on affordable housing, Tornek said that he is very much interested in the future of the Arroyo Seco Park, the biggest park in Pasadena, and so has begun an initiative relating to its improvement.

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Tornek said that some Armenians think that they form 15 to 20 percent of Pasadena’s overall population, but he said he thought that figure to be too high. However, he says that though there is a fair number of Armenians in Pasadena, “I have no idea what the population is. I don’t have a viable way to define and measure it. I don’t venture guesses.”

The problem is that there is no complete census survey of Armenians there. A study commissioned by the Pasadena Board of Directors in 1989 placed the Armenian population at 6,850. This was when the new wave of emigration from Soviet Armenia/the Republic of Armenia was starting to snowball.

According to the US Census Bureau’s 2015 American Community Survey 5 year estimate, 140,268 people live in Pasadena, among whom there are 4,245 speakers of Armenian. This of course does not include Armenians who do not speak Armenian (or who have not reported that they speak Armenian). Consequently, logic would imply that the total number must be much larger.

Pasadena City Manager Steve Mermell also recently admitted that there is a need for up-to-date statistics on the numbers of Armenians, who may have increased due to immigration (

There is no Armenian city council member at present but William Mihrtad Paparian was a member from 1987 to 1999 and served as city mayor from 1995 to 1997.

Pasadena City Hall

The US government does not grant Armenians any special status for affirmative action type programs. However, in 1985, the city designated Armenians a “protected class,” along with blacks, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans, and it does track Armenian numbers in city employment. In 2017 Armenians formed 2.3 percent of the city’s workforce, which would be less than their percentage of the city population even if a lowball estimate of 5,000 is accepted.

Tornek said that the Armenian population is concentrated in north-central and northeast Pasadena. Pasadena, he said, is unlike Glendale and North Hollywood, which have been the epicenter of Armenian population in the region. In Pasadena, Hispanics are the largest single ethnic group, while Asians are the fastest growing group.

Armenians, Tornek said, are “much more integrated into the Pasadena milieu,” compared to their situation in Glendale. He said, “We are unique because we have world-class institutions here like JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory], Caltech [California Institute of Technology] and Art Center College of Design, and 1,100 nonprofit organizations, so voluntarism is really a dominant aspect of Pasadena culture….The Armenian presence is not as intense because they are so engaged in the general fabric of civic affairs.” At the same time, he said, “It is a distinctive community and clearly because of the churches and the civic organizations it is an identifiable presence.” He gratefully acknowledged that “they have been supportive of me and very helpful to me,” and said, “I appreciate that.”

There are no dual-language Armenian immersion programs in Pasadena schools, unlike in Glendale. Tornek thought that in part, this was because there were several Armenian schools operating in Pasadena.

Tornek participated in August to September 2017 in an official city delegation trip visiting Pasadena’s sister city of Vanadzor, Armenia, for three days, along with other parts of Armenia. Another Pasadena City Council member, Pasadena Sister Cities Committee members, Pasadena United School District Board of Education President Vruyr Boulghourjian and other local elected officials from Pasadena, Sierra Madre, and Glendale participated along with members of the Pasadena chapter of the Armenian National Committee of America. This was his first trip to Armenia and it was self-funded, Tornek said.

The relationship between Vanadzor and Pasadena was established in 1991, and Vanadzor is one of only five sister cities of Pasadena. Tornek said, “We have a very active sister city committee with Vanadzor. They focus their attention on mostly on the pre-school children, maintaining and improving nurseries in the town. It has been going on for years, with very active, heartwarming activity. I enjoyed the visit very much.”

He said that in addition to Vanadzor, “We spent a fair amount of time in Yerevan and met with lots of local officials. We even toured a winery.” The Velvet Revolution and consequent changes in administration, Tornek related, have slowed things down a bit, but the dust has been settling now.

He explained, “I have been working and trying to promote tourism. I think that is the best opportunity for Armenia in terms of expanding its economic activity and it is something that we can be helpful with.” There is also a project to raise funds to build a replacement pre-school because the largest one in Vanadzor is in terrible shape.

Tornek noted that among the biggest issues in Pasadena is that of rising house prices and rent. At a meeting hosted by the Armenian National Committee of America recently, he received the most questions on this topic. Tornek said that people are being driven out of Pasadena by the rapid increases in costs and parents are concerned that their children cannot afford to live here. Armenians who are renters are being squeezed, Tornek noted.

He said that in response a lot of new housing is being built, which should eventually moderate the price increases, but the demand is still so much greater than the supply. This is a regional problem. He said that many people want to live there, while it is expensive and difficult to build new housing.

Partly as a result, homelessness is a big problem in southern California. Attempts by the Pasadena City Council to deal with it led to a brief conflict with the Armenian community in Pasadena last year when a proposal was made to convert a Ramada Inn diagonally opposite St. Gregory Armenian Church and its Armenian school into permanent supportive housing for the homeless. Armenians and other neighbors came out in large numbers at a community meeting in emotional opposition.

Tornek said that this was an overreaction “in a way that was highly inappropriate and unfair. They killed the project before it even got started. It betrayed a deep mistrust of the city and a lack of understanding of what our objectives there were in terms of homeless and what kind of facility was being discussed.”

He added, “It wasn’t their fault. The process was mismanaged. They were not informed. It was just the beginning of a discussion.” Tornek said, “I was not involved in the process…If I had been managing it, it would have gone differently.”

Crime is fairly low and regionally has been down in recent years. There are some Hispanic and black gangs, but no Armenian gangs or mafia in Pasadena, according to the mayor. The gangs were a generational phenomenon, with 3-4 generations sometimes continuing as members, largely in northwest Pasadena and Altadena. Tornek said that fortunately opioids have not had a big impact in Pasadena, though he did not know why this was so, compared to areas like New England.

One major difference from Glendale is that there is a light rail line, called the Gold Line, with six stations in Pasadena, making it easier to go to downtown Los Angeles. While there is a lot of traffic, Tornek said, “we are not choking with traffic.” Apart from the rush hour period, he said, you can get where you are going in a hurry.

Pasadena’s economy is doing well, according to the mayor. He cited four major areas in which it has a competitive edge in the marketplace: tech innovation, supported through the Innovate Pasadena tax-exempt organization, medical services (aside from employing some 5,000 people, Kaiser Permanente is now building a medical school, while Huntington Memorial Hospital is a regional center), the hospitality industry (though a relatively small city, Pasadena has 650 restaurants, and many hotels, with Old Pasadena a major attraction) and education, with many top level institutions.

Tornek concluded by noting that the Rose Parade on New Year’s Day is one of the best-known aspects of Pasadena, yet when he was recently in China, no one had heard of it. Instead, they all knew about Pasadena through the “Big Bang Theory” television show, as most of the characters work in Caltech. One way or another, Pasadena is known throughout the world, and Armenians, living there since the late 1880s, continue to make their contribution to this vibrant and expanding city.

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