Alhambra Sikhs Facing Threat of Losing Gurdwara
ALHAMBRA, Calif. – Forty-three years ago, the Alhambra Gurdwara was established. Fifteen years ago, it decided to pull up stakes, sell the building and move closer to the 60 freeway, in the city of Walnut.
But in 2015, several congregants who lived in Alhambra felt inconvenienced and pushed for the return to the cozy building that had been theirs. The new owner, Herald Lau, welcomed them back with what would become a month-to-month lease. August 2019, and the 300-strong congregation is in a precarious position, facing dislocation in the upcoming months: as it stands, their house of worship is slated to be torn down to accommodate a commercial and condominium complex.
As the management, with its back to the wall, urgently reviews its choices on how to continue to remain on 101 South Chapel Avenue, Gurdwara president Santokh Singh strives to convey a sense of calm, telling India-West, “We don’t want to create panic in the Sangat. They are so connected and attached to this place.” But he and the Sangat may have little choice but to consider other options.
The lot where the Gurdwara stands along with two adjacent properties is all owned by Lau. The bid for new development was heard by the Alhambra City Planning Commission on June 17. The Gurdwara, however, remained unaware of the situation. Singh learned about it in a roundabout way. He owns and runs All India Café in Pasadena and has a regular customer, Linda Paquette. While chatting with her, she mentioned to the Indian American Sikh businessman that her friend, a resident of Alhambra, had attended a city meeting in which the issue of the Gurdwara had come up. Scrambling to find out what was going on, Singh found out that the city’s 10-member planning commission had already voted 8-2 to approve Lau’s project. Then, on June 26, one of the Gurdwara priests spotted a flier taped to a tree. It was a notice of the upcoming vote. But it was already too late.
“It was a little away from the Gurdwara’s front entrance,” Singh told India-West. “Not even on the tree right in front.” What took everyone aback was how Lau had gone about the whole process. Even before and after the hearing on the development project, Lau, as the landlord, attended to repairs at the Gurdwara but allegedly failed to mention it to anyone. “Many times, the Gurdwara has tried to buy the property from him,” Singh asserted to India-West, “But he always rejected it, saying it’s too expensive for you.” The property is estimated to be around $1 million.
Phone calls by India-West to Lau went unreturned at press time. What’s even more puzzling is the impression Lau gave the city that the lot was a vacant one. On being quizzed about traffic in the area, the city was allegedly told there was Gurdwara but it was not an active one.
Paquette, who is a lawyer, discovered this when she examined the public records. In fact, the priests of the Sikh temple, Sukhdev Singh and Ranjit Singh, live on the premises, a langar kitchen works effectively to serve the community and the homeless, children attend classes, and festivals are marked with regularity. Ron (Ranajit) Sahu, one of the two planning commission members who abstained from giving approval to the development project, lives three blocks from the Gurdwara. He said from the street entrance in front, as all does look quiet with the devotees using the back alley more regularly to enter and exit.
Andrea Lofthouse Quesada, the other commissioner who abstained, declared, “I actually live a mile or so away. I consider myself an advocate of arts and culture and I had no idea that they were here. When you walk by you just don’t notice as all is quiet.” Quesada told India-West, “We were actually concerned about other issues like open space and affordable housing but since then other things have come to light.”
Added Singh, “The truth is out…it is no vacant lot, we are active here, the city has to act on this.” Lau’s development project and the Gurdwara’s predicament have left the city doing some soul searching. “We don’t ask developers to take the oath before a meeting. We are looking at the papers presented to us,” noted Sahu. But, he said, it has raised questions about honesty, and the city was looking into how to overcome the problem, as a policy issue. He asked: does the city’s responsibility end with the owner or does it have to know who the tenants are?
A reversal of the vote, which was first sought out, does not have precedent. Sahu told India-West, “They are nice people. I don’t want to give them false hope. It is very unfortunate, but to my knowledge reversing the vote would be difficult.” Gurdwara officials are now acting swiftly. Aided by Paquette, letters and information packets have been sent out to city officials. The neighborhood, alerted by what’s coming, has also become active, protesting the construction of a high rise, the ensuing traffic and the displacement of the Sikh congregation.
Quesada told India-West thoughtfully, “In this time of national crisis, I don’t want the Sikh community to feel they are not welcome in this city. I don’t want the environment of divisiveness to grow.” Discord is what Singh, too, wishes to avoid, ruling out legal action. “The Gurdwara will wait and watch,” said Singh, and finally, “what the Guru wants will happen.”