Almanac: An old-fashioned courtship

Joyce and Robert Sauter moved to Southern California from Chicago in the 1960s. The career-minded, and childless couple came west for Mr. Sauter’s job as director of curriculum at USC medical school. But due to life’s changes, namely two daughters, Robyn and Laurette, the family was soon house hunting.

One day driving back from Las Vegas on the San Bernardino freeway, they saw the “Claremont” exit sign and, on a whim, decided to have a firsthand look. One can imagine driving up Indian Hill Boulevard into the quiet college town of 50 years ago with its tree-lined streets and quaint Village. They ended up at a real estate office and added Claremont to their search.

A few weeks later, Ms. Sauter was tasked with finding a home, so she loaded up their big green sedan with her mother and the children. A house in West Covina with large rooms, mature trees and sweeping lawns was sure to be a hit with the girls, Ms. Sauter thought. But when they got back to the car, the girls announced that the house was “sad.”

The next stop was brand new construction on Dana Court in Claremont. This time the girls proclaimed the house “happy” and each chose a bedroom. That afternoon in 1972, Ms. Sauter submitted a down payment.

Dana Court was part of the first development in Southern California with underground utilities, so there were no unsightly telephone poles or wires to distract from the view of the San Gabriels.

Sturdy ranch style, single-story homes with two-car garages—truly the American dream. There were other families with children, the Stevens and the Bishops, and the Dana Court pioneers became fast friends. Shared dinners were organized and the children would play in the protected court.

In those early years, citrus groves still lined Forbes Avenue to the east and Miramar to the north. The springtime lemon blossoms made an intoxicating fragrance across the entire valley and late summer mornings were filled with the songs of the lemon pickers. Coyotes would serenade the new Claremonters nightly. Beginning at a distance, their calls would sweep across the night air with building urgency until finally one was howling right under the bedroom window.

The children of Dana Court grew up with the groves as their playground. One could ride a bike through the irrigation ditches, make a fort out of old lemon crates or play hide-and-seek among the trees.

There was a small house on Miramar that had lots of chickens and the Sauters would go there to buy eggs. Progress came, and with it new houses. The first groves to be cleared were on the east side of Forbes in 1980. The Sauter girls sat on the curb crying as the heavy machinery leveled their playground, and they promised never to like the new residents.

Soon the Sauter girls would become teenagers with changing interests. There would be sports, high school studies and learning to drive. One can imagine the court seeming empty as the first children became adults and eventually moved on.

However, as longtime owners aged, downsized or simply moved on, a new crop of young people came to the court. The Palumbo, Bronk and Craigmyle families have all been here a handful of years. The Gomez family is the newest, having bought their home in May. The adults are similar in age and all have children, so there was an immediate connection. But most importantly, everyone honestly enjoys spending time together.

Dana Court is short but very wide with two center islands serving as bookends to an eight-car parking lot in the center. The street is a statement of mid-century suburban optimism, which is somewhat ironic given Claremont’s ban on overnight parking. However, it does create the perfect venue for a block party.

And so, on a recent warm summer evening, the neighbors were gathering in the center of the court for an informal get together. It is a regular occurrence.

Surveying the street as the new families and some of the older residents collect, it could easily be a scene from some romanticized movie. Children ride scooters round the court, while another two or three draw on the sidewalk with colored chalk. The adults play corn hole or chat at a picnic table in the shade of giant pine trees. Soon it is time for the evening meal which has been brought out from the various homes in crock pots or Tupperware. Hot dogs with ketchup, mustard, pickles and relish. Two types of potato salad and fresh cut watermelon.

However, this was no ordinary gathering, because there was work to do. Until recently the islands were choked with overgrown junipers that created a safe haven for coyotes, posing a potential threat to children and pets. So, the residents made a deal with the city to remove the junipers and install a drip system with drought tolerant plants, decomposed granite and mulch.

They all pitched in, spreading the mulch, digging holes for the plants and bringing water to set the roots. Neil Craigmyle found a picnic table for $30 and completely rebuilt it in his garage. When he was done Kara Palumbo refinished it. Recently a flower arrangement appeared on top of the table with an American flag.

As the Sauters did over 50 years ago, Kendall and Brian Bronk moved here from the Midwest. They bought a home on Navarro, adjacent to Dana Court in July of 2016 and were instantly accepted by their new neighbors. “They brought us a gift basket on the second day,” Mr. Bronk said.

You don’t know who lives next door when you are shopping for a house, but when you move in it’s the most important thing, the couple shared during a recent visit. “We are not the only ones who have made these connections, but just one example of a bigger phenomenon which is pretty uniquely Claremont,” Ms. Bronk said.

Part of what made the neighborhood “click” these new residents discovered, was spending time outside their homes. Back in the 1970s people preferred to play and relax in their backyards, according to Ms. Sauter, so getting to know the neighbors took effort. She recalled growing up in Buffalo, New York, where everyone knew each other because they sat on their front porches in the evening.

“It’s almost like a return to the old times,” Ms. Sauter said. “I see quite a few homes with people sitting in the front yards, and that is how you get to know your neighbors. Old traditions don’t die—sometimes they come back.”

More than just a collection of houses with similar addresses, and beyond that familiar faces that one waves to occasionally, a true neighborhood requires connection. The new families of the court seem to have found that, a common cause of growing up together. Maybe it has more to do with why someone moves to a place like Claremont as much as what makes the court special.

But when talking with residents about their neighborhood, a common and familiar theme emerged: A desire to provide an environment where kids can have the same childhood as a generation or two ago—somewhere you can let your children play outside without constantly watching over them.

“It’s how we grew up,” Ms. Bronk said. “I like that the kids know everyone on the street and that is pretty special. We feel really lucky to have multi-generational support.”

Summer has come to Southern California in all its cruel glory, but the evenings in the Inland Valley are cool, so the Dana Court crew just gathers a bit later. On a splendid recent evening, a much larger crowd has gathered including retirees, empty nesters, college students on summer break, as well as the regulars. As nighttime falls a slender crescent moon slowly sinks in the West. From the crowd a voice exclaims: “Isn’t it beautiful?”

On August 28 it will be time for the annual breakfast at the Palumbos for the first day of school. Carlie Bronk is 13 and will be going to high school soon. One by one, the other children of the court will follow and before too long the neighborhood will evolve again.

—Steven Felschundneff


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