What new normal?

Soldiers march down College Avenue in front of the Carnegie Library on Armistice Day in October 1918. Due to the Spanish flu pandemic which had just arrived in Southern California, they are all decked out in uniforms and prophylactic masks.

By John Neiuber

“Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold . . .” – William Butler Yeats

I would often remind my colleagues at work that change is a process not an event. Although that well-worn maxim is true much of the time, the pandemic of this past year and a half has reminded us that major events can disrupt and produce rapid change.
And if we think about it, there are many events in our own lives and in our lifetime that have had a profound effect on us, personally and in our community and country.
I suspect that the new normal, albeit a fairly recent term coined after the 2009 recession, is something we deal with on a consistent basis all our lives. If one considers the events that take place throughout our lives, we are adjusting to new and different things all the time. I also suspect that even though we may experience an event that happens suddenly, the change that takes place in us happens over time.
Consider things in one’s personal life. We experience the heartache of loss that takes time to process, whether it be the death of a loved one or a divorce for example. We go through a process as we adapt and our thinking changes. We change jobs and the culture of the new organization is different. We adapt. We learn. We experience events such as 9/11 and we not only experience the tremendous loss, sadness and anger, but then we adapt to the changes in our sense of security and the changes in travel, attending events and to obtaining identification documents.
The history of our community is one of adapting to change. When Pomona College decided to move from the little house in Pomona to North Pomona and laid the cornerstone for the new college, the future hopes and dreams of the college were placed firmly in that land on Piedmont Mesa.
When the Santa Fe Railroad created Claremont as a stop on the rail line from Los Angeles to San Bernardino, they did not envision a college town. When the Pacific Land Improvement Company purchased the land in Claremont, they did not envision a college town. They sold lots to populate the new rail stop.
Suddenly, however, the land bust of the late 1880s changed everything. The newly completed but empty Hotel Claremont was offered as a temporary home to Pomona College. The faculty and staff took occupancy during the Christmas break of 1888. The college was also given 260 surrounding lots. Unable to raise the funds needed to build the college on Piedmont Mesa, in 1892 the college decided to stay in Claremont, thereby answering the often-posed question, “Why is Pomona College in Claremont?”
A relatively sudden event, the great land bust of the 1880s eventually created a new normal for the city of Claremont and for Pomona College.
From 1887 until 1907, Claremont was governed by the New England style Town Meeting. Practically the entire town gathered where issues were debated and decisions made about everything from water to sewers, roads to trees and education to sidewalks. Incorporation had been a topic of discussion for several years beginning in 1903. The city had grown from about 30 residents to over 250 and the citizens by 1900 were concerned about the growth of the town and the basic services that were needed. Selectmen were voted on by the citizens to carry out the decisions made at the Town Meeting and projects were funded by voluntary taxation, but the minutes of the meetings showed not everyone was paying their fair share. And decisions of the Town Meeting were not legally binding and depended on the good will of all.
The debate kept on. In November 1905 the minutes of the Town Meeting reflected a resolution that was passed against incorporation but expressed reservations about the property owners who were not cooperating with the voluntary contributions. By early 1907, the decision was made to move forward with incorporation. The revenue needed in the prior year budget was not met because of uncooperative landowners. At first, the movement met little opposition. As the movement grew and more of the surrounding land was included in the town boundaries, opposition grew among the ranchers.
The issue was hotly debated through most of 1907, but on September 23 the vote to incorporate was held. The outcome was 60% for and 40% against incorporating. A new normal had begun for Claremont, but like so many changes, remnants of the past are tightly held. The Town Meeting format continued on until 1910 when it ended, however, the evolution of that format is still with us today. The city government holds many town meetings to this day to solicit input on ordinances, development and budget development.
World War I, coupled with the 1918 pandemic, ushered in change worldwide and in Claremont too. Youth went off to war and some did not return. Keith Powell was one, the son of the postmaster, Ruth Powell, and whom the Claremont American Legion Post is named. Life at the colleges was affected. Life in Claremont was changed by the war effort and by the Spanish Flu. The city board of health had on many occasions prohibited social and public gatherings. Schools were closed and students given assignments to work on at home. The college was divided into two camps, one for those who were sick and one for those who were still well or recovering from the flu.
The flu hit Claremont hard in October 1918. On the 25th the public schools were closed indefinitely. On December 2 the schools reopened only to be closed on the 13th. The schools reopened again in late January of 1919.
Students at Pomona College who wanted to leave town had to obtain permission from college administration. The infections were so serious that students were given only one day for the Thanksgiving holiday and told not to leave Claremont. Fortunately, no students died from the flu, and only two deaths in all of Claremont were known. Photographs from that time show people wearing masks.
Simultaneously, the Pomona College educational offerings changed when the institution participated in the Student Army Training Corps (SATC). This was a government program that used college and university facilities to train newly enlisted young men for military services. Pomona contracted with the government to receive two companies and housed them in the Claremont Inn, Smiley Hall and in a barracks building that would become Renwick Gymnasium after the war. When the war ended in November, the young men in the Corps were given the opportunity to remain at the college as regular students.
The economic boom that occurred during the war effort suddenly ended as factories began to ramp down production leading to job losses and fewer opportunities for returning soldiers. This led to a short recession in 1918-1919, followed by an even stronger one in 1920-21. After the war the first migration from rural areas to cities began to take place. This was evidenced in Claremont by the building of more dense housing, as seen in the construction of small apartment buildings and bungalow courts, which accommodated a younger demographic and was more affordable.
World War II created another new normal across the nation. After it ended, it created the second large migration from rural areas to cities and even more to suburbs. The baby boom after the war put pressure on cities for increased services as housing developments flourished. More schools were needed. State and federal highway construction took off and in Claremont the citrus ranch industry was rapidly replaced by housing developments. In fact, so many homes were built that by the mid-1970s, Claremont was built out and became more of a maintenance community.
Claremont has experienced many other events and changes that created a new normal:
• Claremont was a “dry” city where no alcohol was allowed until 1967 when it went wet. The first cocktail lounge opened at Griswold’s Indian Hill on July 1, 1968.
• When the city opened up the properties west of Indian Hill in the Village for the expansion, it was decried by many as the death of the east village area and the end to Claremont as we know it. Instead it helped the entire Village to grow and prosper.
• The 2009 recession brought rapid change to individuals and businesses. Good economic policy, even within our city, helped to bring back the economy on steadier footings.
•Today we face a housing shortage and tremendous issues with the homeless and unhoused. We have two problems to address, affordable housing and income inequality.
Because our world has been shrunk by the rapid dissemination of information via the internet and 24-hour access to news and events, we seem to experience change and adapt to it (or rant against it) more quickly. Or do we? We are ready to put the pandemic behind us, but will it ever be? The flus of today are directly related to the flu epidemic of 1918. COVID will be with us a long time also. So, perhaps there is no totally new normal, but rather we adapt. We keep some things, we embrace some new things. We move on.


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