Claremont Heritage: Community in Claremont and beyond
by John Neiuber
Some years ago, when visiting Chicago, my wife and I decided to take a small pilgrimage to mid-state Wisconsin to visit my cousin who still resided on one of the family’s dairy farms.
As a child, our family had visited Wisconsin many times and I had fond memories of the family farms. During this trip, we found my grandfather’s former home much the same from the outside but the barn had imploded and was now overgrown with trees and weeds. My aunt’s farmhouse was much the same also, but in dire need of maintenance. The once-pristine farm was unused and in disrepair—the barn unsafe to enter, the hen house and hog pen now unrecognizable after years of neglect. The nearby small downtown of Redgranite was mostly abandoned and did not resemble the bustling farm community I remembered.
Many of us share the experience of returning somewhere that holds special memories for us only to find that place altered beyond recognition. I do understand that things change—economies change, society changes—but it does not lessen the blow to the romanticized vision I had from my childhood. The farms did not survive the economic realities of the farming crisis and, eventually, the family caved to leasing out the land to large corporate agricultural interests. The lease payments were barely enough to continue to pay the taxes, let alone maintain the once-stately barns and other structures.
The community I had remembered no longer existed, and it caused me to think about the importance of community and what that means. In one sense, it is simply people in close proximity, sharing the same geographic or city boundaries. But that does not describe the fellowship and connectedness with others, and the sharing of common attitudes, interests and values. A community thrives because of a shared history that creates a common bond. A community builds on a solid foundation that can be looked back on and provide guidance for the future. A community creates a sound future because it remembers and honors its past.
As Claremont citizens, we recognize we live in a special place. Certain aspects of Claremont’s charm are obvious: a quaint college town nestled at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, a well-preserved downtown and an extensive historic residential district. But the essence of Claremont is in its long history of citizen involvement. This is what has given the residents of Claremont a unique sense of community and belonging.
From the beginning, the governance of Claremont has been highlighted by citizen involvement. The first form of government was the town meeting, a tradition brought to Claremont by the faculty recruited from the east coast by Pomona College. The first town meeting in 1889 created a sidewalk and shade tree committee that was the beginning of Claremont’s urban forest. It was at a Town Meeting in 1902 when the first water company was formed, known as the Citizens’ Light and Power Company, which later became the Claremont Domestic Water Company. It was the community that began and organized the annual Fourth of July celebrations and seasonal activities.
After World War II, the Chamber of Commerce organized the Postwar Planning Committee, often called the Committee of One Hundred, whose recommendations were the basis for decisions in subsequent decades. It was also this committee that campaigned for the park bond in 1946, paving the way for the purchase of the land for Memorial Park and the backbone of later master planning for Claremont’s parks.
A city report in 1959 credited the citizens for master planning for all aspects of the city: “None of these plans and programs could have been realized without the support of Claremont citizens. They have been able to view problems with broad vision. They have brought into the open new ideas and new solutions to old problems. Thus government in Claremont has been notably enriched by this type of cooperation between citizens.”
In 1976, a group of citizens formed Claremont Heritage, which was an outgrowth of the founding members’ involvement in several preservation efforts. Through the efforts of Heritage and the city, a grant was awarded in 1977 for the first historic resources survey. It was Claremont Historic Resources Center and Claremont Heritage staff that prepared the historic preservation element for the General Plan in 1979. Because of these active citizens, we are today able to enjoy many iconic buildings such as the Depot, the Packing House and Padua Theatre. Preservation has become a part of every general plan. Heritage preservation has become a defining value in the life of Claremont.
In recent years, citizen involvement has led to the establishment of the Wilderness Park and the purchase of Johnson’s Pasture. General plans and master plans for initiatives such as Foothill Boulevard and public art involve hearings and meetings where the public can have input into the final product. When the city develops budgets, it seeks input from citizens in order to prioritize budget decisions.
When purchase of the water company became a possibility, it was a group of citizens who came together to lead the efforts that overwhelmingly passed Measure W. The abundance of active service clubs and nonprofit agencies in the city is also testimony to the citizen involvement the city enjoys.
With a nationally-recognized reputation as one of the best small towns in the United States, Claremont reflects a diverse residential, college, retirement and business community known for tree-lined streets, well-planned green spaces, pedestrian-friendly environment, impressive program of cultural events and a body of compassionate and active volunteers. The diverse and unique community in which we live, work and play is attributable to a long history of citizen participation in community planning and preservation.
The overall character of Claremont, visually and environmentally, reflects the foresight and deliberation of our founders, the principled decision-making of our leaders and the intense interest and vigilance that residents apply to honoring the past while planning for the future.