Is Claremont too special?

by John Pixley

Anna Deveare Smith has a special place in her heart for Claremont. This actress and playwright is widely renowned and celebrated. She is probably best known for appearing in television series like The West Wing and Nurse Jackie. But she has been most lauded for her work in the theater.

Ms. Smith has won a slew of awards, including a MacAuthur “Genius” Award and the National Humanities Medal, presented to her by President Obama in 2013, for “creating a new form of theater.” In this work, she interviews people and then portrays them on stage.  These performances have explored such issues as the Los Angeles riots, racial tension in a New York City neighborhood and the American healthcare system and have been cited as “a blend of theatrical art, social commentary, journalism and intimate reverie.” One critic declared that Ms. Smith “is the ultimate impressionist.  She does people’s souls.”

This acclaimed artist, who also teaches at New York University, recently spoke at Garrison Theater, kicking off Scripps College’s Scripps Presents series for the spring semester. In her presentation, she highlighted and commented on excerpts from a recent show exploring the link between high school expulsion and drop-out rates and incarceration and how minority populations are most often involved in this. Before she introduced the work, Ms. Smith, who is African American, noted that she was “glad to be back in Claremont.”

She wasn’t making note of a return engagement, although she has previously appeared on stage here. It turns out that Ms. Smith has a personal connection to Claremont. When she was beginning her work in the “rough and tumble” theater world at USC, she would come out to Claremont, finding the town something of a refuge.   

She didn’t know if there was anyone in the audience who was around “all those years ago,” but she gave a friendly shout-out, a fond hello. “You know who you are.”

There have been many people who have a soft spot for Claremont. Some, like Anna Deveare Smith, have or have later developed some measure of fame. Luminaries like TS Elliot and Leonard Cohen were both known to hang out here. A roster of musicians—David Lindley, Ben Harper, Frank Zappa, Ray Collins and John York of the Byrds, among many others—call or have called Claremont home.

Plenty of others, not-so-famous, have similar sentiments for Claremont. There are those who grew up here and have moved away to busy cities and busy lives, but who cherish their memories of their home town. There are people I talk to who went to college here or knew someone who went to college here and comment on what a nice place Claremont was. There are those who visit us and keep coming back, because they love it here.       

I have written about friends who come here and talk about how nice the trees are and how much smoother the streets are than where they live. I’ve written about a friend who once said the stoplights take a bit longer in Claremont, and others who tell me how the nights are so much quieter. At least one of these friends ended up staying here.

And, yes, there are those of us who choose to live here and who have chosen to stay. There are those who left but came back to stay. Yes, there is a special place in our hearts for Claremont.

It would be easy to think that everyone has fond feelings and a friendly shout-out for Claremont, that everyone has a special place in their heart for Claremont.  Maybe too easy.

“You sit up there in your million dollar homes and expensive schools, virtues signaling at the expense of the underserved and underrepresented communities like Pomona.”

Apparently, not everyone has warm feelings for Claremont. That came across loud and clear when Kathlyn Parker said this during a Claremont City Council meeting last month.

Maybe Ms. Parker was the most forceful in her comments—she tried using a bullhorn but was quickly asked not to—but the Chino resident was far from the only one expressing irritation with Claremont during the remarkably lengthy public comment period at the January 24 meeting. There were many who spoke out, sometimes for more than the allotted time, against the proposed and ultimately approved resolution affirming the city’s pledge toward diversity, making for quite a raucous, downright ugly scene as they vied for attention and tried to drown out those speaking in favor of the resolution.

“Spoke out” is the key phrase here. Not only did the people who were against the resolution—concerned about illegal immigration and mistakenly thinking that Claremont was declaring itself a sanctuary city—often speak for longer than the minutes allowed, they loudly berated the council members, accusing them of violating rules and calling them names. Their overarching message could be said to be that the council members and the rest of Claremont are simply out of touch.

Interestingly and significantly, many of the people protesting the resolution were, like Ms. Parker, not from Claremont. Some came from as far as Apple Valley, and one man, who was the president of the Beach Cities Republicans, claimed that being asked to state where he lived violated the Brown Act.

It’s significant that, despite not being residents here, they didn’t hesitate to come and express themselves and their differing views. This has been seen in many other places since the presidential campaign and election, with many feeling emboldened to speak their mind, to speak their unvarnished, sometimes impolite, truths. Two men got into a physical scuffle at that council meeting and, as he left the dais after making his comment, the Beach Cities Republicans president shouted, “God bless Donald Trump! Suck it up, buttercups; You lost, he won.”

One can question exactly what this statement and others like it mean (So being a flower is still weak?  Is manliness all that counts – even now?  Didn’t Trump’s supporters win – or did only Trump win?). One can ask if such sentiments and behavior have any place in a city council meeting.

Indeed, it is tempting to suggest, as one letter-writer recently did in these pages, that these non-residents be asked to not provide public comment at Claremont City Council and commission meetings or perhaps even be barred from attending. Wouldn’t this be a sensible, simple way to leave space for us Claremont residents and allow us to get on with our business?

Such a measure could be argued as sensible, but it would be far too simple. And not just because there are people in nearby towns who have business and interests here in Claremont. Such a policy would be perilous, adding fuel to a spreading fire, making what has become an extraordinarily tense situation even more tense.

I don’t think Ms. Parker’s and others’ feeling that Claremont is out of touch and uncaring is anything new. But, as we saw in last year’s bruising campaign and jolting election and what it has now lead to, many with such feelings now feel heard and feel emboldened to make themselves heard. While they shouldn’t disrupt our meetings in this disturbing way, trying to suppress them or shut them up is definitely not the answer.

There is an argument that it is this kind of suppression, this ignoring and writing off of those with different ideas and views, is how we ended up with Trump as president and these kinds of bold, ugly confrontations. It’s also argued that bridges and open doors are better than walls and locks.

Not long after the raucous city council meeting, a homeless woman—the other in our midst—broke up a fight in the Village between two Claremont students, who happen to live in different towns. It seems to me that’s something to think about.


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