by Autumn Simon
photography by Sarah VanderZon
Sitting at her desk in front of the wellspoken antique gift shop called Heart of the Village, Barbara Vincent watches the boisterous construction on Bonita Avenue with some hesitation for the future of her business. “I think this is going to change San Dimas all together. I am just not sure if it is going to change for the good or for the bad,” Vincent says while gazing at the boardwalk being removed from the front of her store. Surrounded by antique purses, jewelry and stacks of cowboy hats, her store pays homage to the Great American West, much like the theme of San Dimas. For 13 years, Vincent and her friends have watched guests come and go, but the San Dimas western attractions and events have endured. Now, the San Dimas western theme is slowly but surely transitioning. From wooden sidewalks, “pony express” hitching posts and western facades, Bonita Avenue through the old downtown is gaining new building fronts and modern sidewalks. Gone is the overt western themed street look. With change comes questions. Some business owners wonder whether too much change is a good thing.
San Dimas’ themed western attractions have brought people to Bonita Avenue for more than 30 years. However, some businesses have complained about a foot traffic decline to the San Dimas Chamber of Commerce. Mirroring the issues of the 1970s, which originally brought on the western theme in 2012, the city once again questioned its business future as linked to the western motif. In response, the San Dimas City Council gained redevelopment funds and began to retrofit some downtown buildings to their original non-western themed look. With $225,000 in hand, the first buildings to receive conversion included Bonita Antiques and Computer Village. It followed that the themed boardwalk sidewalks were converted to cement. “The Western theme, wooden sidewalks and wooden facades were implemented back in the mid-1970s to provide a unique character to the downtown. Over the years, the wood became increasingly more difficult to maintain,” says Ken Duran, San Dimas assistant city manager.
If city officials were hesitant at first in their decision to replace the wooden facades, they were emboldened when they found the buildings’ original state looked better than the western themed appearance. “It was decided then to move to restoring the look to its original era—early California, not western,” Duran says.
For years, some vendors have been asking the city to remove the wooden boardwalk for safety reasons. “The boardwalk was definitely a liability, and maintenance was too high” says Tony Salehpour, general manager of Computer Village. “I do not recall any recent accidents caused by the sidewalks; however, they needed to be removed for the safety of guests.” So, after years of complaints, the city finally started construction to remove the boardwalk in spring 2016. The city funded the conversion of the wooden boardwalks to cement. Bonita Avenue store owners knew more changes were to come and some worried about their loss of store identity. “They are changing everything—streets, plants and buildings,” Vincent says.
The City Council members, however, feel that they made the right decision in removing the western boardwalk. “Yes, there are those who don’t agree; they feel we lost our unique identity,” Duran says. “We are hopeful when all the improvements are complete, people will see how attractive it is. They may still miss the western look, but the new look is refreshing and attractive.”
San Dimas’ Western Theme
While San Dimas gained some fame for being one of the few western-themed California towns, contrary to beliefs, San Dimas has a different historical background. “San Dimas was known as a citrus town, not a western town,” Susan Davis, archivist for the San Dimas Historical Society says. She recounts that four decades ago, a student from the University of La Verne interned for the city of San Dimas. With streets full of antique and serve shops, business was not as booming as the vendors wished. During a San Dimas Chamber of Commerce meeting where business leadership was discussing ways to improve their businesses, the La Verne student pitched an idea that had far reaching impact. The student’s idea was to put on a western theme in the downtown area to attract more customers. This new theme also brought western themed traditions, including the San Dimas Western Art Show, Western Days and the San Dimas Rodeo. For years, the gimmick worked, attracting more and more guests to the eccentric small town. Downtown San Dimas was transformed to the San Dimas Frontier Village. Sporting this new name, the city upped its theme by constructing a new old town look. Wooden facades were placed on the Bonita Avenue stores, and the city installed wooden sidewalks, along with horse hitching posts. The frontier attractions seemed to keep customers coming back to town at various times of the year. The first attraction brought to San Dimas was the Western Art Exhibition and Sale. In 1977, the San Dimas Chamber of Commerce and the American Indian and Cowboy Artist Society (AICA) sponsored the first Western Art Exhibition. Members of the AICA and local artists created pieces to sell and to be judged. The art exhibition is still continuing today; nevertheless, its total western theme was dropped in the 1990s. “To learn more about the cowboy and Indian culture, San Dimas continued its partnership with the AICA but added more attractions,” Davis says.
Also famous was the San Dimas Western Days. Annually staged in October by the Chamber of Commerce, it offered a weekend of western fun for the whole family. This event included western food, music and performances. Present, too, were art and other vendors selling their items. For the shops on Bonita Avenue, this weekend made a difference. A weekend of guests provided foot traffic and business. “Western Days really made a difference to our antique shop,” Vincent says. Due to the reconstruction of the sidewalks, the event was cancelled this year. Vincent, whose shop reflects the western theme, says she notices a negative effect, perhaps compounded by the continuing Bonita Avenue construction. “With the construction this year, it wasn’t practical to have the parade so we chose to suspend Western Days this year. This also gives us a chance to re-evaluate the event and activities,” Duran says. “No decisions have been made yet for next year. It may be the same old Western Days or some other community celebration.”
Some of the vendors and residents of San Dimas feel the changes coming to their beloved city. Some are excited for the changes, while others are curious as to the eventual outcome. Vincent, for one, loved San Dimas the way it was, and applauded the small town’s theme for keeping her business running. “I loved the town the way it was, and now it is going to be like every other town in America,” she says. The changes have already affected foot traffic by closing the sidewalks on her side of the street and further made parking more difficult than it already was. Some businesses have resorted to “crazy sales” to attract more guests, she says. The removal of the sidewalks also affected Computer Village. “Because we are a computer shop, we do not have that much foot traffic,” Salehpour says. “Now that the sidewalks are under construction, not a lot of people stop at our store and walk along the boardwalk.”
Some members of the San Dimas Historical Society feel that the change is good, but the city should also focus on other pressing issues such as the lack of parking. And while some business owners were not in agreement with the removal of western building facades, Davis supports the return to an original look and admires the modern beauty of the stores. She also says that the removal of San Dimas’ western theme does not determine the flow of business for the struggling store owners on Bonita Avenue. “The Chamber of Commerce had a consensus with the city that the western theme had run its course,” Davis says. “For years, the stores of Bonita tried to do different things to encourage business, and I feel removing the western theme will not make a negative difference.” Both Duran and Davis are confident that the changes will improve the city. “We are reverting the city to its original state,” Duran says. “However, we are going to continue practicing, recognizing and preserving our city’s history.