by Michael Sprague
photography by Ashley Villavicencio
Law enforcement continues to combat human trafficking and violence throughout the Holt Corridor in Pomona, garnering media attention and painting an unfavorable image of the city to neighboring communities. But the downtown area highlights a different side of Pomona, one that may have gone unnoticed to those who have not been watching as a modern renaissance has taken place. Just two blocks east of the Holt Boulevard corridor sits the epicenter of the best the city has to offer. Restored neon lights of The Fox Theater act as a beacon, welcoming people into the city. Downtown Pomona stands as a refuge for culture, history, art and a haven for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
In the first half of the 20th century, this area was a destination for shopping, entertainment and even major film studios during the golden days of Hollywood. Now, it has fallen to disrepair, waiting for someone to come by and remember its potential. Luckily, there is a cast of characters who have put down their stake in the success of the downtown Pomona community. All are working to do what they can to restore the downtown area to the booming metropolis it once was.
How It All Started
As Deborah Clifford, the president of the Pomona Valley Historical Society explains, the city has gone through stages since it was founded in 1888. “[Pomona] has ranged from empty fields during the Rancho period to a bustling small town of two-three thousand in the late 1880s.” Between the 1920s and late 1950s, she says the downtown area was filled with high-end retailers and restaurants, and business was booming. “If you wanted the best, you came to Pomona.”
In the 1930s, Hollywood film studios would show films at the Fox Theater as a litmus test for larger audiences. These films featured golden-age film stars like Cary Grant and Betty Grable. “The people in Pomona had come from the great lakes area, upper Midwest; you could play a movie here, and you can guess pretty accurately how it was going to play in Minnesota or Iowa or Michigan. So it made Pomona a convenient proxy for audience testing around the country,” explains Ed Tessier, co founder of the Pomona Arts Colony.
Ed’s company Arteco specializes in “constructing creative communities through adaptive-reuse of historic structures,” according to the website. Arteco is run by Ed and his family, who own a sizable portion of downtown Pomona, including the Fox Theater. As Ed grew up roaming around his father’s downtown legal office, he watched as his childhood hangouts disappeared, and businesses shut their doors. ”I’d get my first baseball mitt, and the sportsman would close. I’d get my first Cub Scout uniform, and John P. Evans would close,” Ed recalls. Because of these patterns, Ed says he was bitter about all the people who had abandoned their investments and businesses in the city.
That bitterness eventually led to a pact between Ed and his brothers: that they would never abandon the city. Years later, he graduated from Pomona College with a degree in Urban Sociology and since has dedicated his entire career to urban revitalization. He can recount every phase the downtown area has been through in its tumultuous history. Ed explains that in the early ‘60s, indoor suburban malls were a phenomenon that changed the way people shopped, altering downtown Pomona’s economic trajectory over the next few decades. ”And now it was evident that it was eating away at traditional downtown shopping districts. So there was a national panic. Like what are we going to do? How do we make our downtowns survive this?” Ed says.
Ed thinks that, in trying to modernize the shopping center to keep up with the new types of malls, poor decisions were made by the city planners that had negative impacts on the downtown area, like making the downtown shopping center into a pedestrian mall. “Unfortunately it did other disastrous things, like closing the streets to cars, tearing down a lot of historic buildings to create parking lots, and masking historic buildings to make them look more modern. It was a real disaster.”
Ed explains the developers at the time ignored the demographic changes, primarily the influx of immigrants and people of color. At the center of the mall was the department store Buffums, or as Deborah and Ed refer to it, “the Nordstrom of its time.” Ed says that with the building of the Interstate 10 freeway came the construction, “of a thousand homes throughout the most affluent parts of Pomona. From that moment, Pomona is really an absentee landlord city. The people who owned the factories and the shops here from that moment on principally lived outside of the town.”
In 1960, there were eight African American families in the city. By 1966, the city population had nearly doubled, gaining 22,000 residents, with 17,000 of the new residents being African American. “You can’t put that number of people in this community that was run by an old white guard that was traditionally very racist, that had absolutely no interest in serving those communities, and expect things to go well,” Ed explains. “The downtown just became disconnected from its own customer base and had these really impossible economic challenges with the movement to suburban malls and the primacy of the automobile. Traditional retailers like John P. Evans, where everybody got their Cub Scout uniforms? Well, the Cubs aren’t a big thing in the African-American community. Did they adapt? Did they hire African-American shopkeepers to give them participation in how to select the goods that are going on the floor? They didn’t do any of that.”
From then on, the downtown area continued on a steady decline until the summer of 1977. Three different groups propped up the downtown area enough to keep it breathing: Western University came to Pomona and began inhabiting the east end of the downtown area; the first antique mall was opened, paving the way for antique row, which still stands today; and a federal grant was awarded to a group of Claremont College students, who intended to use art to beautify and repair community and urban spaces. “Those were the three components that showed up kind of magically, all in the summer of ‘77. It’s important to note that none of them had any sort of official encouragement, whatsoever. They were totally organic,” Ed explains.
The artists were able to take advantage of the art grant for about a year before it was squashed by the Reagan administration. Nevertheless, when the artists came to the city, they fell in love, and ended up homesteading. “There were a lot of abandoned buildings that had completely missing -in-action landlords. So a couple of [the artists] just kind of took over spaces and started using them for studios and living spaces. They probably wouldn’t have survived if somebody hadn’t been looking after them,” he says. With the “old white guard” in political power at the time, the artists were not fully accepted, so they had to get creative. “The arts community really had to go underground. You had this phenomena where there were artists down here, but they’d actually used some of their creative talent to make their buildings look more abandoned than they were.”
In the early 1990s, Ed opened Haven Coffee Shop in the downtown. True to its name, it was a sanctuary for Pomona artistry: a gallery, community center, and a makeshift concert venue all in one, and it provided a home for the disjointed artists who were hiding below the surface of the downtown area. The artists, after finding some stability in Haven, came together to advocate for the downtown, networking with the preservation community to rally around the historic buildings that had been collapsing. They reached out to businesses owned by people of color who were once unwelcome. In 1993, the Pomona City Council became ethnically representative of the city demographic. Six months after the new Council came in, the zoning ordinances changed, allowing the arts and business to come back to the downtown. By 1994, the city of Pomona officially recognized The Arts Colony and Antiques Row, establishing them as the principal use of the downtown.
The Celebrities of Third Street
Steve Nunez owns and operates The Social Cut, a grooming cafe, open since 2017 in the heart of downtown Pomona, just steps away from the Fox Theater. Passersby who glance through the windows see a boxer mutt lounging, and Steve, scissors in hand, behind a vintage barber chair. Today, he is wearing his signature cheetah print pants, but no matter what day you visit the shop, he is always in an outfit that only someone with a Mick Jagger level of confidence could pull off.
In addition to haircuts, Steve has made his space into a mecca for menswear sartorialists. He offers tailoring services, and hosts events for his menswear group the Social Gents, a group he describes as “modern-day gentlemen from all walks of life united by our passion for menswear and grooming.” The events pull style bloggers, brands and aficionados from across Los Angeles and Orange County into downtown Pomona.
From open to close every day, Steve is accompanied by his best friend and unofficial Social Cut mascot Bruce, a bulldog mix rescue. While Steve cuts and cleans, Bruce greets customers by standing at their feet, not-so-subtly awaiting head scratches. Bruce has became such an iconic part of The Social Cut that his face is immortalized on The Social Cut t-shirts. On their daily walks around the block, the pair have become local celebrities, although Steve says it is all because of Bruce. “They say hi to Bruce before they say hi to me! And a lot of times they say hi to him but don’t even say hi to me!” he jokes.
The Social Cut is just a block from City Hall and Western University and a short drive from Cal Poly Pomona. On any given day, Steve will have city officials, college students or lawyers and judges from the courthouse in his chair. Steve wants his shop to put the social aspect back in barbering, and the downtown community provides the perfect venue for community. “Here you get that small town feel where everybody kind of knows each other, but, at the same time, it’s not a small town. Pomona’s a big place,” Steve says.
Steve is eclectic and vibrant with the marketing mind of someone who spent time post-graduation in the Los Angeles corporate scene, coupled with the look and energy of an artist. In downtown Pomona, Steve found a storefront that had an aesthetic to match his—with art-deco architectural details and floor to ceiling windows that let natural light illuminate the open floor space and give guests a view of the downtown. “It just has that artistic feel, that loft feel, you know? We have the piping that’s exposed, the high ceilings. I love it; it’s very unique. You know, there’s not many businesses or places that you find a scene like this,” Steve says. He considers himself an artist and says the culture of art drew him to the area. As part of a collaboration with The School of the Arts, The Social Cut was used as a gallery displaying student artwork during a weekend event. He hopes to continue the crossover and have monthly rotating artists work on display.
The Homegrown Politician
Pomona City Councilmember Victor Preciado is the poster boy of local government politicians. The 30-something-year-old politician grew up in Pomona; his first job was at a local grocery store, and he graduated from Ganesha High School. After beating a multi-year battle with cancer, Victor threw himself into any activities he could, eventually leading him to join an organization called Pomona Beautiful, which focuses on cleaning up areas of the city. It was in this organization that Victor found his passion for serving the community he grew up in.
As he toured the downtown, an area that is in the district he represents, he describes what he hopes to accomplish. During that walk, he was interrupted no less than 10 times by residents, constituents, and business owners who wanted to greet him, or share an update. It was like walking down Mayberry Street with Andy Griffith.
A newcomer to the political scene, Victor was elected in November 2018. As is the policy for most city councilmembers, Victor lives in his District 2. From his residence in downtown, his fiancée is able to walk to the downtown metro station for her Los Angeles commute where she works as an attorney, and Preciado walks a block east and arrives at city hall. As he walked the downtown, he talked about the big and little changes that he has made to make the downtown area more family-friendly and to drive foot traffic there. As a tour guide, he pointed out the little historic details that people could walk by and never know, like the tiny painted artist figures scattered across the pavement in the arts colony, painted by some renegade artists and eventually left to stay by the city. At one point, he stopped by a discolored square patch of concrete outside of the downtown Starbucks. He said when he first took office a newsstand stood in that spot. After seeing it used as a garbage can instead of its intended purpose, he found it had no permit to be there and had it removed. In addition to work with Pomona Proud, Victor and his fiancée organize and operate a running club that meets in downtown and runs throughout the city as they train for the LA Marathon.
Victor walked through civic center plaza, an open plaza space between the library and city buildings that he believes is the key to truly transforming the downtown. “We should concentrate on a few things that will make families want to come for free, and then that will open up activity; it will activate the downtown, and then businesses will come because they know that there’s families here.” The area is covered in big trees, and shaded planters, with a wide-open plaza. On weekday afternoons, you’ll see city employees enjoying their lunch break here. “For the celebration during beautification day, we had 1,500 people here. For the children’s festival, we had performances right here. It was the first ever, and we had over 1,000, and we had free food for all the kids. It was great.” He hopes to continue expanding the area’s use.
Deborah says from a historian’s perspective, “This has been a town that is bound and determined to compete with anybody.” She believes right now the city is dancing on the threshold of an expansion. “We’re still looking for that right mix that will just go click, and we’re closer than we’ve ever been!” Retail shopping that matches the downtown vibe is what she thinks the downtown could use.
Larry Egan, president of the Downtown Pomona Owners Associations believes a neighborhood market or bodega would make it easier for people to live in the downtown area, and work well for the commuters who use the downtown transit station. For Steve, he hopes more like-minded entrepreneurs who want to grow with the city will join the community. “There’s a need for everything out here. There’s a need for a good barber shop, there’s a need for good restaurants; you know, if you go to downtown L.A. or just any other bigger cities, it’s saturated.”
“There’s a lot of people who either remember Pomona from some of its more troubled days, or they grew up hearing their parents talk about how Pomona fell off the truck. There’s a lot of holes in that storyline of how dysfunctional it is,” Ed says.
Though the downtown area economy is improving for residents and stakeholders alike, most agree that the area stands on the cusp of a complete breakthrough to an Old-Town Pasadena level of recognition. What addition is needed to cross that threshold is under debate, though all the stakeholders agree if more visitors just came to downtown they would witness the heart of the city. “If [people] could just come down here once to check out the monthly art walk, then they’re converts,” says Ed. ■