Pomona is working to change its reputation from the inside out.
A city known for gang violence and graffiti has been working to revitalize the downtown and breathe new life into an area that has fallen apart from years of neglect.
A revitalization effort has started turning Downtown Pomona into a vibrant community of galleries, restaurants, bars and clubs.
For some, it’s an “island of safety” within Pomona.
But residents are unsure about what’s next. The Downtown Pomona Owner’s Association, a group created to improve the business district, has helped to usher in the facelift.
A.S. Ashley, a local artist, resident and chair of the Pomona Arts Colony Association, says that what’s good for the city is good for the district and what’s good for the district is good for the individual.
“It’s taken decades to get it to this point where it is actually living,” Ashley said.
The downtown is creating new impressions on locals who used to stray away from Pomona for fear of their safety.
John Clifford, who writes for various Pomona blogs and is vice chairman for Friends of the Pomona Fox, said he used to spend all of his time in Claremont because Pomona was “downright scary.”
“There’s been no life in Pomona for a long time,” Clifford said.
Pomona, the fifth largest city in Los Angles County, suffers from reoccurring gang violence, prostitution and homelessness.
Pomona’s crime rate is 1.31 times the national average, and violent crime is more than double that of neighboring cities such as Diamond Bar, Chino Hills and Claremont.
Of major concern to citizens is that Pomona police close only 44 percent of their homicide cases, compared to 70 percent nationally.
Residents have written submissions to the local newspaper, calling “abusive police practices and individual police misconduct” reasons for not solving murder cases.
This is in a city of around 155,000 that is reported to have 21 documented gangs and 1,320 gang members as of 2006.
Clifford first experienced Pomona in 1972, when he first came to town to work on a political campaign. His office was in the Second Street Mall, the commercial hub of Pomona Valley until the 1950s.
“Buildings were vacating, long-term businesses left town, the mall was rife with gangs and graffiti and all kinds of problems,” Clifford said.
Second Street was home to a thriving post-World War II suburbia until the 1960s, when shoppers were drawn away to the newly built Montclair Plaza and Eastland Mall in West Covina. Pomona attempted to compete by creating of a new kind of pedestrian-friendly mall, but the project failed by the early 1970s, leaving many of the businesses vacant and the streets empty.
Deterioration continued as rents plummeted and lower income individuals moved into the area. The population is now around 65 percent Latino, a historically lower socioeconomic group according to the Census Bureau.
Today, Clifford and other residents are comparing downtown Pomona to Old Town Pasadena, Long Beach and even Hollywood.
The common thread within these cities is a downtown revitalization effort in the form of a Property and Business Improved Business District, commonly known as a PBID.
A PBID forms when businesses get together and agree to pay fees for special benefits the city can’t afford.
Those benefits include security, maintenance and promotion.
The district was recently renewed for 10 years, with a $712,000 budget for the first year. Much of the money goes to security, with the rest devoted to street improvements, marketing and professional services.
Business owners are assessed based on the size of their property.
Carolyn Hemming, district president, said the additional taxes have helped the area succeed.
“The DPOA is cleaning up the reputation of Pomona,” Hemming said. “Now it’s a destination.”
Hemming says it has taken a while for people to start feeling like they could come downtown again, and the improved district has been the catalyst in developing the community of unique shops and entertainment.
“I really want to see this place succeed,” said Hemming, who was born and raised in Pomona.
The improved district is bordered on the north and south by First Street and Mission Boulevard, and on the west and east by South Rebecca Street and South Eleanor Street, respectively. Garey Avenue runs through the middle.
David Armstrong, a downtown property owner, wants the city to create laws and ordinances to govern the maintenance, making sure businesses are held accountable for their own trash.
“It’s really up to the City Council to support the P-BID with laws and ordinances that will benefit everybody.”
Armstrong said he has seen the downtown change drastically from a family-oriented daytime business district to a nighttime entertainment atmosphere.
He’s concerned the city needs to better prepare for the newfound crowds coming downtown at night.
“If you bring three or four thousand people down here at a time, you’re going to have a certain amount of problems,” Armstrong said, mentioning parking and cleanup.
These are all good problems as far as Hemming is concerned.
“I’m happy to see trash because that means people were here,” she said.
Hemming, who has owned a shop downtown for more than 20 years, said she used to keep a shotgun and handgun ready at all times.
“Now that isn’t the case,” Hemming said. “I leave them at home where they’re not needed.”
The district has made progress in cleaning up the downtown and meeting business owners’ needs, adjusting trash pickup cycles for people like Armstrong.
The Pomona police have also been active in recent years, making efforts to address the gang problems.
The police department’s primary focus has been enforcement, to catch criminal gang members, and prevention, to steer youth away from getting involved.
Violent crime was more than double in the 1990s compared to what it is today.
Andrew Kanzler, a Cal Poly Pomona student who lives in south Pomona, sees the overall improvement as a step in the right direction.
He goes downtown regularly and has started to bring his friends.
“The city obviously needs help,” he said. “And I think by amping the businesses that have the most traffic, which is the downtown area, that will be able to pump money back into the city.”
Pomona’s connection to higher education is ample, with Cal Poly Pomona, Western University and DeVry University located within the city and plenty of other colleges nearby.
Most of Western University, located centrally downtown, was carved out of the new district map because the university handles its own security and promotion. But Senior Vice Provost Greg Guglchuk said that the school is onboard with the changes.
Cal Poly Pomona’s presence in the district is marked by its downtown center, which hosts galleries and children’s events.
However, Kanzler knows that many of his fellow students aren’t interested in what Pomona has to offer.
“People go to our school and they’re expecting two things. Some people … like the quietness of it. Some people … want more. If the downtown grows, that will provide what is missing on campus, but also keeps the people that want the quiet campus happy at the same time.”
The previous City Council helped modernize Pomona a few years ago through installing wireless Internet access in a mile radius downtown.
But memories of children like 3-year-old Ethan Esparza, who died in a gang-related drive-by murder in 2006, remind residents of what’s going on in the rest of the city.
The Pomona police have developed the Gang Resistance Education and Training program to work on discouraging gang involvement and deglamorizing the behaviors glorified in movies and media.
As the city tightens its belt to balance its budget for the state, essential programs and services are being cut, from tree trimming and street cleaning to fewer police on duty.
With the downtown district renewed, a friendlier Pomona is starting at the heart of the city.
Clifford thinks Pomona is near tipping point, and that is has the downtown has the potential to flourish and give hope to the rest of the city.
“Today you can go downtown [in Pomona] on the second or fourth Saturday and the place is jammed,” Clifford said. “People are walking – it’s very pedestrian orientated and it’s absolutely wonderful.”