Seventy years ago, Arbol Verde was a vibrant Mexican-American neighborhood on the eastern edge of Claremont. Today, about 80 percent of the homes there are owned by Claremont McKenna College, most of which house college faculty and staff. The CMC parking lot and Biszantz Family tennis courts sit in other parts of the former neighborhood.
Arbol Verde is bordered to the north by CMC, to the west by Pomona College, to the east by Claremont Boulevard, and to the south by First Street. Although it was historically inhabited by Mexican immigrant families working for the local citrus industry, the Mexican community has largely disappeared following demolitions led by the city of Claremont and expansion by CMC from the 1960s through the 1990s.
Decades later, parties on all sides of the conflict are coming together to process their difficult shared history.
Matthew Garcia, a Dartmouth College historian whose family has lived in Arbol Verde for generations, discussed a book he wrote on the neighborhood at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum Wednesday night.
Garcia maintained a neutral tone in his talk, expressing hope that his presentation would further open up dialogue on the history of the neighborhood.
The presence of many significant figures in the neighborhood’s history — including former CMC president Jack Stark, who oversaw CMC’s expansion into the area, as well as former residents and activists — created a mood of reconciliation.
Before the talk, Garcia was honored with a traditional Mexican song by Al Villanueva, chair of the Arbol Verde Preservation Committee, in recognition of his contributions to peace through his work.
One of the key instances of contention was the 1968 construction of Claremont Boulevard, which cuts through Arbol Verde and was used by the city as a means to erase the Mexican community.
“Construction of Claremont Boulevard was not an innocent creation of a county road. It was intended to make people that lived on the east side, including my family, dry up and blow away in the wind,” Garcia said.
Prior to construction, Pomona professor Robert Herman conducted a study for the city that referred to the Mexican community as a “problem” and recommended the local church be demolished to encourage integration.
While Garcia placed responsibility primarily on the city, attorney and former Claremont resident James Sanbrano emphasized the role of the colleges. He said the expansion of the boulevard was for the “private use of the colleges” because CMC had been interested in closing off Mills Avenue, a road that split the western part of the campus from the Bauer Center.
Stark said the city was responsible for the construction of Claremont Boulevard.
“CMC owned a lot of houses on Claremont Boulevard that we tore down. We gave the city land that we owned if they gave us Mills,” he said. “Yes, I favored it because we were better off having Mills closed. Yes, we benefited from it, but we did not propose it.”
Both Garcia and Sanbrano said the city did not hold public hearings or follow due process, denying residents the chance to voice opposition.
Destruction of Arbol Verde did not stop with the boulevard. Between 1977 and 1990, CMC bought many properties in the neighborhood and evicted all non-CMC residents, Garcia said.
After CMC acquired all the property to the south of Sixth Street and north of Harwood Place, it successfully requested in 1992 that the city rezone the area to allow CMC to demolish existing homes and build a parking lot and athletic facilities, he added.
At the time, city residents expressed outrage about the rezoning decision.
“Shame, shame on you CMC that you made it impossible for anyone living in or near the east barrio to ever buy a home once the property was in an estate,” Mary Peterson wrote in a letter to the city council. “Shame, shame, on you Claremont City Council that you have voted to destroy [Arbol Verde].”
The impact of gentrification on the neighborhood’s cultural landscape is worrisome, Sanbrano said.
“The houses weren’t worth a lot, but they had more of a community atmosphere than tennis courts,” he said.
Stark denies that the college deliberately worked to expel the Mexican community.
“It’s true that CMC bought up the property and it’s true that the Mexican community that was there is not there anymore,” Stark said. “But we never knocked on anybody’s door asking them to sell. They came to CMC, and most who came to us were not Mexican, but landlords renting to graduate students.”
CMC has made efforts to repair relations with Arbol Verde residents through community outreach sessions.
Villanueva said his organization had a peace meeting with CMC in July 2011, during which they agreed they would no longer have an adversarial relationship with the college.
CMC committed to preserve what remains of the neighborhood and donated land to the city that became El Barrio Park. In return, Villanueva’s organization supported CMC’s master plan, which involves future construction projects.
“There were tensions that existed but we were proud to turn our relationship into a much more positive and constructive one,” said Matthew Bibbens, CMC’s vice president of administration and planning.
Garcia mentioned several avenues other colleges have used to address historical injustices — including funding research institutes, providing scholarships to descendents from impacted communities, and sponsoring topical campus art — although he stopped short of explicitly recommending CMC pursue these avenues.
CMC plans to keep the area of Arbol Verde located south of Harwood Place zoned residential for at least another 30 years, Bibbens said, although athletic complex expansions are planned for the East Campus property across Claremont Boulevard.