Death Rattle in Pomona

Published on March 31st, 2009

Obama may be listening, but it’s a generation too late

By Mark Cromer

Standing at the crossroads of East End and Holt avenues in Pomona, I am struck by how things haven’t changed a lick since the cold, impressive power of the American presidency glided down these crumbling streets just a week earlier.

Not that I expected President Obama’s brief visit to my old hometown to result in anything of immediate consequence; but you sure wouldn’t have known that from walking among the hundreds of people who lined the sidewalks to greet his motorcade.

It was like watching sick and desperate people line up hoping to be touched by a faith healer; they radiated that same surreal ebullience that’s often found among those convinced they are about to be saved by divine intervention. And though the faithful were suitably adorned with Obama’s name and visage—plastered on everything from T-shirts to tote bags to baby strollers—the president’s arrival did not portend a miracle for this struggling city.

But if anything miraculous could come of Obama’s brief visit to Pomona, it would be for his administration to honestly assess just how and why this former municipal powerhouse of the Pomona Valley has fallen so far—and address it candidly and decisively.

While the president’s advance team likely provided him with some statistical data on the city, its people and its plight; whatever fast-facts he was primed with can’t paper over the grim reality of what has happened to Pomona.

And to understand that, Obama only needed to look out of the window of his armored limousine along the route to Edison International’s Vehicle Electrics plant. If he did, the president undoubtedly saw the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of immigrants lining the streets in front of empty and battered storefronts that long ago were thriving businesses that were the economic spine of Pomona, a backbone that finally crumbled amid the massive shedding of skilled-labor jobs in the early 1990s.

As industrial giants like General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Perkin-Elmer, Xerox, GTE and others were shuttered, those and other middle class jobs were not replaced with similar employment opportunities that had anchored the economy of Pomona and its surrounding valley for the better part of a half-century. Assurances from Washington of a so-called “peace dividend” that was supposed to ease the transition to post Cold War economies never materialized.

The result is that Obama literally drove past the ghosts of once iconic retail businesses such as Sears, Zodys, Denny’s, Van de Kamps, Bekins, Vons, International House of Pancakes—even the Rock of Gibraltar of fast food: McDonalds—all of which have failed and closed their doors in Pomona. Some were replaced by small, slip-shod businesses that cater expressly to immigrants, their crude signage often obliterated with graffiti. Others still sit empty or have been bulldozed.

But much of the commercial, industrial and retail space was swallowed whole by the only industry that seemed to be booming in Pomona during the 1990s and into the millennium (other than churches, street crime and shopping cart tamale vendors): the Pomona Unified School District. With an exploding student body population that was fueled almost entirely by surging illegal immigration, the city’s public school district filled what remaining space it had on traditional campuses with portables and then began to take over retail malls, banks and old commercial buildings.

If Obama looked across the street from the Edison plant he toured he would have seen a sprawling Pomona Unified campus that features “health services,” “food services” and a learning academy for the district’s students and their families. What he likely wouldn’t know is that it used to be a solidly middle class mall that featured a Sears and dozens of retail shops that provided hundreds of private sector jobs before it died and was taken over by an indoor swap meet and the school district.

That transition has taken place all over this city of 175,000 people.

I don’t know how much hard cash from the president’s economic “recovery” plan is eventually going to reach Pomona, but unless it’s enough to create 15,000 or so skilled labor jobs in the private sector, then the residents of P-Town better not get their hopes up.

Illegal immigration alone did not create Pomona’s socioeconomic implosion, but it indisputably hastened it and expanded it. Just as the city was facing revenue reductions and an uncertain economic future, it was subjected to an immigration-fueled surge of uneducated, unskilled and economically impoverished people that put immense burdens on its social service network, hospitals, schools and public safety services. Stable neighborhoods fell into disrepair as middleclass families simply moved away, yet far from becoming a ghost town, population densities soared as single family homes were occupied by three, four and five families.

So it’s a tad ironic that Obama came to Pomona after watching a video that featured tearful students decrying the economic hardship and blight that has gripped the city and hit their families—and yet his motorcade had to navigate along streets where illegal immigrants stood in front of shuttered stores holding signs that read “ICE = Terror!” and “Amnesty Now!”

Just what President Obama took away from his brief foray into Pomona remains uncertain, but if he pursues an amnesty for the tens of millions of illegal immigrants in the United States today, who will then bring in their extended families—even as millions of American workers are losing their jobs—then one thing is certain: the fate of Pomona will indeed be the fate of the nation.

Mark Cromer is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS).

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