Friday, February 20, 2015

Big in a small town

   Claremont is well-known known for its colleges, but they are definitely not the only game in town.  One thing I love about living here is all the people doing inspiring stuff, even if Claremont isn’t as noisy as, say, Berkeley. And it’s not just the students and young artists and musicians here who are getting out there.  The following is my column that appeared in the Claremont Courier two weeks ago. 


   There were people who wrote letters, saying that the college students who gathered in front of city hall a couple months ago to protest the killings of unarmed black men by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, as well as other places, and grand juries opting not to indict the officers in a couple of these cases, were advocating lawlessness and stirring up trouble in Claremont.  There were people who said the said the said the same thing about Occupy Claremont a couple years ago, claiming that the people camped out in front of City Hall were lazy and shifty, a dangerous presence in Claremont. 
   I wonder what they would say about all the trouble-makers gathered at the Claremont United Church of Christ two Saturdays ago. 
   There were a lot of them. I think Claremont United Church of Christ is Claremont’s biggest church, as well as its oldest, but even if it isn’t, it’s pretty big, and it was full that afternoon.  
   Some people there had marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama, in the effort to get black people the right to vote in the 1960’s (as powerfully depicted in the film Selma). There were people there who had worked with Caesar Chavez in the endeavor for farm laborers to have decent working conditions and the right to unionize. Also present were people who have helped Native Americans in their struggle to achieve rights and dignity in this land that was taken from them. 
   There was also a performance that afternoon in the church, a performance that honored and illustrated all this work and struggle.  The performance was by the Albert McNeil Jubilee Singers, and it celebrated the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., about a week after the celebration of the slain civil rights activist’s birthday. 
   Yes, there was wonderful and stunning singing by the Los Angeles group founded and directed by Albert McNeil. There were stirring renditions of gospel and gospel-tinged songs like “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and “Wade in the Water.” Some of the songs, including a couple from a cantata called “Changed My Name” by Linda Twine, were less known but no less breath-taking. 
   But this wasn’t just a concert by a good choir. Along with the songs, there was powerful narration, telling the story of Afican-Amerians, starting in 1863 with slavery and the auction block before fast-forwarding to the civil rights movement in the 1960’s. King’s efforts, including the march from Selma, were focused on, and there were excerpts from his letter from the Birmingham Jail, his “I have a dream” speech” and the “I’ve been to the mountain top” speech given on the night before his assassination. 
   In addition, the production, lasting a bit over an hour, included choreography, with the singers acting out scenes featuring Rosa Parks and other bus riders, beatings, shootings and marches, among other scenes.  Instead of being awkward and corny, this acting-out was remarkably effective. Indeed, it was a production – conceived , choreographed and directed by Douglas Griffin, with assistance from Nell Walker – and it packed quite a wallop. 
   All of this, not only the moving performance but also the large audience in the church, was in honor of James and Louilyn Hargett, as part of Pilgrim Place’s centennial celebration this year. The afternoon program was a celebration of the activism evident in the work, the continuing work, of the Hargetts and the other former ministers and church workers who live in this unique, now 100-year-old retirement community in Claremont. 
   The performance celebrating King, so close to his birthday, was most appropriate for honoring the Hargetts and Pilgrim Place in its hundredth year. As was noted in a concluding tribute, the Hargetts and the other Pilgrims may well be retired, but they’re not too tired to work for justice. 
   Yes, the residents of Pilgrim Place put on their delightful fundraising festival every Fall – certainly a massive undertaking – and they have nice art shows and teas. But they do so much more and more important things. 
   I don’t know if they were participating in the protest front of City Hall late in the Fall, but they are well-known for standing on the corner of Arrow Highway and Indian Hill Boulevard in a vigil for peace every Friday afternoons.  They were not camping in front of City Hall, but they were behind the scenes during Occupy Claremont, providing food, showers and beds to sleep in now and then for the participants.
   And in the last year, they have been involved in the effort to provide overnight shelter for the homeless at the Claremont Quaker meetinghouse.  Along with providing this leadership, the Pilgrims have assisted in there being more meals to the homeless in Claremont. 
   There have been those who say that the peace vigils have been unpatriotic, and there is no doubt some grumbling that the homeless – or more homeless – shouldn’t be attracted to Claremont with free food and shelter.  Many would rather see the homeless simply kept out of or taken out of Claremont. 
   But there were plenty of people who didn’t like Martin Luther King’s efforts to help African-Americans the right to vote and other civil rights.  More significantly, King did much more than preach non-violence, and even those who admired this work didn’t appreciate it when he spoke out against the war in Vietnam and white privilege and up for black garbage men.
   Yes,  it is nice and it is easy to remember the “I have a dream” speech and non-violence preaching, and it’s nice and easy to remember the Pilgrim Place Festival. But, especially during this Black History Month and during this Pilgrim Place Centennial year, there is lots more speaking out and hard work to remember and celebrate. 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Taking another look

   Sometimes opening our eyes will do a world of good – or at least lets us see another world.  Here is one of my recent columns from the Claremont Courier. 


   “This is why I haven’t come here in a long time.”
   We were driving down the narrow road, getting farther and farther away, after being waved passed both of the parking lots.  Cars were parked, jammed along the side of the road, with bunches of people walking alongside in a steady stream. There was no way we were going to find a place to park, especially when I had to get out of the van in my wheelchair. After about a mile, my friend and I turned around and headed back. 
   I thought we were out of luck on this afternoon excursion during a trip to the Bay Area late last month.  As I told my friend, I was surprised but not really.  Yes, it was a Monday, but it was during the holidays, and it was Muir Woods.  Muir Woods is always crowded, right?  It was the last time I was there something like 30 years ago. 
   It turned out, once the ranger who had waved us on saw my DP license plates, that there were plenty of disabled parking spaces. Even with the 4-0-5-freeway-like crowd, it was a pretty nice outing.  It only got hairy and downright tourist-trappy in the gift shop.  
   I suspect I wouldn’t have been too disappointed and it would have been a nice excursion anyway if we had been out of luck and not able to go to Muir Woods.  It was a perfectly sunny California Winter day, and I love driving on Highway 1 and the small back roads in the Marin County and Sonoma County area north of San Francisco.  It was fascinating to drive through the laid-back yet refined neighborhoods on the way to Muir Woods, and I’m a sucker for redwoods and golden hills leading down to waves crashing into high cliffs. 
   In fact, for redwoods, I think Big Basin, not far from Santa Cruz, beats Muir Woods any day.  No doubt the reason why Muir Woods gets all the crowds – we heard a range of languages there – is that it’s compact and neat and a short drive for the tourists in San Francisco. 
   If we hadn’t gone to Muir Woods, we may have taken a walk on the Nimitz Trail, a nice, paved closed-off road, easy on my wheelchair, along the top of Tilden Park above Berkeley.  There are spectacular views of the bay, and I love the feeling of being far from the crowded cities while being not so far. 
   While these parks and trails are indeed wonderful and wonderfully nearby in the Bay Area, there are any number of places to stop and admire the view while going up that way.  As I said, Highway 1 is one of my favorite drives, and I’m often tempted to pull over and get out of the van and explore or just sit.  Heck, that road with all the cars parked outside Muir Woods was pretty gorgeous (and I noticed a sign pointing to Mt.  Tamalpais State Park – mmm, somewhere else to explore.). 
   And then there’s Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz, where we went the day after going to Muir Woods as we headed back south.  I always go there when I’m in Santa Cruz – usually, it’s the first thing I hit in town.  It’s a street that follows the coast for a few miles north of the pier, with modest neighborhood houses on one side and a walk/bike path above dramatic cliffs and crashing waves on the other.  It is pretty spectacular, but there’s also an ordinariness about it, with people out on their everyday walks and jogs and rides that I love. 
   I normally would have also gone out on the pier and visited the noisy and lazy sea lions hanging out at the end, but it was unusually cold and windy that day.  I didn’t stay out on the Cliff Drive walk for that long for that reason. 
   But I did wonder, as I always do when I’m there, why can’t there be a Cliff Drive in Claremont.  Why do the people in Santa Cruz get such a lovely place to take their daily power walk? 
   Or why can’t there be a redwood forest nearby?  Why isn’t there a gorgeous, quiet coastline, with waves crashing against cliffs left in their natural state, a short drive from Claremont?  Heck, why can’t it take less than an hour to get to Topanga Canyon beach? 
   That would be so nice. 
   Well, I can only dream. 
   Just as I found myself dreaming as I sat, taking a moment from reading on a Sunday afternoon a couple weeks later in the garden next to Bridges Hall of Music on the Pomona College campus. I was on a green lawn, surrounded by noble sycamore trees and historic buildings.  Squirrels ran along the top of a wall, and birds tried out the bird bath.  The water wasn’t running that day; there’s usually a sweet gurgling. 
   Or I could have been in front of Bridges Hall, sitting in Marsden Quadrangle.  Here, there are not only the lawn and the sycamores but also a magnificent view in all directions, with Bridges Hall of Music (Little Bridges) to the south, Bridges Auditorium (Big Bridges) to the east, the Smith Campus Center to the north and the Carnegie building on the other side of College Avenue to the west.  A pretty remarkable place for a stroll or an hour or two with a book (or a screen of one’s choice).
   If I want to go a bit further, there’s Scripps College, with its enchanting garden and patios and old Mediteranean architecture. There’s also the Greek Theater on the eastern edge of Pomona College campus. It is a bit more secluded and rustic.  (It’s also next to the new Studio Arts Building, which recently got a fair review in the Los Angeles Times.)
   But these aren’t the only places.  On the colleges campuses, there are plenty of other nice spots.  There are also all the parks in town.  Shelton Park in the Village feels a bit like Berkeley, with the eucalyptus trees and the craftsman houses nearby. And I don’t need to mention the Wilderness Park – so popular that it has been a problem vexing the City for at least the past two years. 
   It may be wrong to say I forget that Claremont has all these beauty spot.  More likely, I just take them for granted.  No doubt, they’re popular, and these brilliantly clear, balmy Winter days, with snow-capped mountains in the background certainly help.  
   It’s not just the Wilderness Park.  When I go to Marsden Quadrangle, there are usually other people – and not just students.  And they are often taking pictures, often for wedding parties,  holiday cards and the like. I once saw a couple being photographed on the Pomona College campus with fallen sycamore leaves being thrown over them. 
   How’s that for picture-perfect?