Pomona College Magazine
Volume 41. No. 1.
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Pomona Arts Colony

Downtown Turnaround

Ed Tessier ’91 turned dying downtown Pomona into a vibrant Arts Colony with some help from family and the skills he learned at the College.

By Mark Kendall

Ed Tessier ’91 grew up watching downtown Pomona die. The sporting goods store where he got his first baseball glove closed. So did the department store where he bought his Cub Scout uniform. So did the lunch counter where his grandpa used to buy him root beer floats.

Shortly after graduating from the College, Tessier set about bringing downtown Pomona back to life.

While in school, Tessier majored in urban sociology and used Pomona’s downtown for case studies. Still, he never planned to undertake a crusade to save it. He expected to wind up behind a desk in some city planning department, “playing with colored pencils the rest of my life.”

But his father, Victor, a prominent Pomona attorney, had suffered multiple heart attacks and in 1992 asked his children (Ed, Jerry and Vicki) to take over six buildings he owned downtown. They could have unloaded the properties, but felt too much of a connection with the community.

”It was an emotional decision,” says Tessier.

Tessier remembered the words of one of his mentors, Pomona sociology professor Robert Herman. “He had a mantra,” says Tessier. “That even in the most distressed neighborhoods there’s always something that works. The goal should be to find it and nurture it.”

After months of research, Tessier’s first plan was to turn the area into a Latino-oriented businesses district. Latinos now were the majority in Pomona, and such retail efforts had been successful elsewhere in the Los Angeles area. But it turned out another developer had proposed doing the same thing elsewhere in Pomona, and the city told Tessier to come up with something else for downtown.

The downtown already was home to an underground arts scene, with “guerilla artists” occupying empty buildings, hosting exhibitions and poetry slams. Tessier decided to tap into the existing vibe and proposed turning the area into an arts district centered along Second Street, west of Garey Avenue.

By 1993, Tessier had opened (with a business partner) The Haven, a combination gallery and coffee house. Downtown artists came out of the woodwork and connected there. But the place wasn’t just drawing crowds on weekend nights. It was drawing scrutiny from the city, as Tessier tells it, with visits from code enforcement and other agencies. He saw this as part of the longstanding tension between downtown artists and the city.

Tessier describes this time as one of the most stressful in his life, and he remembers one incident where a crowd outside the Haven started rocking a police car.

Tessier and others in the colony decided they needed more political support. So they got involved in the election campaign for city council, questioning candidates and raising money for the ones that supported the arts. During this time, the city happened to be undergoing a political shift after switching from at-large city council elections to council districts, and this gave more power to the city’s Latino majority.

The aftermath of the 1993 elections brought a quick change in city attitudes toward the arts colony, according to Tessier, and the council passed new codes designed to help it along. The city formally designated the area as an arts colony and assigned about 20 square blocks for cultural uses.

During this time, the coalition-building skills Tessier learned at Pomona College came in handy. A quadriplegic since a body-surfing accident as a teen, Tessier campaigned for greater disabled access on campus when he attended the College. Since there were few Claremont Colleges students with disabilities, Tessier lined up the support of feminists, Latino groups and others in a “rainbow coalition.”

“I learned so much about navigating and building a multicultural team” while at the College, says Tessier. That was “absolutely indispensable both in getting political support for the arts colony and then guiding its early years as an urban multicultural neighborhood.”

Meanwhile, the economic environment also brought opportunity. The early ’90s recession was particularly sharp in Southern California, causing property values to plunge and allowing the Tessiers to buy up more downtown buildings on the cheap.

With a critical mass of property and newfound support from the city, the arts colony began to take off. New stores filled empty storefronts. The Glass House concert venue opened with a performance by popular band No Doubt, drawing hundreds of people.

The once-a-month Saturday night Art Walk was instituted, drawing more visitors downtown. Tessier remembers heading downtown around 8 p.m. on a Saturday night and not being able to find a parking space – a sure sign of success.

During this time, the Tessiers were adding a loft every month and filling another storefront every other month. For years, there has been a waiting list for artist's lofts. “It’s definitely an established urban neighborhood,’’ says Tessier. “If we never do another thing there it will grow and thrive in its own right.”

But Tessier isn’t done downtown. The emphasis is shifting to new construction as he runs out of old structures to renovate. Over the years, many downtown building were torn down for parking lots, creating gaps that Tessier would like to fill in with new structures.

Today other developers also are working downtown to transform old structures and build new ones for housing and stores – projects that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. “We’re far from alone any more,” says Tessier.

For the Tessiers, the project has been a family effort. Ed is president of Arteco Partners, which handles the property and community relations management aspect of the business. His brother, Jerry, runs Jeved Management, the development arm of the business. Their sister, Vicki Tessier ’91, lives in the arts colony.

And now the Tessiers are moving beyond Pomona to create another art colony in the nearby city of Ontario’s aging downtown. They expect to have 70 artists lofts completed within 18 months.

With home costs skyrocketing in Southern Californians, many creative arts professionals – makeup artists and architects, scriptwriters and web designers – are being priced out of the housing market in Los Angeles and Orange counties, says Tessier. So they’re joining the larger wave of people moving to the Inland Empire for cheaper housing. The problem, according to Tessier, is that they wind up scattered and isolated. His goal is to create places where they can congregate and collaborate.

”I think dealing with the creative arts wave is one of the Inland Empire’s biggest opportunities,” says Tessier. “And not enough people are onto it yet.”
©Copyright 2004
by Pomona College
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