Claremont resident, Bulletin columnist shares ABC’s of Pomona
David Allen may live in Claremont but in his 17 years writing about the Pomona Valley as an Inland Valley Daily Bulletin columnist, he has developed a particular affection for the city’s westward neighbor.
“I’m convinced it’s the most fascinating, diverse, urban and downright funky city in the valley,” he writes in Pomona A to Z, released last month under the Pelekinesis imprint.
Mr. Allen stopped by Rhino Records last Saturday, reading excerpts from his book, signing copies and mingling with readers. The appearance gave him a chance to showcase the self-effacing wit for which he has become known.
“They tell me the book is flying off the shelves,” he said. “I don’t know if people are buying it or it’s physically flying off the shelves—maybe there’s a poltergeist.”
Mr. Allen is a longtime customer at Rhino, where he has spent “countless hours and countless dollars.” So he considers it a particular honor that his book is stocked at the local record emporium, “between a Led Zeppelin CD and a Morrissey album.”
“It’s a dream come true to be part of this store for a day, which probably says something about my low level of ambition,” he said.
Mr. Allen may joke about his humble aims, but in truth he has accomplished much in his time at the Daily Bulletin. As he points out in the “H is for Hookah” chapter of Pomona to A-Z, he hails from Olney, Illinois. But his vivid writing, which he characterizes as “humorous journalism,” has made him somewhat of a local icon.
“It is kind of a strange thing to be a columnist and writing for a newspaper in the 21st century and get recognized around town, especially based on a photo that is so small you could literally put a dime on it,” he said. “It makes me a little self-conscious—am I that distinctive looking?
“It’s a weird kind of fame because the vast majority of people I would pass on the street or see at a restaurant don’t read any newspaper, and wouldn’t have the slightest idea unless someone pointed me out,” he continued. “It’s gratifying, though, that some people do pay attention, that it means something to them that someone works for a newspaper.”
Here’s how Mr. Allen expanded his repertoire from newspaper columnist to author.
From 2004 to 2005, he embarked on an ambitious undertaking. Inspired by a documentary called Pittsburg A to Z, he set out to write 26 columns describing the city of Pomona, letter by letter.
He set himself some ground rules. For instance, rather than making his series an exercise in nostalgia, he opted to focus on compelling people, places and institutions that are still around and thriving.
“Some people think Pomona peaked in 1952 and it’s all been downhill from there,” he said. “But I came here in 1997, so I didn’t have that kind of baggage. I found Pomona interesting.”
He explains his philosophy succinctly in the forward to his book: “My underlying message was, ‘Stop pining for the glory days. There’s plenty in Pomona RIGHT NOW to be proud of.”
His next criterion was that his columns focus on the positive attributes of a city that is named after the Roman goddess associated of bounty but is perhaps best known for its abundant crime rate. It’s a reputation that Mr. Allen says has put Pomona residents in “a defensive crouch.”
“I wasn’t going to put the city down, but instead help it feel good about itself,” he said.
With this in mind, Mr. Allen’s column on the letter G doesn’t focus on gangs, but instead on The Glass House, a popular music venue in the Pomona Arts Colony.
Mr. Allen’s Pomona series ranges in topics from mud-brick adobes to the sanctioned rebellion of drag racing. It includes the smoky exoticism of Middle Eastern hookah lounges to the homemade tortillas of the popular Mexican eatery Juanita’s. It covers noted Chicano artist Magu, whose visual aesthetic leans toward ziggurats and low-rider cars, and the Primm Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church, a tiny building with a storied history.
It’s little wonder that one of Mr. Allen’s fans in attendance at the Rhino event dubbed him “The Huell Howser of the Inland Valley.”
In his “J is for Juanita’s” column, he quotes a Claremont cabinet maker who regularly travels to Pomona and Juanita’s to get food a cut above “some Taco Bell or Del Taco crap.” The pull of Pomona’s flavorful holes-in-the-wall is not the only example of the strong, if often unacknowledged, connection between the Goddess City and the City of Trees.
“They both have their respective colleges, Cal Poly Pomona in the case of Pomona and Pomona and the other Claremont Colleges in Claremont’s case,” he said. “They both have an art scene, with Pomona having the Arts Colony and an artwalk and Claremont now having a number of galleries and an artwalk.
“The Bunny Gunner frame shop recently moved [from Pomona] to Claremont, and the head of Pomona’s dA Center for the Arts, Chris Toovey, lives in Claremont,” he continued. “So there’s a little bit of cross-pollination there.”
Originally, Mr. Allen planned to run one of his Pomona columns per week. But though the series is marked by breezy prose, punctuated by puns and a generous spattering of alliteration, the pieces required more research than he had anticipated. In the end, it took a year for him to curate a compendium of Pomona icons and oddities.
“It’s the most ambitious thing I’ve ever undertaken. I’m pretty proud of it,” Mr. Allen said of the project.
In 2012, publisher Mark Givens approached him, asking if he had an idea for a book. Mr. Allen didn’t have to think long before pitching Pomona A to Z.
A decade on, a few of the writer’s subjects, such as the Xochimilco Mexican restaurant and Pomona’s two French bistros (“F is for French Food”) are no longer extant.
The Glass House, however, is still around, beckoning music aficionados with upcoming gigs by bands with large followings and funny names, like The Aquabats and Bombay Bicycle Club. And Mary Ferguson is still the organist (“O is for Organ”) at Pilgrim Congregational Church.
“It’s heartening to know how many things are still around,” Mr. Allen said.
The columnist’s book is still around at Rhino Records (235 Yale Ave., Claremont) as well as on the Pelekinesis website and through Amazon. The store’s buyer, Dennis Callaci, said stocking Pomona A to Z and inviting Mr. Allen to present was an obvious choice, and not just because Rhino likes to support the endeavors of Claremonters. Mr. Callaci appreciates Mr. Allen for “his wit and his heart.”
“It’s a wonderful combination,” he said.
Vince Turner is the founder of the Claremont Community College, which is not a school but instead a group of residents devoted to cultivating knowledge and culture in Claremont. The organization is best known for founding Claremont’s annual 5-Second Film Festival.
Mr. Turner heartily agrees with Mr. Callaci’s appraisal.
“David Allen is the most powerful man in the Inland Empire—he speaks for America,” Mr. Turner said, with only a touch of hyperbole.
“He’s humorous,” he continued. “With the decline in newspaper reporting, he’s really the region’s only source of information on what’s going on in local government. And he’s really a good guy.”
Mr. Allen has received plenty of requests to create an A to Z series and accompanying book for other cities in the Inland Valley, including Claremont. Given the amount of effort the Pomona project took, he’s not sure he will tackle a similarly Sisyphean task.
Still, he remains pleased with his alphabetical exploration.
“Pomona’s always re-inventing itself,” he said. “There’s always something new and it’s often good. This series may be the most fun I’ve had in 17 years in journalism.”