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Concrete loss

by Char Miller

It happened when I wasn’t looking. When some noisy combination of jackhammer, backhoe and compact dozer tore apart a section of curb-and-sidewalk along Foothill Boulevard close to Wolfe’s Market, grinding into rubble a marker of Claremont’s past.

That’s not a criticism, because unless you were really searching for it you would have missed this near-invisible imprint—a small date-stamp—that signaled when this stretch of street infrastructure had been constructed. Fortunately, when I spotted it on December 2, 2018, after years of walking along that same route and never seeing what suddenly seemed glaringly obvious, I took a photograph. The text was easier to decipher in real-time than in this grainy image, but it reads: 

"Griffith Company 1928"

The company, which today bills itself as one of California’s “earliest general contractors,” and which, fascinatingly enough, bid on the Foothill Boulevard Improvement Project, was founded in 1902 and incorporated six years before its workers built the sidewalk on the south side of the busy thoroughfare.

These laborers did a good job, too: the concrete they poured stood up to 90 years of use and abuse. Until, that is, it was broken up, trucked away and, hopefully, ground down to be recycled into some other streetscape: dust to dust. This particulate matter may be a clue to the source of materials that Griffith Company mixed to build our no-longer extant sidewalk.

“Prior to the development of inexpensive modern asphalt in the 1920s, cities struggled to find affordable, durable, and available types of pavement suitable to their needs,” observes Robin B. Williams, an architectural historian at Savannah College of Art and Design.

As a result, “pavement was inherently local,” a site-specific character that led Williams to launch Historic Pavement, a fascinating website devoted to documenting “examples of diverse street and sidewalk pavement types, embedded features (such as street signs and commercial advertisements), and curbs, as well as developing city profiles.”

Claremont would make an intriguing case study for historic pavement, given our region’s alluvial soils and the major quarrying operations that continue to mine nearby San Antonio Wash. Just as it does today, in 1928 it would have made sense (and cents) for the Griffith Company to excavate this nearby resource for its infrastructure project.

That one of its employees then pressed the company’s name and time stamp into the not-yet-set concrete, and that this emblem survived for as long as it did, says something about its elemental durability.

Other such signifiers endure across Claremont. I have not yet found any as old as 1928, but have spotted plenty ranging from the 1940s to the 1970s, pedestrian artifacts that reveal the town’s sprawling growth. Its spatial development will not come as a surprise.

Immediately after World War II, new housing and accompanying sidewalks were hammered into place west of Indian Hill and south of Foothill. The next two decade brought mid-century ranch housing west of Mountain Avenue and north of Foothill, and south of Arrow Highway, a pattern of outward expansion that subsequently flattened the remaining orange groves as development pressed ever farther north.

Yet this sweep of subdivisions tied together by streets and sidewalks did not roll out in a uniform way, but was more hopscotch-like. The availability of land and capital determined where, when and how developers built. A constraint that is captured in the dates of two abutting sidewalk stamps on East College Way in the Piedmont Mesa neighborhood—one dated 1959, the other 1961.

This gap in construction may have been only a minor inconvenience to early residents, but it offers a major insight into how the built landscape was put together, one sidewalk at a time.

A vital, if vulnerable, part of the community’s historical record that has been hiding in plain sight.

 

Char Miller is the WM Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis and History at Pomona College and he is also the author of Not So Golden State: Sustainability vs. the California Dream.