Concord: From bedroom community to urban center

By Kara Navolio on June 18, 2018

This is the last of a three-part series leading up to Concord’s 150th birthday celebration.

The frantic growth of Concord during the 1930s to 1960s slowed somewhat during the 1970s, as Concord evolved into a more mature city.

The growing pains caused by the rapid population growth during the post-war years caused some residents to step back and discuss how to proceed and how to protect the aspects of Concord people valued the most.

Concerned residents formed the Downtown Property Owners Association and the Concord Historical Society. Arts organizations blossomed. Concord residents voted to protect historical landmarks and to acquire and preserve open space. Led by former mayor Dan Helix, voters approved a measure to protect Lime Ridge in 1977.

In addition to formally naming the city’s center Todos Santos Plaza, the Downtown Property Owner’s Association made plans for redevelopment and beautification downtown. One area was Salvio Pacheco Square. An entire block adjacent to the plaza was redesigned with Spanish-style architecture and a courtyard with restaurants, stores and offices. It set the tone for others to follow.

“In the ’70s, 70 percent of Concord’s workers commuted for work. We wanted to focus on bringing businesses here,” said Helix, who served on the City Council 1968-1976.

Mid- and high-rise office buildings were added beyond the downtown core to bring more jobs closer to where people lived. BART came to Concord in 1973, followed by more business and high-density housing near the station. Three of Concord’s largest housing developments were also built during this time – Walnut Country, Turtle Creek and Kirkwood.

Booming music scene

Concord’s arts scene was thriving during this time. The Concord Summer Festival began to draw big-name music artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Count Baise, Woody Herman and Benny Goodman. One of Concord’s most famous sons, internationally acclaimed jazz musician Dave Brubeck, performed often as well.

Carl Jefferson, founder of Concord Jazz Inc., a recording company that won four Grammy awards, spearheaded a move for a permanent home for Concord’s music festival. The result was the Concord Pavilion, opening in 1975 with a benefit concert by Sarah Vaughan and Henry Mancini.

The Willows Theater opened in 1977, and artists formed the Concord Arts Association and the Diablo Arts Association.

Through the 1980s, major building took place around the downtown area. The Concord Hilton with conference facilities opened in 1983, followed by office parks such as the Willows and Galaxy. Concord elected its first female mayor, June Bulman.

In 1987, the city received an honorable mention in the U.S. Conference of Mayors Livability Awards Program, based largely on its commitment to the arts.

Spirit Poles backfire

However, in the late ’80s, controversy shook city politics. As part of the city’s public art program, the Spirit Poles were installed in 1989 on Concord Avenue – one of the city’s main entrances. The 91, tapered aluminum poles had varying heights and were tilted at different angles. They were intended to be symbolic of the city’s dynamic growth and also to honor the Ohlone Indian practice of placing ceremonial poles outside their huts.

But the moment the poles went up, the public outcry began. The controversy led to the election of three new council members, and Bulman was not reelected.

Due to an agreement with the artist, the poles could not be removed. However, 10 years later, in 1999, a pole unexpectedly fell and the city was able to remove the poles for safety reasons.

Along with many other cities in this era, the city also wrestled with social issues like gay rights, protecting those with HIV/AIDS from discrimination and sexual harassment.

Expansion in the ’90s

The 1990s became the decade of renovation and a brighter future. Concord renovated its parks, Pixie Playland expanded and Waterworld opened. Voters passed Measure A, giving the Mt. Diablo Unified School District $90 million for school renovations.

Todos Santos Plaza was redesigned, and Sun Valley Mall and the Concord Pavilion were renovated and expanded. Mt. Diablo Medical Center expanded and merged with John Muir Medical Center. Brenden Theatre opened in 1995, adding much-needed activity to the downtown area and helping new restaurants flourish. Concord was becoming an even more desirable place to live.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore visited Concord and helped volunteers wire Ygnacio Valley High School for the Internet – the first step in preparing Concord students for the 21st century.

By 1999, a customer satisfaction survey revealed that three-quarters of Concord residents were happy with the quality of life in Concord. In 1993, Concord captured the 7th Best City in the Nation to Raise Children title from Zero Population Growth.

Always moving forward

The 21st century has brought many more changes to Concord. What was once a bedroom community of mostly white, working-class residents has evolved into a diverse, multi-cultural urban city of more than 125,000 residents – with more than 30 percent Hispanic.

Dense housing is being developed downtown, commercial building continues and the city is working on plans to incorporate the former Concord Naval Weapons Station land into the rest of Concord.

We are now a thoroughly modern city, with vibrant parks, a world-class entertainment venue, thriving businesses, shopping and restaurants.

It is fitting that in the same square where it all began when Salvio Pacheco named it Todos Santos Plaza – and in the same square where generations have celebrated holidays, festivals and parades – we will celebrate Concord’s 150th birthday on July 4th.

This series includes details from three books on Concord history: “Images of America: Concord” by Joel A. Harris, “History of Concord: Its Progress and Promise” by Edna May Andrews and “Concord’s Dynamic Half Century: The Years Since World War II” by Lura Dymond.

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