Historically significant Harvard Street in downtown Hemet, which is becoming the center of the city’s effort to bring art and culture to its residents, is the latest victim of the economic disaster brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, but many are creatively finding ways to survive shutdowns ordered by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Some merchants and shopkeepers on the street are creating outside displays, hoping to attract more customers.
The Diamond Valley Art Council, the Hemet Theater Foundation, service clubs and other nonprofits are finding ways to keep the history of downtown Hemet alive.
Harvard Street is located off Florida Avenue, just east of State Street. In the early 1910s, it was the first stopping point for tourists traveling across the nation, offering its own opera house, small cafes, a hotel and other storefront attractions.
Then in the 1920s, “Ramona,” an outdoor play written from Helen Hunt Jackson’s historical novel about the plight of two Native American lovers who were forced from their home by white settlers in the late 1800s, gained international attention.
Visitors came to see the play at the Ramona Bowl. After the performances, many enjoyed the attractions of Harvard Street and the opera house, which was rebuilt after the 1918 San Jacinto earthquake. Many buildings on Harvard Street were built by the founders of the Lake Hemet Water Company, W.F. Whittier and E.L. Mayberry, in 1887. The buildings have stood through many natural calamities and were retrofitted for current earthquake standards over the years.
A walk down Harvard Street today, while still boasting of several well-known eating establishments, a bar and other shops have been without the Diamond Valley Art Center, Elena Kern’s Art Gallery, a dance studio and several antique stores all due to the closing of all “nonessential” stores and services during the coronavirus pandemic.
Several thrift shops, the downtown bakery, La Boutique and Bridal Museum, once the home of the Hemet Opera House and other shops and stores are unable to fully open. The annual Harvard Street Holidays, the Street Fair and Ramona Days Celebration have been canceled or postponed by the city and chambers of commerce reducing the downtown street traffic.
Harvard Street was previously the focus of the city council and residents who worked to improve the city’s historic image, centered on the Ramona Pageant that was canceled for only the fourth year in its nearly 100-year history. The tourist industry has suffered in the city, as it has in many other cities across the nation.
Eve Faulkner, owner of the La Boutique and Bridal Museum, has stayed open, offering a Phantom of the Opera tea party and opera during the coronavirus pandemic at a much reduced level.
When I spoke with her Saturday, July 25, she said the business is struggling to remain open.
“I like to think that we help people,” Faulkner said. “We bring a little hope to them with our little tea parties and operatic performances and give them an opportunity to laugh and smile again in these times.”
Faced with the reality of state-ordered social distancing and face masks, Faulkner, like other Harvard Street merchants, has had to become creative to retain customers, conducting regular sanitation and cleaning schedules.
Faulkner said the number of people coming to tea parties has been reduced and those who do come must wear masks. She suggested ones decorated like those in the Phantom of the Opera. The tables and chairs in the tea room are set apart. A complete luncheon is served as the servers wear the proper protective clothing and masks. The tea parties are held privately at a cost of $40 per person.
The museum is stocked with hundreds of historical bridal gowns and dresses. Many are up for sale to brides seeking a vintage or historical look.
“We keep getting more and more in, many donated,” Faulkner said, “We need to sell them so we can keep going. We need a shot in the arm.”
Faulkner said residents will need to help maintain the area’s history through their patronage. The area was once cited as California’s “Most Walkable City,” an “American Tree City” with a wide variety of trees growing throughout the city and has been recognized as home of the state’s official Outdoor Play, “Ramona.”
Tony Ault can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.