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Open Streets and Urbanization: Exploring Downtown Orange County

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A couple of weeks ago I visited Garden Grove to preview that city's upcoming open streets event, which I wrote would be the first of its kind in Orange County. Almost immediately after the publication I was informed that Santa Ana, Garden Grove's neighbor to the southeast, was doing something similar one week earlier. Sure enough, on October 5, Santa Ana will celebrate Sunday On Main Open Streets, or SOMOS. From 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. a 3.1-mile section of Santa Ana's Historic Main (and a few blocks of its side streets) will be closed to motorized vehicles of all kinds.

Several of Orange County's suburbs can be said to be undergoing urbanization, but Santa Ana is one of the few which can be said to have achieved urbanity quite some time ago. Santa Ana is currently the second most populous city in Orange County, and its exclamatory motto, "Downtown Orange County!" makes a bold claim. What's more, whereas some Orange County cities' rising skylines are exclusively formed by tourist-catering highrise hotels and maybe the occasional office tower, Santa Ana additionally has residential highrises that offer a different sort of urban experience.

The famed auto-dependency of Southern California has often led to the claim that our cities were primarily built around cars. In fact, as is the case with most of the Southland, the seeds of Santa Ana can more correctly be identified as the train. In 1877 Santa Ana wooed Southern Pacific (SP) into what was then southern Los Angeles County with an offer of free right-of-way, free land for a depot, and $10,000. SP's monopoly on passenger rail was soon broken by the California Central Railway. The Los Angeles Interurban Railway opened a train route between the train hub of Watts and Santa Ana, which was soon after taken over by the famed Pacific Electric Railway.

As was the case with many American cities, the rise of the automobile helped cause the fall of urban centers. Along the SOMOS route is the old United Automotive Building. Construction of its parking garage began in 1922. The office portion was built after and was home to several automobile dealers, which sold cars from the Austins, Essex, Haynes, Hudson, Marmon, Oldsmobile, Pierce-Arrow, and Roosevelt motor companies. More often than not, people that bought cars ultimately used them to hightail it to newer suburbs where they could take advantage of car-catering pod malls, drive-thrus, and drive-ins. A direct route for cars traveling between Los Angeles and Santa Ana only came in 1935, with the opening of Firestone Boulevard, named after the tire manufacturer with a huge plant up the road in South Gate.

Having succeeded in equipping most residents with cars, the automobile dealers all left the Automotive Building (which is now home to a restaurant, Original Mike's). Faced with traffic the city attempted to widen its way out of congestion, but ironically only attracted more cars as a result. In 1953, Firestone Boulevard was expanded into a freeway named the Santa Ana (aka the 5) and congestion and air quality further worsened.

Today, the stretch of Main south of downtown, there are still car dealers and rentals. However, there are many more shops devoted to their maintenance, and one can find body shops, gas stations, smog checks, tire shops, window tinters, and specialists in the repair of air conditioning, auto glass, brakes, clutch, fuel injectors, mufflers, radiators, transmissions. Although less obviously tied to car culture, it is not coincidental that the auto-centric strip contains numerous fast food franchises as well.

Auto Shops
Auto Shops
A 1950 drive-thru
A 1950 drive-thru
Pacific Electric Bicycle Trail
Pacific Electric Bicycle Trail

As Anglos moved away from Santa Ana, Latinos moved in. There have been Latino barrios in Santa Ana at least since the 1940s when most were engaged in farm work, but until 1970 Anglos were the majority. By 1980, Latinos were the plurality, and by 1990 the majority. Today Latinos, mostly Mexican-Americans, comprise nearly 80% of Santa Ana's population. The next largest demographic group are Asian-Americans, mostly Vietnamese-Americans, who spread into the western portion of the city as Little Saigon expanded from Garden Grove into a large swathe of North Orange County.

Along Main Street, Santa Ana has a decisively Latino atmosphere. If signs are written in just one language, more often than not it's in Spanish. When people describe downtown as having gone into decline, it's hard not to assume that the speaker isn't just talking about economics because from what I've seen, the neighborhood never died; it transformed. Old movie theaters switched to Spanish language cinemas and then, as theaters struggled, into churches. In the 1970s, merchants along bustling 4th Street started celebrating the annual Fiestas Calle Cuatro. Anglo developers recognized where the money was and built the Latino family-catering Fiesta Marketplace shopping center.

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Another shift is underway today. A generation of young adults who spent significant portions of their childhoods on freeways and sitting at red lights in the suburbs decided they'd had enough, and headed back to the city centers their parents and grandparents forsook. The new arrivals opened art galleries in the Churrigueresque Santora Building. To cater to them, the Galaxy and Yost theaters re-opened as a live music venues (the Galaxy has since became the Observatory). There is a sense though that they remain disinterested in truly integrating into the neighborhood as they tend to walk out of their converted lofts at night to head to artwalks and wine bars, and are rarely seen during the daylight hours.

Not surprisingly, efforts have been made by shopkeepers and developers to attract the business of these young, monied, new arrivals. The shops of the Fiesta Marketplace were-painted a dull greige and the mall was rebranded "East End" (it's better than "The Shops at First Street" I suppose). In contrast to the area south of downtown I heard a Pepe Aguilar coming from within a market and someone was bumping "El Asesino" by Los Internacionales Cadetes de Jaime Vera; in downtown proper the only music I heard was by Coldplay.

The future is far from grim, though. The return of Santa Ana's farmers' market, open streets events, and the just-held inaugural 5K run suggest there's an effort to connect and integrate Santa Ana's various communities. In bustling Santa Ana surely there's room for Oaxacan botanicas, boba tea houses, and artisinal cronut ramen or whatever.

Historic South Main
Historic South Main
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If you choose to participate in SOMOS without a car, which would certainly be in the spirit of the event, there are several OCTA bus lines which serve the area. If you're coming from further off, Metrolink's Orange County Line and Inland Empire-Orange County Line and Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner all stop at the Santa Ana Train Station -- located within easy walking distance of the event.

There are many more miles of bike trails in Santa Ana than bike lanes. You can also reach the area via the Santa Ana River Trail and Parkway -- which when complete will reach Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains. Running parallel to SOMOS's route for much of its five mile length is the always car-free Pacific Electric (PE) Railway Trail, originally a horse car line built by the Santa Ana, Orange & Tustin Street Railway Company. PE operated it as the Santa Ana-Orange Line until 1930.

There are plenty of attractions along the route. In the southern end the aroma of Mexican (especially Michoacano) food is ubiquitous -- if sometimes punctuated by the smell of burgers and donuts. There are loncheras parked on Main's side streets and vendors constantly pace the sidewalk offering fruits, tamales, and ice cream. There's more variety (and presumably healthier options) downtown where one can find American, Salvadoran, Venezuelan, and Vietnamese options, among others.

There's also a good deal of architecture to check out. Downtown there are plenty of grand architectural and historical gems, including several old churches, Old City Hall, the Dr. Willella Howe-Waffle House & Medical Museum, the Old Orange County Courthouse (fka the Santa Ana County Courthouse), the Santa Ana Performing Arts & Event Center (located in an old Masonic temple) among others. Further south there are less obvious if abundant architectural charms. Many of the businesses are located within small streamline moderne buildings and converted Crafstman bungalows. On the comfortably shady side streets of the Madison Park neighborhood, one can see many beautiful Victorian mansions.

On the day of the SOMOS event, there will additionally be activities for kids, vendors selling goods, and my favorite -- karaoke stages. Hopefully the songbook will have plenty of appropriate songs (eg "You'll Never Walk Alone," "My White Bicycle," "These Boots Were Made for Walking," and "La Bicyclette" would begood places to start.

2nd Street Promenade
Old Fire Station 4 -- likely to be turned into an arts cent
Builders Exchange Building (1928)
United Presbyterian Church and the Old Orange County Courthouse
Old Santa Ana City Hall (1935)
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