By Jim Tortolano
Beloved Orange County historian Jim Sleeper once remarked that local redevelopment agencies have turned many historic OC locations into “historic parking lots.” This applied especially to central business districts – downtowns – in the county’s older cities. Downtowns are making a comeback locally and nationally, and some cities that enthusiastically tore theirs down in the Seventies are working hard to build new ones.
One such revival is taking place in Garden Grove, where the original commercial core dates back to 1875 or so. The recent attention paid to the area around Garden Grove Boulevard and Euclid Street by the city, if it results in any major changes, would be the third major facelift for the area. History, once again, repeats itself. Garden Grove was established in 1874-5 by Alonzo Cook and a handful of others, who started a village near what was originally called Ocean Avenue (now Garden Grove Boulevard) and the Anaheim Road (now Euclid). The small village grew slowly, and the commercial district was a block of wooden structures along an unpaved dirt road. But the coming of the Pacific Electric railroad in 1905 changed all that, and made Garden Grove a (slowly) booming market town.
The rail line that cut diagonally through the area just west and south of the businesses gave rise to several large packing plants for the crops of walnuts, chili peppers, orange and eventually strawberries. It remained a small “downtown,” but it did have a paved “main” street, streetlights, banks, grocery stores, a hotel and a movie theater (The Gem). If it lacked a certain visual appeal in that most of the structures were made of wood or brick, it sufficed. At last until March 10, 1933. It’s generally called the Long Beach Earthquake, but the epicenter was actually close to Huntington Beach. It struck Garden Grove hard, leveling much of the fragile downtown and damaging nearby Garden Grove High School, where one student was killed by falling masonry.
You can’t really call a tragedy like that a “blessing in disguise” but it did lead to a substantial facelift for the area. Merchants and others (Garden Grove did not become an incorporated city until 1956) created the Euclid Improvement Association and went to work. The street was widened, and many of the tumbled-down brick and wood buildings were replaced with sturdier wood-and-stucco structures in a Spanish mission style. Whitewashed storefronts and red-tile roofs gave the area a distinctive look. As Garden Grove (indeed, all of Orange County) boomed after World War II, so did its downtown. It stretched east and west along the Boulevard and north and south along Euclid. Although locals still did their Christmas shopping at the big department stores in Santa Ana (Sears, JC Penney, Montgomery Ward), they bought their groceries, hardware and even their cars in town.
The downtown area took a hit in the mid-Fifties when the Orange County Plaza opening at Chapman Avenue and Brookhurst Street. Although modest by today’s standards, it was the first major “modern” shopping center in the county, featuring a JC Penney, two supermarkets and dozens of other stores. It drew many shoppers away from downtown to this new “uptown.”
The bigger blow came from state and county transportation planners. In an effort to normalize the crazy quilt of roads in the area, several major north-south thoroughfares were realigned in the mid-Sixties. Beach Boulevard was curved to wed up with Stanton Avenue, Magnolia Street married Cannery Road and Brookhurst Street wiggled to hook up with Wright Street. But the realignment of Euclid Street had the biggest impact. For years, Euclid coursed through Garden Grove’s downtown but ended at The Boulevard. To continue proceeding south, you either crossed the street and picked up Century Boulevard (an odd diagonal with a story of its own) to Verano Street, or turned left, then right into Verano. The “new” Euclid Street started to swing east just south of Lampson Avenue, finally straightening out at Garden Grove Boulevard, where it met Verano, and obliterated its name, just as Brookhurst wiped out Wright Street.
The new route made sense from a traffic standpoint, but it bypassed the city’s original central business district, which now was along a “new” Main Street. The decline in traffic and visibility (as well as of agricultural activity in the area) for the old downtown, and vacancies and marginal businesses began to pop up with alarming frequency. In the early Eighties, the City of Garden Grove tried its hand at reviving the area. It sought to create a unified, unique look with a brick-stamped concrete roadway, eliminated angle parking and installed benches, trash cans, water fountains and shade trees.
However, it also demolished about two-thirds of the district. One block of commercial south of Acacia Street (now Parkway) was torn down for senior citizen housing; most of the commercial buildings along The Boulevard were also gutted, along with those west and east of Main Street. The result was that, for years, the remaining businesses were in an island surrounded by vacant lots. Eventually, big box retailers (Costco, Home Depot, Office Depot) were lured to the area but they were cut off from the original downtown by vast parking areas. The isolation remained.
Today, many cities are celebrating or desperately trying to create vibrant downtowns. Bustling urban spaces and walkable streets with restaurants, art galleries, boutiques and parks are in high demand, especially among younger people. Privately, some city officials admit that the previous attempt to revive downtown was not well handled, and now are placing much emphasis on a center of the community that can be a “living room” for Garden Grove residents. They say that if you wait long enough, everything comes back into style. “Old town” Garden Grove is an example of how that is playing out in the countywide passion for new downtowns.
Jim Tortolano is a resident of Garden Grove and was editor-owner of Garden Grove Journal newspaper from 1983 to 2013. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Categories: Garden Grove