Remembering Santa Anita

By Omar Ávalos, Salvador “Sal” Navarrete and Francisco Ávalos Ortiz

Barrio Santa Anita, or “Santa Nita” as some locals have always called it, is one of the oldest Mexican colonias (neighborhoods / colonies) in Santa Ana. It extends from Campesino Park on the north to Santa Anita Park on the south, and from Harbor Blvd on the west, to about Jackson street or a few streets more to the east. It is one of the largest barrios, possibly larger than Barrio Artesia, another historic Santa Ana barrio. One cannot get an appreciation for, or a sense of the scale of the neighborhood until driving through it. A drive through it while talking of the neighborhood’s yesteryear with lifelong Santa Ana resident and DJ Sal Navarrete is even better.

Prior to moving to Santa Anita, Sal and his family lived in the other historic Santa Ana barrios of Logan and Artesia. Sal’s father set roots and moved his family to the Logan area in 1960 where the family lived at Garfield street and Santa Ana Boulevard.

In 1972 the father moved the family to Barrio Artesia where they lived at 3rd and Daisy streets.

In 1978 the family moved to Fifth street and Bewley in Santa Anita, where Sal briefly attended Russell Elementary, which was and still is, oddly, part of the Garden Grove Unified School District.

Sal remembers seeing Barrio Santa Anita with no sidewalks and dirt roads. A number of the main streets we drove through like Bewley, Jackson, Gunther, Figueroa and others were still dirt roads with eucalyptus trees with huge roots in the late 70s and early 80s. He remembers when the reputable Favori Vietnamese restaurant on First and Jackson streets was a Burger King and when the Taquería La Vida a bit further west on First street was a McDonald’s. A portion of a McDonald’s golden arch still remains on the side of that building.

It was on Bewley that Sal met and married his neighborhood sweetheart.

There was a gas station that dated to the 1920s on the corner of 5th and Gunther streets, and there was a dairy that sold freshly squeezed milk from cows that grazed on land near the Santa Ana River and Fifth street, across from Campesino Park. That land is now the site of the Wellington Place and Bentley Park housing developments.

My father, Francisco Ávalos Ortiz, remembers seeing horse stables and trails by Fifth street and the Santa Ana River.

Sal mentioned that the city has always tried to redevelop Willowick Golf Course and the Santa Anita area since the 1980s. There was talk in the early 80s of building a mall there. The amount of land there was enough to whet the appetites of any developer. Sal said that in more recent times some homeowners were sent letters indicating an intent to develop a soccer stadium at Willowick for Chivas USA, and that some homes could be bought and removed for that purpose. His friend “Checo” who lives on Figueroa said his household received a notice about a potential Chivas move.

There was a time when more people in the neighborhood used to know each other but many of the Santa Anita friends and families that he remembers have passed on or moved away and only very few remain.

Santa Anita, on a personal note and how I remember it, has always seemed to be a bit of a sleepy side of town, at least from the outside, and this may be because of its troubled past with crime and the Santa Anita gang. Sal said that there were too many bars near Santa Anita, and that the neighborhood was plagued with drug dealing. Santa Anita was the first Santa Ana neighborhood to have a gang injunction placed on it, and that made the neighborhood even more sleepy, but on a good note.

Nowadays it is very rare if not impossible to see a gang member anywhere in the neighborhood. Instead, ordinary people are seen playing basketball at the courts at Santa Anita Park, and there’s a very well-kept and fenced-off soccer field there. The whole park seems a bit under utilized with more potential. At the road entrance to the park there’s a section of land that is fenced-off and used, infuriatingly, for nothing more than storing tires. In a city that needs park space that land should be incorporated into Santa Anita Park. Additional parking could be added there along with more park space.

The Santa Anita that I as a passerby have known, my sleepy Santa Anita, is like a sleeping giant. It is in the hands of those in Santa Anita to determine the future of their neighborhood by enlivening their local economy with new businesses. It needs an economic shot in the arm and who better to pick up Santa Anita than those that are there or have roots there?

At the same time the city’s elected officials need a wakeup call and they need a visionary there, a fresh set of eyes, to help bring Santa Anita to its maximum potential. The city can start with acquiring the land next to Santa Anita Park to add more park space.

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