Just north of the commercial and civic center of downtown Santa Ana lies the neighborhood that the city calls Willard Park, because of its close proximity to nearby Willard Elementary School on Washington Avenue and Ross Street. But probably most accurate is the description by Councilman Ron May, who represents the area. He labels it: "the inner city of the inner city." It's a neighborhood that has certainly changed in recent years.
The area holds vestiges of its past in the form of the single-story, white clapboard California bungalows that have defied the wrecking ball and still stand along French Street, and in its keeper of mementos, the Bowers Museum with its Spanish facade, located at the neighborhood's northern perimeter at the corner of Main and 20th streets.
"The changes from the '40s to the late '80s have been unbelievable," says May, who has lived in the district all his life. He remembers that as a child his home was "surrounded by open fields and orange groves in the center of Santa Ana."
Driving north along French Street from 8th Street the transitions are perceptible as the single-family bungalows become at 9th Street a three-story apartment complex only to become cottages again on the other side. At Washington Avenue the outcropping of apartment buildings comes in the form of a residential complex called Washington Square.
Spurgeon Street "used to be a quiet residential street, with lots of trees," says Fran Dye, who has lived for the last 25 years in the first six-story high-rise built in Santa Ana. Now those old houses have been torn down. The new condominium and apartment complexes were perceived as filling a need felt by the growth of Orange County. But as the buildings accommodated more residents, the population of the area grew.
The city responded in 1987 after the area had reached maximum density. Zoning has remained the same, but the general plan density decreased. Where there had been an allowance of 60 residential units per acre, there are now 35.
"There has been a moratorium on all high-rise complexes for the last few years," May reports.
Condominiums in the area range in cost from $70,000 for one-bedroom apartments to a high of $130,000 for three-bedroom units, says Molly Doughty Minery of Santa Ana Realty. "Now Renting" reads the building at 17th Street and Broadway; at Washington Avenue and Flower Street, "Twenty Deluxe Apartments."
Main Street running down its center is the neighborhood's commercial matrix; 17th Street, at its northern border, a contender. During the daytime Trader Joe's, on Main at the corner of Washington Avenue, bustles with activity as does the Alpha Beta at the corner of 17th and Ross streets. But after dark it is the 24-hour Norm's, at the corner of 17th Street and Main, that draws and keeps the crowds.
Without contest, the Willard Park section of Santa Ana now features "the greatest ethnic and cultural diversity of any section of Orange County."
"The apartment complexes are filled not only with new arrivals but also with younger people who are not so affluent," May says. His perception as to affluence is correct, if understated.
In fact, the neighborhood is one of Orange County's poorest. Its median household income, around $13,000, is about one-third of the countywide figure; its per-capita number less than one-half the county standard. And 82% of Willard Park's households have incomes of less than $25,000 per year compared to 28% in the entire county.
"There are a lot of young families in those buildings (and) young professionals who are interested in close proximity to their work in the financial and legal areas and are drawn by the reasonable rents," May says.
The area holds "many new residents as well as undocumented arrivals from other countries," he says. "Its a neighborhoood in transition in more than one direction, a boom on more than one front, very exciting."
Very exciting, perhaps, but not necessarily positive. Other residents complain that parking has become a problem, there's graffiti on the walls, and that rents are no longer affordable.
And the styles of some apartment buildings and their residents are not to everyone's liking. Mrs. Dye says, "the apartment building next door is a blight on the street, with clothes hanging over the rail, junk on their patios, children running around."
When asked if she had filed any complaints, she answers, "It would be like fighting city hall."
Population Total: (1988 est.) 4,355 1980-88 change: +42.0% Median Age: 27.9
Racial/ethnic mix: Latino 48% White: (non-Latino) 44% Other 6% Black 2%
By sex and age: MALES Median age: 27.1 years FEMALES Median age: 28.8 years
Income Per capita: $7,935 Median household: $15,029 Average household: $13,418
Income Distribution: Less than $25,000: 82% $25,000-49,999: 15% $50,000-74,999: 2% More than $75,000: 1%