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Running on Empty, He’s Tanking It

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tall and stately, with faded colors and logos of yesteryear, the vintage gasoline pumps loaded onto a truck here this week have long since gone dry.

The man who collected them for 25 years says he’s also on empty.

David Chorak has been forced to sell his beloved collection of automotive memorabilia for a little more than half its $60,000 value to pay for his legal defense in, at least as he sees it, a fight to preserve his historic neighborhood.

He has lived in the Los Rios enclave in San Juan Capistrano since 1979, but finds himself feuding with other residents in a battle to keep cafes and gift shops from moving into the oldest neighborhood in California.

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“It’s a sad day for me,” said Chorak, 55, as he helped two workers from the automotive-themed Corvette Diner in San Diego load the gas pumps onto the truck. He said he didn’t spend years assembling the artifacts to make an investment but to share with people.

“I did not do this for the money, I did it for the love of it,” he said. “And it was free for anybody to look at.” Now, after all that’s happened, “I guess it’s time to move on.”

Not everybody will be sad to see him go.

There have been disputes over the preservation issue with neighbors, and in March, Chorak was arrested and charged with reckless driving and aggravated assault with a motor vehicle for allegedly driving his pickup truck at a neighbor. In a second incident that month, he was accused of assault and battery for allegedly fighting with another neighbor.

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Chorak has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charges and a trial is set later this month in Municipal Court in Santa Ana. He’s out of jail on $50,000 bail and the legal bills are piling up.

“I think half the street was out there applauding the last time he was taken to jail,” said John Humphreys, owner of the nearby Ramos House Cafe, one of the new enterprises Chorak has railed against.

While Humphreys acknowledges Chorak’s role in helping restore the neighborhood, “I guess he’s stepped over the line.”

Chorak and his wife, Carolyn, moved into a pair of turn-of-the-century clapboard houses back when Los Rios was considered more tawdry than tony. Since then, restoration of the street, with its few adobe homes dating back 200 years, has turned the area into a companion to the nearby Mission San Juan Capistrano, and landed it on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983.

But the pace of redevelopment has accelerated on Los Rios Street in the last couple of years, with the Ramos House Cafe opening next door to Chorak and getting city approval to sell beer and wine. The Moonrose gift shop opened nearby and a new teahouse is taking shape across the street.

“It’s just a sign of the times,” Chorak said. “People don’t want authentic. If it doesn’t turn a buck, it’s worthless.”

Some believe the new businesses complement Los Rios.

“I think Mr. Chorak is entitled to his opinion,” said San Juan Capistrano Mayor David M. Swerdlin. “There’s a great number of people who feel the level of commercialism is inappropriate. But if you stop change from happening, you kill what would be a living organism. Without these people coming in there and operating businesses, these structures would not exist today.”

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Chorak’s attorney, the noted defense lawyer Marshall Schulman of Costa Mesa, characterizes the situation as a fight against City Hall and the residents who want more commercial activity on the street. He said the incidents with the pickup truck and the brawl both came after Chorak was attacked first.

According to James W. Box, Schulman’s investigator, Chorak sees “himself as the little boy with his finger in the dam. He’s going to spend a significant amount of money for what I consider is basically a neighborhood beef.”

Swerdlin said the rancor on Los Rios Street concerns city officials. “There are personalities that exist between the different families and sometimes these personalities conflict, like in any neighborhood.”

Chorak said he doesn’t expect to keep a dime from the sale of his collection.

Like rusted robot props from a 1950s alien invasion movie, the 50 pumps standing watch around Chorak’s homes are a sharp contrast to the squat gas dispensers of today. Dating from the 1920s, some stand 9 feet tall, with glass decanters at the top so patrons could see how much fuel they were draining into their Model As.

And many had glass light globes at their peaks, with intricate shapes or painted designs advertising brands now long gone from America’s roadways--Red Crown, White Rose, Mohawk, Buffalo, Tydol.

Chorak, a mason by trade, said he got interested in automotive memorabilia when he started racing motorcycles as a high-school freshman in the San Gabriel Valley. His collection eventually turned his home into a veritable museum of Americana.

“After 25 years of finishing concrete and laying block, I end up a criminal,” Chorak said. “What happened?”

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