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In Santa Ana Neighborhood, Traffic Barrier Is Bitter Divide

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After five years of renting an apartment in the densely populated neighborhood just down the road from the graceful homes of French Park, Martha Solorio wonders if someone is trying to send her family a message.

Neighborhood streets--the ones that she and her husband can no longer use to drive their children to school--have been blocked in that section of Santa Ana. And as an apartment renter, Solorio won’t be allowed to vote when residents are asked whether the barriers should remain.

“These changes don’t work,” said Sam Romero, a neighbor who also opposes the barriers. “The only thing they do is make life miserable for la raza [Latinos].”

While designed to make neighborhood streets safe, the barriers have become a source of frustration and a symbolic divide between those who live in historic French Park and the largely Latino renters who dominate nearby French Court.

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Police said the barricades are slowing response time for officers. School officials said they have caused treacherous traffic problems for students. And French Court residents said the barriers have essentially walled them off from their more affluent neighbors.

The debate over the French Park barriers--the most controversial of seven experiments with traffic diversion in Santa Ana--mirrors a wider dispute over the effect of street blockades.

Some cities, such as Costa Mesa, concluded that blockades were of little value and removed them. In South Pasadena, a wall has separated the town from a more ethnically diverse Los Angeles neighborhood for 27 years and remains a symbol of bigotry to some.

French Park and French Court are contrasting neighborhoods in the heart of Santa Ana that share streets, sidewalks and a popular grade school. French Park is a community of historic homes while French Court and the neighboring Logan community are dense with apartments.

The barriers went up after homeowners voted 66 to 60 in favor of the experiment. While the traffic plan affected both neighborhoods, apartment renters in French Court were not allowed to vote and few landlords in that neighborhood cast ballots. In August, property owners will vote on whether the barriers should stay. They must be approved by a two-thirds margin.

The barriers, roughly 4 feet high with chain strung across the top, were designed to reduce traffic along some main roads linking both neighborhoods. Many French Park residents say the system has cut down on the number of drivers who use their neighborhood as a shortcut.

“I don’t think it’s a perfect system,” said Paul Giles, president of Historic French Park, the neighborhood association. “I think it’s workable and reasonably fair. I would not change it.”

Parents in French Court and teachers at nearby Wallace R. Davis Elementary say the barriers have diverted traffic from the main avenues to more narrow and congested streets, raising the risk of injury to school-bound children. In recent months, a girl was struck by a car and a police officer was knocked off his motorcycle near the school. Despite several requests, the school has been denied a crossing guard, Principal Maria Gutierrez-Garcia said.

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“It’s a matter of time before they kill a child,” said Mike Saldana, a custodian at the school who said he routinely sees children running to dodge drivers, who sometimes make U-turns to avoid the blocked streets.

“Traffic is similar to water; it takes the easiest, faster route,” said Ruth Smith, the city’s ranking traffic engineer.

The dividers have delayed police response time; officers must drive farther to reach the residents on each side of the barriers, Lt. Tony Harrelson said.

“In a life-or-death situation, seconds matter,” said Stella Bonilla, the community liaison at the elementary school.

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Renters such as Solorio won’t be able to vote in August when the city prepares to decide whether the concrete blocks should become permanent fixtures. Homeowners are entitled to a single vote. The only renters eligible to vote are those living in duplex, triplex and four-plex buildings.

Some see the process, as well as the barriers, as a symbolic division of the neighborhood along class lines. Gutierrez-Garcia, the school principal, said it’s unfair that renters don’t have a voice in their own community.

City officials say that while most renters cannot vote, they can lobby the city’s Environmental and Transportation Advisory Committee, which has the authority to override the homeowner vote.

John Castillo, chairman of the committee, said it has gone to lengths to make the process fair. He said he’s irritated some see the barriers in racial terms of bigotry.

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“There are Hispanic activists that go searching for what they consider to be a deliberate attempt to discriminate against them,” Castillo said. “And it’s just not here in French Park in respect to the dividers.”

French Court residents say they want to be heard.

“They didn’t take us into account,” said Bonilla, the school liaison. “Why did they close our neighborhood instead of theirs? They can’t isolate us as if we were from another planet.”


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