The Westside has a story to tell

Michelle Simpson was never one to get involved in politics. Then she learned that a bureaucratic plan could cost her the Costa Mesa home she bought in 2009.

At issue was the proposed 19th Street Bridge. Had the project come to fruition and connected the city's Westside to Huntington Beach over the Santa Ana River, as the county's transportation plan suggested, she and others might have lost their houses to a widened West 19th Street and eminent domain.

After decades of debate, the bridge plan died in late 2012. For Simpson and her like-minded neighbors, it was a victorious end for their grass-roots campaign to, at least figuratively, collapse the connector.

But even now, Simpson's noteworthy contribution to that effort still stands, unlike the bridge that never did.

It's a sign — titled "The Westside Story" — built into a small arbor in her front yard. For that nook of Costa Mesa, it's part town crier, part corner classifieds and part pamphlet distribution center.

Simpson's home sits where West 19th intersects Monrovia Avenue. On that busy corner, the sign gets a fair share of attention.

For the past four years, people have come to depend on The Westside Story for information about what's happening in their city, Simpson said.

The sign was just a simple poster before Simpson's neighbor, Bonnie Copeland, upgraded it to something sturdy — and with a clever name, to boot.

"It really does make people stop," Simpson said. "People just think they're gonna find out something here."

Copeland, who has an associate's degree in studio art, said The Westside Story helps communicate the times and dates of meetings where decisions affecting the people in the diverse area might be made.

Near that portion of the Westside are the Freedom Homes — a post-World War II housing tract — mobile home parks, businesses and rows of apartment complexes. A few people live in condos near the end of West 19th, within the Newport Beach city limits, Copeland noted.

"The one thing that everybody has in common is that they pass that corner," she said.

Occasionally the sign will contain messages in Spanish.

"We're trying to hit all kinds of people of all kinds of races and socioeconomic groups with that sign," Copeland said.

The Westside Story has been consistent with two particular topics: opposing development of the 19th Street Bridge and Banning Ranch, the 400-acre western Newport Beach parcel where 1,375 homes and other uses are proposed.

Should the Banning Ranch project be built, the area would generate considerably more pass-through traffic and harm the quality of life in the Westside, opponents have contended.

The sign regularly displays material from the Banning Ranch Conservancy, an environmental group fighting the development, namely a prominently placed "Save Banning Ranch" message. It has also contained information opposing a turnaround space proposed for the southwestern part of Fairview Park, at the end of Pacific Avenue.

The quality of The Westside Story's classifieds — material now populating websites like Craigslist — was first tested years ago as a means of finding homes for a rescued cat and its litter of seven kittens.

It worked.

It also worked recently when someone was trying to give away a foosball table.

Simpson said The Westside Story's pamphlet holders empty quickly, sometimes at the rate of about 200 papers in two weeks.

The other day, a concerned neighbor donated $20.

"Here, you're out of fliers," Simpson recalled the man saying. "Go out and make some more."

"It's such a great neighborhood," Simpson said. "People really do care."

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