Saturday, October 14, 2023

Historic tree cut down for streetcar

Tree at Sycamore St. and Santa Ana Blvd. by the Orange County Courthouse, circa 1920s.

On Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2023, I noticed that one of the historic trees surrounding the Old Orange County Courthouse was being cut down. The tree has been there since 1897 and has always been part of the classic image of this historic heart of our county. 

I talked to the crew and they said the tree was being removed because of the streetcar construction project that's [glacially] working its way through Downtown Santa Ana. The crew returned the following day to HEAVILY prune back the other historic trees along the side of the block facing Santa Ana Blvd. (For now, I'll hope that these other grand old trees survive the attack and return my focus to the excised tree.)

The tree is cut down on Oct. 10, 2023. (Photo by author.)

In the County's Old County Courthouse Historic Park Master Planning Program (1988), Historic Resources Planner Marlene Brajdic wrote, 

"The grounds include specimen trees which are designated on the Orange County Heritage Tree list. [Approved in the mid-1980s.] These heritage trees are Canary Island Date Palms, Camphor Trees, Magnolias and Coco Palms. To enhance the 'County Square' as the property was known, the camphors and acacias were placed around the perimeter in 1897. The magnolias and several date palms were established just following the courthouse construction."

Courthouse Square, circa 1898. The tree is barely visible and highlighted in green on the upper left. (Courtesy First American Corp.)

While I believe the tree torn out on Tuesday was a magnolia -- which according to Marlene would argue for a date circa 1901 -- early photos seem to indicate that this tree was larger than the other magnolias on the block and thus likely predated them. That would argue that the tree was planted along with the block's camphor and acacia trees by convict laborers in 1897.

Corroborating that assumption, the photo above shows the Courthouse Block soon after the 1897 construction of the County Jail (upper right) but before construction of the Courthouse began in 1900. The tree is barely visible behind other trees on the upper left. I've highlighted it in green to make it slightly more visible. There are also photos of the tree in situ *during* the construction of the Courthouse in 1900. (See below.)

Tree appears on far left (highlighted in green) during construction of the Courthouse, 1900.
The heritage trees ringing the Courthouse Block are an integral part of one of the County's most beloved and instantly recognizable historic sites. They bring beauty and an added sense of stability not just to the block but also to the Santa Ana Civic Center and Downtown Santa Ana. They provide homes to a great numbers of birds, bees and squirrels. And they've provided the shady backdrop for countless thousands of wedding pictures over the past 126 years. It's a crying shame to see even one of these trees destroyed.
Aerial view of Courthouse Block, circa 1910. Tree highlighted in green.
The destruction is even sadder when you consider that it was all done to help make way for the 4.15-mile "Trolly to Nowhere" (a.k.a. Orange County Streetcar) project that will cost more than $408 million, which nobody asked for, which has crippled downtown businesses all along the route, which has wasted millions of man-hours in traffic snarls over the past six years, which will ensure horrible traffic problems for decades to come, which can't be efficiently re-reouted (like a bus) when needs change, and which will (like most urban public transit systems) likely end up becoming a deeply unpleasant if not dangerous way to travel. 

For what it's worth, innumerable OTHER trees have also been destroyed throughout central Santa Ana to make way for this boondoggle. I just happen to be focusing on THIS tree because it's part of a well-defined historic environment with which I'm very familiar. Consider it a symbol of similar outrages up and down the line.
The same tree, offering shade to Santa Ana Parade of Products participants and their horses, early 1900s.

If it's ever completed, the new Orange County Streetcar line will connect the Santa Ana Metrolink station (which itself is only reachable from a handful of mostly strategically inconvenient stops in Orange County) and take passengers to that hub of happiness we know and love as the corner of Harbor Blvd. and Trask Ave. in Garden Grove. And I think we all know what awaits us there, right?: An old Yoshinoya, a Shell Station and a check cashing place! Good times!

With all due respect to those who love rail in all its forms -- Light rail isn't and never again will be viable for Southern Californians. Yes, the Pacific Electric's Red Cars were swell in their day, but not so swell that people didn't switch to automobiles the nanosecond they could afford them. Almost every bit of Southern California evolved around the automobile -- not light rail. As such, there are no hubs. People live everywhere, people work everywhere, people want to go everywhere. One would have to tear down ALL of Southern California and rebuild it to make such a sea change even theoretically workable. Even then, we are almost a century past the point where residents would be content to be confined by the limited travel/commute opportunities represented by public transportation. 

The same tree is front and (just left of) center in this 1979 photo.
The only argument that may remain for these electric trolleys is that they will run "clean and green." But even that's bunk. Rather than burning fossil fuel IN the vehicle, the fuel will have to be burned at a power plant and the power transported by inefficient transmission cables to the trolley, wasting much of the energy in the transmission process. And even if we completely destroy the rest of America's deserts and other open spaces with endless windmills and solar farms, the resulting "green" energy will not begin to meet the demand during the lifetime of this trolley system. 

It's interesting that in the wake of the lovably Lorax-y environmental movement of the 1970s, the County of Orange created the aforementioned Heritage Trees list and policies regarding the protecting of such trees. (If anyone has a copy, let me know.) 

But today's "environmental movement" isn't all that interested in things like old growth trees. I will leave it to you, dear reader, to decide what they are interested in instead.

The view on the morning of Oct. 10, 2023. (Photo by author)

Monday, October 09, 2023

O.C. Q&A: Casual Restaurants Edition

Q: I remember a restaurant sign with Carl’s Jr.’s Happy Star wearing a sombrero. Is my memory playing tricks on me?

A: Nope. In 1972, Orange County hamburger king Carl Karcher started a Mexican fast food chain called Taco de Carlos. Menu items included California Burritos (chimichangas), Crisperitos (super-gringo chimichangas), machaca burritos, tacos, and green chile burgers. At its peak, there were 17 restaurants, but the chain fizzled. Karcher sold the restaurants in the early 1980s, but it seems that visions of tacos still danced in his head. In 1994 the first dual-branded Carl's Jr./Green Burrito restaurant opened, and in 2002 Carl Karcher Enterprises bought Green Burrito outright. 

Q. What's with the old church in the parking lot at Moreno's Mexican Restaurant in El Modena?

A. I'd love to report that someone formed a religion around Mexican food, but the truth proves almost as interesting. Orange County's first Quaker house of worship was built on that site -- now 4328 E. Chapman Ave. -- in 1887. Sadly, the Friends' building plans didn't take Santa Ana winds into account, and within weeks the place was literally blown apart. The sturdier 1888 replacement building served the Quakers for about 80 years and is now used for events and overflow seating at Moreno's.

Q. I remember a pink restaurant with huge portions near Disneyland. What was that place?

A. That was Garden Grove's legendary Belisle's, on Harbor Blvd. Harvey and Charlotte Belisle opened it shortly before Disneyland opened in 1955. Their enormous portions, vast menu, home cooking, and family atmosphere made it popular. Outside, a large man with a bell or a little person in a chef's hat beckoned to potential customers. Belisle's made a grape and lettuce-free meal for Cesar Chavez and meatloaf for President Reagan. If you wanted something that wasn't on the menu, Belisle's would still try to oblige -- from goat chops to ostrich eggs. The restaurant was demolished by the local redevelopment agency in the 1990s and replaced with a couple less popular chain restaurants.