Harbor Boulevard

A light post serves as a memorial to Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man who was beaten to death by Fullerton police last year near Harbor Boulevard. In Anaheim, demonstrators amassed on Harbor over the summer following police shooting deaths, underscoring the long if under-appreciated history of civic activism on the boulevard. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times / October 17, 2012)

The new signs would no doubt please Walt Disney himself. Having chosen the location for his park with careful attention to demographics and traffic patterns — hiring the Stanford Research Institute to weigh the merits of several competing locations — he was dismayed by the motels that sprang up along Harbor and Katella Avenue in the years after Disneyland opened. Their kitschiness struck him as an affront to his meticulous planning and hermetic vision for the new theme park. And he kept them very much in mind as he planned Florida's Disney World in the 1960s.

"He was determined when they built Disney World not to make the same mistake he'd made in Anaheim," said longtime Orange County scholar Spencer Olin, a retired history professor at UC Irvine. "So in Florida they bought up as much land surrounding the new park as they could."

Without that protective buffer in Anaheim, Disneyland has become a magnet for camera-ready protest. In 2008, hundreds of members of a union representing workers at three Disneyland hotels, many of them dressed as Disney characters, filled the intersection of Harbor and Katella, giving news photographers the chance to snap pictures of Cinderella and Mickey Mouse being dragged away in handcuffs.

But Harbor's political life predates Disneyland by several decades. Pearson Park, at the corner of Harbor and Cypress Street in Anaheim, was the site of a nighttime Ku Klux Klan rally in 1924 — when it was known as City Park — that drew a reported 10,000 people.

"Klan parades and public demonstrations were common to Anaheim in 1924," reads a report on the city's website, Anaheim.net. "On at least one occasion, Anaheim policemen had been seen directing traffic while wearing their white robe and hoods."

Violence even made its way into Anaheim's orchards. Hidden away near the corner of Harbor and Santa Ana Street is the small Pressel Orchard — the last remaining orange grove in a city once nearly synonymous with the fruit.

In 1936, when it covered significantly more ground than it does now, the orchard was the site of an early battle in the so-called Citrus War. Orange pickers had been striking for several days when they sent a group of their female relatives — about 200 women in all — to confront the replacement workers.

The Anaheim police swept in, and after one of the women bit an officer's arm the strike entered a new and volatile phase. The Citrus War raged for most of the summer before growers finally broke the strike at the end of July.

Grand visions

In part to compete with Disneyland, cities and developers in this part of Orange County have long chosen sites along Harbor to unveil their most ambitious — or outlandish — ventures.

Many have been built, including the massive Anaheim Convention Center complex and its under-appreciated arena, a soaring concrete shell designed by architect Adrian Wilson and finished in 1967. But most memorable are the proposed developments meant to mimic Disneyland's scale, or take advantage of its tourist hordes, that never got past the planning stage: a manmade river spanned by a replica of London Bridge, a giant cultural center in honor of Jordan's late King Hussein, who visited Disneyland in 1959 and 1981.

A few miles south of the theme park, those ambitions fade. The boulevard, lined here by Salvadoran and Vietnamese restaurants, pool-supply stores and a handful of walled residential subdivisions, lets the facade of Magic Kingdom optimism noticeably slip. About four miles from the theme park, in a rundown Santa Ana strip mall alongside a taqueria and Lupe Gomez Income Tax, is a working-class Mexican bar with a tongue-in-cheek name: El Fracaso, or "The Failure."

"Some people say that on this part of Harbor you can pick up any kind of girl on the street at night," said Omar Munoz, who was celebrating his 21st birthday on a recent evening at El Fracaso, where the ceiling is low and the beer is sold out of plastic coolers lined up behind the bar.

The jukebox was blaring a song by the narcocorrido band Los Capos de Mexico, so he practically had to shout to be heard. "But it's really not a bad neighborhood. I grew up along here."

El Fracaso is a bit player in a larger battle in this stretch of Harbor between the sacred and the profane, between groups of churches and clusters of bars, strip joints and adult bookstores. Our Lady of La Vang, a Catholic church that fills nearly a full block, holds mass 11 times a week in Vietnamese, seven times in Spanish and once, for teenagers, in English.

At the southern end of Harbor, presiding over the wide intersection where it meets Newport Boulevard, is a 200,000-square-foot shopping center called Triangle Square. Its developer, Richard Shapiro, envisioned it from the start as more than a mere collection of shops and restaurants. In the tradition of Disneyland's Main Street USA, he dreamed it could be a stage for civic life, comparing its top-floor terrace to a "town square," a place "to hold blood drives or Little League sign-ups."

The complex struggled from its earliest days. Built in 1992 at a cost of $62 million, it was sold six years later for $47 million. Though the 24-Hour Fitness facing the parking garage on the bottom level is often crowded with people on treadmills and stationary bikes, the space up top is usually empty.

Still, the old dreams die hard. This summer the new owner of the property, Connecticut -based private-equity group Greenfield Partners, announced plans to invest $20 million to upgrade it, while renaming it "The Triangle."

That decision was hardly surprising given Harbor's history, said Gustavo Arellano, the cultural critic who is editor of OC Weekly and author of a memoir about growing up in Anaheim.

"When you compare Harbor to the other major boulevards in north and central Orange County, these other streets have no pretense to them," he told me as we drove south along Harbor on a recent morning. "But Harbor will always have this pretense of being more than it actually is."

In Garden Grove, we passed a large dirt lot that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere to illustrate his point. "That used to be a trailer park," Arellano said. "Now what are they going to build there?"

He craned his neck to read a sign trumpeting a new development as we drove by. "A 'water-park resort'? Yeah, right. I seriously doubt that."

Over the years the peculiar private urbanism perfected by Walt Disney has found some eloquent defenders. In "You Have to Pay for the Public Life," an essay on California's monumental architecture published in 1965, architect Charles Moore praised Disneyland as "the single most important piece of construction in the West in the last several decades," a place "engaged in replacing many of those elements of the public realm which have vanished in the featureless private floating world of southern California."

But even Moore acknowledged that Disneyland's version of urbanity, by exiling politics, had to be considered incomplete. By continually pushing political grievance to the periphery, Harbor Boulevard has in essence set itself up for periodic outbursts of the weird and violent.

An irony of the July 29 protest at Harbor and Ball was that the huge scale of the intersection, designed to make traveling by automobile as efficient as possible, lent some grandeur to the confrontation between demonstrators and police. The success of the space as an ad hoc public square was a reminder that our boulevards are full of potential hidden just below the surface — that they are capable of playing a far more important civic role than we tend to assume.

The afternoon standoff was not the most intense moment of this summer's demonstrations. That came on the night of July 24. Several hundred protesters threw rocks and bricks and started a series of small fires. Police responded by firing beanbag projectiles, bloodying several members of the crowd.

And then, from about two miles to the south, came a burst of light, illuminating the whole scene. It was the nightly fireworks show at Disneyland — going off as regularly scheduled, as if it were just another night on Harbor Boulevard.

Which, in a way, it was.