It's a far cry from the race track, but this "little Santa Ana" is appropriately named for its predominantly Latino residents: Anita is a nickname for the name Ana.
The houses are single-story, single-family residences, for the most part encircled by fences: chain-link, wrought-iron, wood. There are children--lots of them, for this is a very young neighborhood. About one-third of the residents are less than 15 years old, and the median age is 23.
And there are gangs, or so the graffiti would suggest.
Two or three dogs of various ages amble along on the less-traveled streets--and so does a rooster, which crosses Susan Street oblivious to traffic. (Susan Street, after all, was just an unpaved, dirt road until as recently as a couple of years ago.) A car and a small truck stop, and the drivers courteously watch the bird go by.
This is a barrio in the true sense of the word, a Spanish-speaking neighborhood complete with street life, Santa Ana-style. Lawns are well-tended, but the sprinkler systems are the residents themselves wielding garden hoses. Homes of longtime residents accommodate as many as three generations, in the Latino tradition.
Such is the case with Erma Garcia, whose daughter's family lives with Erma and her husband. She remembers Santa Anita before there were sidewalks.
"Through the years, the appearance has improved," says Garcia, a bilingual teaching aide at the Edward Lee Russell Elementary School. "We didn't have a crosswalk on First and Jackson. We fought to have a traffic light put in there. We didn't have sidewalks there (either)." But now they do.
"We have little gangs here and there; once in a while there are shootings. It's not perfect, but there are more opportunities, more and more kids that are going to college."
One thing would make the neighborhood complete. "We wish we could get rid of the drug pushers," she muses. "If we could, that would be heaven."
Garcia thinks parental involvement is instrumental in keeping kids off drugs. Parents have to pay attention to what their children are doing. "We have to do that so they won't stray," she says.
Over the years Garcia herself has called parents and told them what their kids were doing. "They (the kids) used to call me La Migra (slang for \o7 immigration\f7 )," she remembers. "I'd come around and they would hide." But some of those kids later thanked her for helping to keep them off drugs.
Carolyn Jimerson, a representative from the Figueroa Center, a division of Santa Ana Recreation and Community Services, seconds Garcia's visual evaluation but sees the drug presence differently. "The area has really improved a lot," she says. "(It) used to have a lot of homeless, a lot of drugs. We don't have that problem anymore." The center sponsors a program called Pride that brings children together to keep them off drugs and out of gangs. "As long as we can keep the kids involved and keep them off the street, we'll have a better neighborhood," Jimerson says. The group meets every Thursday night.
Lt. Robert Helton of the Santa Ana Police Department Community Relations also thinks the Santa Anita area has been improving. "We don't have the requests for police activity as we did in the early '80s," he notes. "Overall crime is not the same. Gangs had the reputation of being a very strong entity (then), but they no longer have the same recognition they once did."
There is still some gang activity, some residential burglaries, he says, "but not reminiscent of the way it was years ago. It's one of those cyclical things." He points to the new businesses along Harbor Boulevard and the new homes being built as improvements.
Most striking is Bentley Parke, a set of bright, white apartment buildings built two years ago and enclosed by a fence, rising along First Street east of Susan Street. The rental units in the two-story complexes are competitively priced by Orange County standards--$660 for one bedroom, $795 for two bedrooms. But in a neighborhood where the median family income is about $22,000 a year, those rates could absorb a substantial part of a family's income.
Even at that, there is no guarantee of safety. "Ask the rental office just how secure it is," says Helen Brown, director of the Civic Center Barrio Housing Corp., which specializes in low-income housing. "The homeboys on Jackson Street are just saying, 'Great, a new place to do our midnight shopping.' It's not the yuppies of Orange County (living) in this planned-unit community. It's more low-income people--overcrowding just to pay the rent.
"There's a grave need to have properties brought up to a level beyond simple decency, to where they're a plus in the neighborhood," Brown continues. There's a drive "to make lower-income units compatible to neighborhoods around them. In fact, (the city) wants to change the complexion of the neighborhood."