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Capistrano Question: Can Clothesline Stop a Train?

Protest: Residents show their opposition to plans for a second track downtown.


Three dozen people protesting plans for a second railroad track through San Juan Capistrano's historic downtown aired their laundry Friday, stringing garments on a 15-foot clothesline across tracks at the old depot.

They waved signs and chanted "De-rail the rail!" as law-enforcement officers and onlookers gathered around the orderly demonstration.

Demonstrator Boots Leone said residents who would be affected by the project, including those in San Clemente and Dana Point, have to make noise.

"The city's hands are tied without us kicking up a fuss," said Leone, in red long johns, a derby hat and mock sheriff's badge. "They ain't going to ram it through here."

Caltrans, one of the agencies working on the plan, has proposed several options for more trains to travel at higher speeds along the Southern California coast. San Juan Capistrano residents are particularly upset about a proposed two-mile tunnel with double tracks from north of the old mission to the city's Descanso Veterans Park.

"We welcome public input, and we want to know about all the different issues that are out there in the community, because the people who live and do business near the tracks will be the ones most impacted by the project," said Caltrans spokeswoman Sandy Friedman, who plans to hold a public meeting on the plan in August. "The project is still in the conceptual phase."

A downtown parking structure and possibly the historic train depot would be demolished if the track is added.

The tunnel is one of several ideas for the Los Angeles-San Diego corridor as part of a $10-billion proposal for improving rail transportation statewide. The current single track through south Orange County frequently has to accommodate northbound and southbound freight and passenger trains, and sidings have to be used.

As blouses, skirts, jeans, shorts, shirts and dresses rustled on the clothesline in the morning breeze, protesters voiced their objections.

Their tactics were reminiscent of those used by Modesta Avila, who blocked the Santa Fe Railroad in 1889 by hanging a clothesline crowded with garments across the tracks. Authorities tore down the line and arrested Avila, 22, who was charged with "attempted obstruction of a train." She became Orange County's first convicted felon, according to local historians, and died at San Quentin prison while serving her three-year sentence.

Phil Schwartze, organizer of Friday's demonstration, said early mobilization against the project is essential.

"We want to alert elected officials who are making the decisions in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., because we don't think they recognize the dramatic impact their decisions will have on our historic and cultural community."

Schwartz, who said he's been following the rail issue for 27 years, said the project has been "boiling along all those years, and now we think things are starting to boil over."

San Juan Capistrano, which draws flocks of swallows, artists and tourists each year, is one of California's oldest cities and has fought to maintain its small-town charm. Los Rios Historic District, where original adobes still stand, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The 226-year-old mission is the town's crown jewel.

Preservationists and residents said they fear that vibrations from the added track would damage the old structures.

Artist Luis Arturo Guevara set up an easel and painted protest scenes. "I'm so very upset. I wish I could tie myself to the railroad tracks if the police didn't stop me," said Guevara, 51, who has built a wooden shed and planted a garden of wildflowers along the tracks. "I don't want them to raze or disturb our historic landmarks and all this quiet beauty. They're going to ruin the face of Capistrano with more loud, noisy trains. It's the worst idea that anyone can come up with."

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