The most notable landmarks in Fullerton's downtown used to be the pawnshop on Harbor Boulevard and a bar that was the scene of a murder and more than one knife fight. It was a city without a center.
But a city-sponsored face-lift has turned a few blocks of Harbor Boulevard into an eclectic row of shops and restaurants that is perhaps the most popular destination of Orange County's seventh-largest city.
On Thursday evenings, Fullerton converts a downtown plaza into a farmers market, where parents pushing baby strollers can catch up on the week's events and young couples can buy fresh flowers, local art or a church's tri-tip sandwiches.
The market has a small-town feel. Some families meet there every Thursday after work. Throughout the evening, a red, white and blue train pulls smiling children on a serpentine route through the crowded plaza.
This nighttime market, held for more than 10 years, is the city's attempt to turn the clock back to a time when cities had a central gathering spot, a place where children could play together and their parents could connect with their neighbors.
But it attracts a party crowd, too. At the beer garden, the city serves about 500 drafts and 200 glasses of wine every Thursday night, said Dannielle Mauk, who manages the event. A different band plays each week.
Recently, a surf band strummed beach music while City Councilman Mike Clesceri talked about what the market means to Fullerton, a city of 126,000 that will celebrate its 100-year anniversary next year.
"I think it's reflective of the entire city, all different generations, all different ethnic groups. It's a fun place for everyone," Clesceri said.
Fullerton resident Blake Hoss, a single father, pushes his son, Bryce, in a stroller to the market from his nearby home. His son loves the pony rides. This night, Bryce smiles and waves as he spins around on a carnival-style swing ride.
"During the summer, we come over here close to every week. We take him on some rides, eat dinner. It's a great way to break up the week. It's a great piece of entertainment," Hoss said.
About 500 to 1,000 people attend the market, which is open during the warmest months of the year, April through October, Mauk said.
Most of the vendors at the market sell produce, but you can also pick up hand-painted cigar boxes, jewelry or leather purses.
"We're still a small town. There's a great downtown feeling and on Thursday nights; it really reinforces it," Mauk said.
She said the city doesn't turn a profit with its Thursday night market but makes enough money in leases and from the beer garden to cover expenses.
"The vendors are here to make a profit. We're here to provide a sense of community," she said.
One of the market's frequenters is James Campbell, a Fullerton Union High School graduate who works as an executive assistant to Orange County Supervisor Chuck Smith. He and his wife, Laura, walk about 1 1/2 miles to the market every Thursday night, pushing their 11-month-old daughter, Brooklyn, in a stroller.
The Fullerton market provides a meeting place for the Campbells, their family and friends.
"Everybody knows to meet at the plaza on Thursdays," Campbell said. "It gives us such a great sense of community. It seems like the real 'towns' in Orange County are disappearing.
"Back in the day, there were plazas where people could gather, and the kids could play, and the people could talk about politics or other community happenings. This feels like a return to that."