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Orange Swap Meet Will Pack It In After 42 Years

`It's a big loss for the Latino community,' says one shopper. A housing complex will replace it.

April 21, 2006|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Morning rain scared away most of his regular customers, but Juan Torres' bike stand at the weekly Orange Swap Meet still turned a nice profit Saturday. For more than a decade, Torres has made a living peddling kids' bicycles and patching flat tires on his little slice of blacktop where State College Boulevard meets the Santa Ana Freeway.

But a few weeks from now, Torres and about 700 other vendors will lose their weekend spots -- and their livelihoods -- as the popular swap meet closes so construction can begin on an 884-unit housing complex on the 20 acres, which are replete with history.

"I'd better start looking for a job," said Torres, 35, who lives in Long Beach with his wife and two children. "For most of us, this is the only income we have."

The Orange Swap Meet grounds were home to Orange County's first drive-in movie theater, which opened in 1941. It's also where the Rev. Robert H. Schuller got his start delivering sermons from the concession stand's roof in the mid-1950s.

The drive-in's movie screens went dark in 1994, and the swap meet's 42-year-run is expected to end in June.

The parcel, which cuts through parts of Orange and Anaheim, is a few blocks from Angel Stadium and will become part of the Platinum Triangle, an emerging neighborhood of condos, shops and restaurants that Anaheim hopes will be its downtown.

For now, the cracked asphalt is filled with mostly Latino families. Strollers crowd aisles full of new and used items. Entering the grounds after paying a $1 admission, shoppers are greeted by a young boy shouting "$10 jeans!" -- in English and Spanish.

Nearby, unwrapped blenders sit precariously on makeshift shelves next to secondhand gas stoves that sell for $300. Across the aisle, a man straightens rows of shiny white tennis shoes while waiting for customers.

The land, where Spanish-language music CDs go for $3.99 and giant mangos for $1.50, became more valuable to developers who plan to sell two-bedroom condos for $600,000 and rent one-bedroom apartments for $2,000 a month.

"It'll be a sad day when this place closes," said Rod Antone of Tustin, who came in search of an odd-sized mallet for his toolbox. "It's a big loss for the Latino community. This place is a necessity for a lot of families who can't afford to go to the fancy shopping malls."

On an average weekend, 16,500 shoppers pack the swap meet. Susana Esqueda of Anaheim said it often took her 45 minutes to find a parking spot. On Saturday, she found a good price on a pair of tennis shoes.

"I just saved about $15," she said after seeing the same brand in a store for $50. "You can always find deals like this here. And if you're looking for a deal on one item, you'll usually find a better deal on something you weren't looking for."

Like many swap meet shoppers, Esqueda, 23, said she hadn't heard that her weekend hangout was shutting down. "I won't like it," she said, "but I guess I'll have to start going to the indoor shopping malls."

For most merchants, who lease space and learned of the swap meet's impending closure two months ago, the future is uncertain.

"We don't know what we'll do," said 24-year-old Jose Torres, whose family has operated a produce stand for three decades. "I guess we'll take a break."

In recent weeks, Jose Torres helped organize rallies at Orange and Anaheim city council meetings, hoping for a reprieve. But officials informed the vendors that the project had been approved a year ago and there was nothing they could do.

"We were just asking for six months," Torres said.

Merchants said they had heard rumors for years that the property would be developed.

"I didn't believe it," said Juan Torres, the bicycle repairman. "And now ... we're down to a few weeks."

Pacific Theatres, the property's owner, is holding a lottery today that will award fewer than 100 merchants space at one of its swap meets in Glendora, Pico Rivera, City of Industry or San Fernando. Rachel Saunders, a Pacific Theatres spokeswoman, said the company had also contacted other area swap meet operators to find spots for the soon-to-be-displaced merchants.

"We're trying to place as many of these people as we can," she said.

On a good day, Torres pulls in $1,000 tuning up bikes, fixing flats and selling scooters and tricycles out of his van. His overhead is minimal -- his Saturday spot costs $35, his Sunday space, $50. Torres has considered opening a bike shop in Anaheim or Santa Ana, but can't afford rents of about $3,000 a month.

So today, he will attend the lottery, hoping his number comes up.

"If I get lucky, I'll have a new space somewhere else," he said.

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