It's Monday morning and America Bracho, the leader of Santa Ana's Latino Health Access or LHA, a community health organization, is giving a tour of downtown Santa Ana.
As with many urban tours, on this walk there are historical landmarks and architectural flourishes, to be sure. But there will also be holes in the sidewalk, dilapidated buildings and an elementary school on a street with liquor stores.
Bracho, a Venezuelan-born physician who moved to the U.S., advocates for better health among lower-income Latinos living in Santa Ana, where residents suffer disproportionately from childhood obesity and diabetes.
The goal of her tour is to offer a preview of a community walk on Saturday to launch a Wellness Corridor, that is, a pedestrian-friendly zone of amenities and attractions in downtown. But it’s also a chance to tell stories about a city and the people who live there.
The Wellness Corridor is not yet marked or mapped, but Bracho says that signs are going up shortly. In any case, she explains, LHA is not waiting for every part of the plan to be realized before making use of the corridor. Rather, LHA believes that as people begin to use and recognize the route, more walkers will be drawn to it, building its viability.
Starting at the Steps
Standing on the steps of LHA, Bracho explains that the corridor is a creative response to a crowded downtown populated by young families.
She reasons that other urban centers create walkable pedestrian zones, so why can’t Santa Ana?
“There is a lack of open space in Santa Ana and a lack of parks, and there is not a lot of land available. In other cities, they make downtown streets walkable, so people will walk for fun, for health,” she says.
The Latino Health Access building, which opened in 2011, is already a mecca for community members seeking to better their health. Hundreds of Mexican-Americans go there every day for health classes, exercise opportunities, after-school study, training for health outreach initiatives and more. So it’s a good place to start the tour of the Wellness Corridor.
Standing at the corner of Ross and Third streets, Bracho looks around. She points to nearby Everest College and wonders aloud whether medical assistants studying there might be enlisted to take glucose measurements of the community served by LHA.
Then she points to the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse towering over LHA’s offices. Her hope is that government employees who work in the city could be persuaded to spend time walking the streets more, improving their own health during their lunch breaks, for example.
And perhaps by walking together, people are more likely to walk in one another’s shoes.
“We want people working in Santa Ana to see that people living here are good people. We want to be healthy; we all have the same agenda,” she says.
Next on the Route: History
Bracho next strolls by Minter House, a restored home and now office space built in 1877 as a wedding present. It’s listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. Across from the house is a public garage, which prompts Bracho to tell a story about public access to a key service.
One of the reasons some residents of downtown Santa Ana don’t walk more is that there are few public restrooms or water fountains, Bracho says. But in working with city planning officials on the Wellness Corridor, she has learned that public garages have restrooms in them; efforts are underway to have them opened for public use.
Chapman University’s Libreria Martinez, a bilingual bookstore on Broadway, is a few blocks away, and Bracho hopes the store will put books on tables outside on the morning of the Wellness Corridor kickoff.
LHA’s steering committee on the corridor has arranged for supportive local businesses, including Mega Furniture Superstore, to make their bathrooms available to corridor users.
In return for welcoming walkers, these businesses will be included in a map of the different routes that LHA is developing. Bracho also envisions a sort of “business passport” for walkers who patronize stores along the corridor; enough stamps from local businesses might lead to discounts from nearby restaurants.
Further along is the Grand Central Art Center, with nearby brick walkway, fountain and decorative trees:
Bracho would like downtown residents to feel more comfortable stopping in galleries and checking out art. Some residents don’t realize the city has Artists Village, she says, and she would like them to partake in it.
She also wants residents to note the district’s benches and landscaping. Her message is that this is what it looks like when a neighborhood is not neglected.
“This is investment,” she says.
A Different Feeling
As she moves along Third Street, the atmosphere changes. Some unpaved depressions in the sidewalk are not protected by grates and could be hazardous to nonattentive walkers. One store, Food 4 Less, faces away from the street, creating a distinctly unfriendly vibe. Then there is the dilapidated blue doorway at Third and Spurgeon streets:
“This is disinvestment,” she says.
But not all is bleak. The Packard Custom Auto Service, maintaining vintage cars, offers a glimpse into the art of auto restoration, with shiny models from the 1940s and '50s on display:
Nearby, an immaculately kept neighborhood of single-family homes prompts Bracho to mention the little-known history of Santa Ana neighborhoods. For example, there was a Chinatown at one time, and the Logan neighborhood was for a number of years the only part of the city where Latinos were permitted to own property.
She winds her way through commercial streets where businesses range from quinceanera dress shops to an all-natural juice bar called Fiesta Juice, where she spots a poster for the Wellness Corridor:
Then she turns back to LHA.
In the office parking lot, a dozen or so bicyclists have gathered to practice their route for Saturday:
They will be leading a caravan of riders on a nine-mile route to demonstrate the community’s interest in biking around the city more safely. When asked how many have been hit by cars, three riders raise their hands.
They say that First Street and Edinger Avenue are perilous and that drivers don’t seem to know that bicyclists have the right to use the roads.
As Bracho wraps up her walk, she says Saturday's walk promises to be a far larger, louder and festive affair, with more than 1,000 people expected. Politicians will speak, the route will be marked with hundreds of decorative paper flowers made by LHA volunteers, and there will be food giveaways and healthful-cooking demonstrations.
Bracho hopes that after the launch day’s excitement, the corridor will show that government, the private sector and communities can work together and that each of them has responsibilities toward the goal of better health:
“We are saying, ‘Join us to walk the talk’.”
Amy DePaul is a Voice of OC contributing writer and lecturer in the UC Irvine Literary Journalism program. You can reach her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.