By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Her mother, Dolores, seems to miss the feeling of starting something new. “We were very excited to have fulfilled a dream that we could have a little bit of my husband’s homeland,” she says of her emotions when the Village opened. But now, she laughs. “We’ve gotten old at Old World, literally.”
Before the Bischofs came along in the ’70s, the parcel that would become the Village was a tomato field. Josef had developed a German-themed shopping center in Torrance a few years earlier, but after completing it, he decided he wanted something even more authentic: a place where people could live and work, like they did in the old hamlets of Europe, complete with a hotel for guests and a church for weddings. And with the late-1970s gasoline crunch brought on by the OPEC embargo, Dolores says, the idea of eliminating commutes by putting businesses below residences seemed like a “godsend.”
The city of Huntington Beach certainly liked the idea of 53 new retail units on the north side of town. A few years earlier, Surf City had lost out to Westminster in a deal to build what would become Westminster Mall. So Josef got the permits, filled out the paperwork, took out a few construction loans and gathered some lawyers to draw up a document whose idea was relatively novel at the time: a guiding set of covenants, conditions and restrictions—CC&Rs—for a private residential community. Homeowners’ associations had only come into fashion as a tool for developers a decade earlier. Even more exotic, though, was the idea of CC&Rs for a community that would mix business and residences. So, Dolores says, the lawyers did their thing and submitted it to the city. She guesses that the majority of people who bought into the brand-new Old World Village didn’t even read the bylaws.
In many ways, the Bischofs, by taking inspiration from the past, created a community that could be described as ahead of its time. To ease pollution and increase quality of life, development planners have increasingly come to embrace the idea of “New Urbanism” in the past two decades, looking for ways to create walkable communities by consolidating homes and businesses. “[The Village] sounds like it was an early effort toward the things we are working on now,” says John McIlwain of the Urban Land Institute, a research and consulting firm. “Now, we say it was forward-thinking, but back then, we might have thought it was crazy. It’s an effort to re-create a very traditional form of housing. In Orange County, though, that’s very unusual.”
In its first decade, the Village bustled. The board of directors planned festival after festival to bring in customers, from the traditional Oktoberfest celebration to antiques fairs to car shows to “Irish Day” (Dolores is quick to point out that the Village isn’t just devoted to Germany. It’s a monument to the entire “Old World”—which, judging from appearances, includes the British Isles and northern and western Europe.) The sound of oom-pah music drifted out of mounted speakers at nearly all hours of the day, and, yes, about four-fifths of store owners worked resplendent in lederhosen and dirndls.
Kasko says she has a hard time describing all of that—the Village of her childhood—to her young son. He likes living in the Village, she says, but it certainly isn’t a nonstop party. “It’s really turned into a ghost town,” Kasko explains. To walk through the Village in 2009 is to feel like you’re being watched. Most of the ground-floor units have their blinds drawn and their doors locked; it’s rare to see anyone outside. There certainly aren’t any tourists or customers walking through to browse the shops. Anyone who is at Old World is there with a purpose: either to live and work where they own property, or to visit some single business they read about online (or, perhaps, to compete in or coo over the monthly dachshund races). “The only time we do business is during Oktoberfest,” Heidi Miller says. “Overall, if I break even in a year, I’m lucky.”
Shopping centers around the country—including at Bella Terra mall across the street from the Village—now face the fallout of the worldwide economic recession, with fewer people shopping and store owners forced to shut down. But Village residents say the financial downturn came to their cobblestone streets years ago. “Generally, business is going down,” says Phillip Larschan, who opened a wholesale importing company in the Village in 1995. “But in Old World, let’s say two less people are coming [because of the recession]. From my time in the Village, there’s never been any foot traffic.”
Larschan, a homeowners’-association board member whose company operates via business-to-business sales, is on one side of a debate in the Village. On the other side: Kasko and the handful of other residents who still run retail shops that rely largely on serving customers in person. Larschan says the Village is doomed to fail solely because of the mistakes of Josef. The Bischofs say it’s tenants like Larschan and other “paper pushers”—tax offices, loan agencies, chiropractic clinics and other closed-shutter services—who have killed both the Village’s commerce and spirit.