Can You Say Eminent Domain?

Chris Lowe and Emily Roberts share the byline for Elephant Rides for Free: A Children's History of Placentia, but make no mistake: this is a Chris Lowe production. The Placentia city councilman and former Pete Wilson aide hogged the speaking time when he and Roberts presented their recently released book to a gaggle of giggly schoolkids on Oct. 19 at the Placentia Library. And it's Lowe, not Roberts, who wrote the book's forward, which reveals the publication is more of an agenda setting than scholarly historical treatise.

“It was when I was in third grade that I first began to dream of becoming the mayor of Placentia one day,” Lowe shares with his impressionable readers in the intro to the 202-page guide. In 1998, “my dream came true. . . . The City Council elected me the 38th mayor of Placentia!”

The accomplishment so confounds Lowe that he ends a chronology of Placentia mayors on page 181 with his reign, conveniently omitting the term of mayor-since-2002 Scott P. Brady despite the book listing 2003 as its publishing date.

Elephant Rides for Free comes at an opportune time for Lowe, a career politician reportedly eyeing the 72nd Assembly district seat of Lynn Daucher (R-Brea) when both are termed out in 2006. The councilman continues to weather a civic beating delivered by Placentia residents who have scrutinized the Orange County Gateway Development Initiative (OCGDI). The $440 million redevelopment proposal, pushed mightily by Lowe, threatens to bulldoze the homes of the working-class, largely Latino residents of South Placentia.

The children's book—complete with cute elephant on the cover!—touches on all the important moments in Placentia's history—Yorba family here, orange groves there and a curious constant return to pachyderms; an entire chapter is devoted to elephant races held in Placentia throughout the early 1960s. As thorough as Elephant Rides for Freeis, however, it conveniently fails to divulge Placentia's pro-development, anti-Latino history. Most glaring is the retelling of the background behind the city's cherished Heritage Day Festival and Parade. While identifying all the main protagonists and players, Elephant Rides for Free leaves out how the Lowe-led City Council moved the fall parade in 2000 from its decades-long route along Chapman Avenue in South Placentia to the city's northern, more “affluent” (read: white) area near Tri-City Park.

There are other examples of historical revisionism. Elephant Rides for Free neglects to mention that the city's 1972 incorporation of the Atwood barrio was aimed primarily at adding a new tax base and at winning the designation of “All-American City” from the Nixon administration; the city has ignored the heavily Latino neighborhood since. The book mentions the gradual move of the city's fire and police departments, City Hall, and library away from the Santa Fe barrio (Placentia's original downtown) but doesn't reveal that city officials did it primarily to get away from Latinos. And while the book doesn't shy away from the discrimination faced by Latinos in city elementary schools during the 1940s, it does leave out how Placentia's city fathers tore down Richfield School in 1940 because braceros were coming into the country and enrolling their children.

Don't believe this alternative history? Just ask any of Placentia's third-generation Latino residents, who will gladly—if bitterly—share with you this history. Listen to Bill Zavala. In an Oct. 27 piece published on, the lifelong Placentia resident and active opponent of the OCGDI recalled how Southside Placentians successfully defeated a similar initiative in 1978 that threatened to turn the Santa Fe region into a parking lot. Though Lowe acknowledges Zavala as helping on the book, he obviously didn't speak to Zavala enough—Zavala has tapes and transcripts of interviews he conducted over the past decade with Latino old-timers, many whom are now deceased.

When Elephant Rides for Free isn't freely playing loose with history, it masquerades a pro-development agenda as heritage. Detailing Placentia's railroad industry via the Burlington-Santa Fe line, the book includes the innocuous aside, “The train line, which was once a major part of Placentia's growth, is now an important part of the growth of the entire country.” This is the same philosophy the Placentia City Council used during a Sept. 18 council meeting while trying to convince hundreds of Placentia residents to accept the OCDGI and subsequent bulldozing of their homes.

The pro-development philosophy of Elephant Rides for Freebubbles up most apparently through the use of Alfred Aguirre, a county Latino legend who helped desegregate the Placentia schools, served as councilman from 1958 to 1962, and whose son Frederick went on to become an Orange County Superior Court judge. The book goes back to Aguirre from time to time for observations such as “Aguirre remembers there was enough snow near his house to make a snowman.”

One Aguirre anecdote ties the past to the coming future, however: “He saw the school and ground moving. Aguirre jumped over the school fence and ran to his house on Murray and Santa Fe Street.” That house still stands: it's slated for demolition under Lowe's redevelopment dreams.

For more information regarding opposition to the OCDGI, call (714) 993-CALL.

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