There’s such a yearning among cities today – Garden Grove and Stanton among them – to become sophisticated urban and urbane areas. Planners and civic boosters dream of our communities someday boasting art galleries, wine bars and bustling foot traffic along broad busy boulevards.
It’s a vision I also embrace. The advance of mixed-use planning, rail transit and the “café culture” spawned by Starbucks and its imitators are inevitable and in many ways, desirable. With cheap land running out (at least in the more desirable areas), making our communities more livable and less dependent on the car culture, with its traffic jams and pollution, are good goals.
And yet …every year the Strawberry Festival comes around and connects us to our past. It celebrates a long-gone agricultural era which is redolent of a time and a culture which was in many ways desirable and even superior to today. It is that “circus-comes-to-town” moment when cotton candy and scary (and rickety-sounding) rides bring out the kid in all of us.
Certain as the rotation of the earth, this event marks the changing of the seasons. The Strawberry Festival, which grew out of the old Grover’s Day event, signals the beginning of summer. It’s an unsophisticated and down-home four days which serve as a kind of neon-light time machine to transport us – even the new arrivals to Garden Grove – back to a “golden age.”
The Festival started in 1959 at a time when the city (only three years old) was evolving from a farming community into a bustling suburb. The two aspects lived side-by-side, usually in a complementary way. You could shop at the popular “new” Orange County Plaza at Chapman and Brookhurst and a block or two away, pick up fresh locally-grown fruits and vegetables.
Students walking home from modern schools could cut through spooky-looking orange groves, splash through the many ponds created by the frequent rains in a community that was a little behind the curve in drainage, and live a life not all that different from the way kids did a hundred years before.
This was before parent paranoia set in. Kids would walk or ride their bikes great distances, and there was a lot to do on those journeys.
You could fish at Kid’s Haven (Haster and Chapman), see movies, buy baseball cards or lizards downtown (on what is now Main Street), and rampage through a hundred open fields.
The pace of life was slow and relaxed. Things were quieter in every sense of the word. Aside from the occasional sonic boom, on many summer days the silence was only broken by the happy shouts of kids playing sandlot baseball or the shutt-shutt-shutt of lawn sprinklers.
If it all sounds very “Tom Sawyer-esque,” that’s right. But just as in those stories by Mark Twain, there were always snakes in the grass, no matter how green and lush the foliage might have been.
The Fifties and Sixties were times of considerable racial bias, cramped horizons for women and ever-growing problems with air pollution.
Still, there are many older Garden Grovers for whom the festival is a touchstone connecting them to a kinder, gentler world with less frenzy and more friendliness.
A stroll among the booths there in Village Green Park reminds one of the many non-profit groups doing good work in Garden Grove. A look at the festival patrons tells us how so many different ethnic groups can live here in harmony.
And, of course, biting into a fresh strawberry can summon up the sweet taste of a summer, and a life full of possibilities stretching out ahead.