Some of the historic Lemon Street Overpass murals are getting a needed makeover, thanks to fundraising efforts by Fullerton City Councilmember Ahmed Zahra, District 5. “Several employee associations and a barbershop have donated to restore two of the murals, and I’m now talking to different community partners to complete the others,” said Mr. Zahra.
The murals are now 44 years old and have likely inspired more murals throughout Fullerton. Murals now adorn the SOCO area, Downtown Fullerton, and most recently, Maple School. They are part of Fullerton’s cultural identity. Murals decorate the Fullerton Post Office on Pomona/Commonwealth (1942), the Fullerton Police Station (1942), and the oldest mural at Fullerton High School Auditorium (1934). The Lemon Street Overpass Murals did not start as an artful expression but rather as a neighborhood’s response to combat graffiti.
In 1978, community members, such as myself, Candelaria Garcia, Ruben Morales Sr., Cynthia Nieto Gulley, and others, were assisted by the Fullerton Organizing Project (FOP) to confront it. FOP coached community members to apply organizing techniques to overcome issues affecting the well-being of our community, as well as approaching elected officials to partner in remedying these issues. The primary issue in the late 1970s was graffiti, and one area constantly hit was the Lemon Street Overpass to Lemon Park. It got so bad — that even a dog got “tagged.” Not kidding!
An Organized Plan to Combat Graffiti
We organized the Maple Area Action Community (MAAC) and then quickly met with the area youth, who were the usual graffiti suspects. Through their participation, a mural proposal was developed for the Lemon Street Overpass, along with a sandblasting process to remove graffiti from area brick fences.
The youth played a significant part in the mural proposal, which provoked a commitment to beautifying their community instead of damaging it. MAAC representatives met with – then-Fullerton City Councilmember Louie Velasquez and Community Services Director Ron Hagen to present the proposal and seek guidance. The mural proposal specified selecting local high-school students as muralist trainees under the direction of a muralist trainer. Trainees would be paid through the Neighborhood Youth Corps, a youth employment program, and the funding sources for the muralist trainer, paint, and supplies would come from the City’s HUD program.
In succession, the Neighborhood Youth Corps (NYC) agreed to the muralist trainees’ wages, contingent on the City’s approval of the Mural proposal. Additionally, MAAC members met with each council member to present the mural proposal’s merits and request their support. City Council Approves Lemon Street Murals In October 1978, before a packed council chamber of Maple Area residents, mostly young people, the City Council unanimously approved the mural proposal after presentations by MAAC members, youth, and City staff.
The Fullerton News Tribune quoted Councilman Louie Velasquez on Oct. 4, 1978, “This is one of the happiest days of my life where the Maple Community can organize and get together to make their community better.”
Muralist David Whalen was hired, and six neighborhood high-schoolers with creative skills were selected. The youth trainees designed ten murals. Their artistic expressions, generated by their teenage perspectives, were the basis of the designs, and Mr. Whalen encouraged them. Graffiti dropped significantly, which was MAAC’s goal. Local youth participation is also the focal point of Councilmember Zahra’s restoration effort. He stated, “Keeping it local with youth participation so they can return to see their efforts, and teens and elementary-aged kids actually helped restore the murals Lowrider Car and Town I Live In.”
The Lowrider Car mural was dedicated to a popular neighborhood member who had died.
The Zoot Suit mural is from the famous play “Zoot Suit” by Luis Valdez, which depicted the 1943 riots by servicemen attacking Chicano youths for wearing zoot suits in East Los Angeles.
The Girl with a Hat mural is supposedly a neighborhood teen, and the La Virgin de Guadalupe mural represents the faith of some of the trainees.
The Town I Live In is a song popularized by the Chicano band – The Midniters – and it’s a statement of pride in the community.
The mural – Come Back Again, Soon – facing traffic-goers departing south from Fullerton city limits to Anaheim is the message for a return visit. (Actually, Come Back Again, Soon – is taken from a similar message from the old Pacific Electric Red Car Bridge (now Berkeley Ave.) over Spadra Road (now Harbor Blvd. The bridge was demolished in 1948.)
Restoration and Additional Murals
Murals deteriorate from weather, sun exposure, and physical damage, which require periodic restorations every decade or so with funding from the City of Fullerton’s Redevelopment Agency, which typically funds public art projects.
In 1988, the Fullerton City Council approved funds to restore the murals and funds for an additional mural. Former employee Eloisa Espinoza, Maple Multipurpose Center Coordinator, coordinated the restoration process. The City secured the late, famed Orange County muralist Emigdio Vasquez, whose murals decorate many Orange County cities, to create the new mural on the overpass.
The new mural – Mujeres Latinas (Latina Women) – faces west unto Lemon Park. A few years later, Emigdio Vasquez painted a second mural on the Fullerton Creek wall by Lemon Park, titled Ninos del Mundo (Children of the World). The Redevelopment Agency ceased to exist in 2012, and the required restoration efforts have since been problematic until now. Councilmember Ahmad Zahra is encouraging donations to restore all the murals by donating to a City-sponsored site at https://donorbox.org/lemon-street-mural.
The murals enhanced community pride and reduced graffiti. David Duran, a youth muralist in 1978, who was in his 39th year of employment at his company, stated, “I drive by the murals every day on my way to work, and I take pride in them.” However, other individuals believe the murals encourage gang activity. Barbara Giasone, Fullerton News Tribune Weekly Apr. 3, 2008, reported, “After a police update on gang activity in Fullerton prompted Councilman Shawn Nelson to call for the immediate removal of the mural on the Lemon Street pedestrian overpass south of Valencia Drive.”
In the article, Mr. Nelson stated, “The mural inscription, ‘The Town I Live In,’ with its picture of a lowrider car makes it appear that the City validates “that kind of activity” often linked to gangs.” The report also stated, “Nelson made the recommendation at the end of the meeting. No action was taken.”
There are some in the Maple Area community who have the same opinion. But to his credit, Councilperson Nelson met with Maple Area representatives to discuss the comments.
According to a Fullerton Observer article by Judith Kaluzny on Jun. 1, 2008, about Lemon Park renovations and the fate of the murals, “He [Nelson] apologized at a subsequent council meeting for his insensitivity.” The Hope Heidi Cruz Holford, whose mother was born in the old Balcom’s housing camp for families of Mexican citrus laborers (demolished in 1962) near E. Commonwealth & N Balcom, stated, “The lowrider culture goes well before established Mexican gangs. It’s the same way in the 1950s when white people wore the James Dean haircuts and outfit to show off. Well, Mexicans had lowriders to show off. It had nothing to do with violence or drugs — and the idea that something associated with Mexicans is automatically gang-related is offensive and egregious.”
There is hope for those who classify some of the murals as promoting gang culture. If you attended the Anaheim Halloween Parade on Oct. 28, you saw that they incorporated the culturally rich Chicano heritage into their annual, traditional parade. Chicano car clubs, lowriders, and young people attired in zoot suits were integral to the parade procession. This happened in Anaheim, whose City Council was controlled by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. That is progress. Hope and restoration really are good things.