Leon Worden

Revitalizing Newhall: An 80-year saga

Can you believe it? After almost 80 years of trying, downtown Newhall is finally going to be fixed up. For real. The streamlined, fiscally conservative Newhall redevelopment plan cleared its last major hurdle when the Castaic Lake Water Agency came to terms with city officials last Friday.

I say "80 years" advisedly. Every couple of decades, the merchants of downtown Newhall have tried to revive their historic business district, only to see their plans fail for lack of money, willpower or both.

The big difference between then and now is cityhood. No longer are we a distant outpost of 3,500 souls at the mercy of a faraway county government. Today we're a thriving city of almost 140,000 people with the political power to act on the decisions we make.

But the old-timers around town have long memories, and given the history, it's easy to understand why many folks thought Newhall revitalization was a pipe-dream as recently as a couple of years ago.

You might remember the last revitalization attempt. The year was 1980, and the L.A. County Community Development Dept. hired consultants to figure out how to stimulate business and increase commercial services in Newhall. In April, 1981, the consultants produced an inch-thick report full of ideas that might have arrested Newhall's decline.

But the massive infusion of cash that was needed to solve Newhall's problems never came. The plan was soon abandoned. Today the few relics of that revitalization attempt are the monument signs on San Fernando Road at Railroad Avenue and Hart Park, some red-tile paving stones in crosswalks that quickly turned black from tire rubber, and a waning Downtown Newhall Merchants Association.

Some 20 years earlier, there was talk among the Newhall merchants of forming a city. Suffice it to say it didn't happen.

Remember the late 1940s? They wanted to turn Newhall into an authentic Wild West town. Some really cool architectural plans were drafted (I've seen them) to put Western facades on the buildings along San Fernando Road. When it came time to ante up, the merchants balked.*

Even that wasn't the first try at rehabilitating downtown Newhall. His writing style takes some getting used to, but here's some raw text from the notes of A.B. Perkins, our first town historian (b. 1891, d. 1977):

"The decade of the 1920s opened along with the Ridge Route. For the first time, there was real traffic on Spruce Street (San Fernando Road today). Here, there were still individualists. It could have been truthfully said that there were Californians, Old Timers, and ‘furriners' (foreigners) — and never the twain should meet.

"In 1921 the Newhall Improvement Association formed. It accomplished two things. The only trees hereabout bordered Spruce Street. The Association got all the trees cut down, leaving a repulsive vista of shack fronts for tourists to view. They also published Newhall's first Brochure. They then died of malnutrition. The Brochure's photography was by R.C. Gibson, the text by A.B. Perkins."

There you have it. They've been trying to fix up Newhall since 1921. (Prior to that, Newhall was doing just fine-so much so, that in 1914 many Newhall merchants moved from Railroad Avenue to Spruce Street because real estate on Railroad was too expensive.)

I think over the last 80 years we've learned our lesson. Today's downtown Newhall revitalization is about far more than just chopping down a few trees (although that's part of it) or erecting a few monument signs.

Today we've got a Metrolink train station coming, roads opening, and sidewalks that should have been installed several decades ago. We've got plans for low-interest business improvement loans, attractive storefronts, and major beautification throughout the downtown corridor. We've got artists and actors who are champing at the bit to turn Newhall into a full-blown Theatre District.

In short, for the first time ever, we've got the will, the talent, the population, the political power and the financing mechanism to turn Newhall into something it hasn't been in a long, long time. Better, even.

Our City Council, the downtown merchants, the Castaic Lake Water Agency, the other taxing entities and, above all, the people of Santa Clarita can take pride in the role they have played-and will continue to play-in turning Old Town Newhall into a thriving business district that will showcase our heritage and make every Santa Claritan proud.

Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears Wednesdays.

* Susan Davy writes (1-26-2017): "My dad [druggist Ralph Williams] paid for the architectural renderings/western facades that you speak of in this article. ... My dad couldn't get 2 people to agree on this redevelopment."


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