Victorville's Old Town
By David Allen, Daily Press
Reprinted from Daily Press, July 24, 1994
Photo Courtesy of Victor Valley College Collection - Victorville Old Town
Once, travelers on Route 66 paused to buy whiskey at the Barrel House or sleep over at
the Green Spot Motel as they passed through the heart of tiny Victorville.
For locals, shopping and entertainment were just a few blocks' walk from home. They
bought their meat at Lunceford's Market, took in shows at the Mesa Theatre and flirted at
the USO dances in the American Legion hall.
How small was Victorville? In 1925 it was so small that when J. "Clay"
Garrison opened the town's Ford dealership about four blocks down Seventh Street, friends
scoffed he could never make a go of it out in the hinterlands.
But as the century marched on the town crept south and west. New subdivisions
mushroomed. Route 66, which ran along Seventh Street, was supplanted by Interstate 15,
diverting traffic from downtown and reducing Victorville to just another sign along the
Today, the former heart of the city is a remote outpost at Victorville proper's
northeastern tip, marked by transmission shops and Mexican restaurants and rarely visited
by residents - and even then usually viewed curiously from inside a moving car, perhaps
with doors locked as a precaution, while heading someplace else.
Beguiled by Victorville's modern amenities like strip shopping centers and a
proliferation of national restaurant chains, many newcomers probably don't even know the
And, in fact, merchants and city officials agree the term "downtown" is a
misnomer. As the geographic center of the town shifted, the area ceased to serve the
traditional downtown function of a hub for retail businesses, offices and government
Instead, the new identity is Old Town. As the city's oldest section, it's prone to the
ills of declining sections of towns everywhere: empty storefronts, businesses slipping
into the margins, homeless people wandering the streets, drug sales, prostitution,
And yet, the city's police chief as well as some residents and merchants say the wave
of crime has receded, that the bad reputation unfairly lingers even after most of its
causes have fled.
Earlier government-led attempts to revive the area were aborted amid mistrust and fears
that whole blocks would be bulldozed. Now, city officials have won support for a more
modest plan - to give Old Town a facelift in hopes of sparking an economic revitalization.
Plans are in the works to widen the sidewalks along Seventh, plant trees and hopefully
foster a pedestrian culture absent from Victorville's other shopping areas designed with
the automobile in mind.
Victorville also is in line for federal bucks to fund a $2 million transit center at D
and Seventh streets that could not only draw traffic to Old Town but, more importantly,
get people to stop there.
"The downtown does not serve as a destination. It's a place to go through, it's
not a place to go to. Any revitalization, to be successful, needs to turn that
around," says John Hnatek, the city's planning director.
"I think you have to create a niche for the area, Hnatek said. "The history
that's Victorville, most of it's contained in the downtown, or Old Town area."
That history stretches back to the early 1850s, when a band of Mormons blazed a trail
westward through the hills to settle here along the Mojave River, living peaceably
alongside Indians who grazed their livestock on the grassy riverbanks. Stagecoaches began
following the Mormon route, leading to the opening of a station with a trading post for
travelers and miners.
When Southern California Railroad built a line here in 1885, the wide spot in the road
known as Huntington Station was dubbed Victor after the railroad's construction
superintendent, J.N. Victor.
Victorville - the name was lengthened after confusion with the mails in Victor, Colo. -
began springing up in the 1910s and '20s, with the first bank, church and school. Laboring
jobs came with the 1917 opening of the Southwestern Portland Cement Co.
As the age of the automobile dawned, Victorville basked in the benefits. The former
stage line known as National Old Trails Highway became part of U.S. Route 66 in 1926,
bringing traffic through town along D Street from Barstow and angling onto Seventh Street
before heading south to the Cajon Pass.
Victorville's image as a boozing, brawling Old West town punctuated by weekly
shoot-'m-ups between cowboys and miners - mellowed into general moral leniency as the town
grew, to hear historian John Swisher tell it.
During Prohibition, you could wink at the bartender in the Green Spot Cafe and hope to
find something other than lemons in your lemonade. There were brothels on either side of
the tracks. Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Cesar Romero came here to get away from
it all, appreciative of the fact that desert dwellers, who then as now often come here for
the relative privacy, left them alone.
"At one time Victorville sold more more liquor per capita than any other city in
the United States," remembered Dick Garrison, born here in 1929 and the son of the
Ford dealer. "People from Los Angeles would stop here for gas and liquor on their way
to Vegas." The proximity of George Air Force Base, which opened in 1941, didn't hurt
Oldtimers also recall the more sedate pleasures of small-town life, like outdoor dances
and rodeos off D Street. Garrison laughs at the memory of hailing sheriff's deputies by
leaving a message at the Green Spot, their hangout for coffee and conversation.
But the beginning of the end was at hand. Seventh Street elongated with new businesses.
By the time Victorville incorporated in 1962, Interstate 15 had opened between Victorville
and Barstow, converting to a full freeway with interchanges in 1972.
It meant ease and convenience for motorists. But it also meant travelers no longer
drove down city streets to get through town.
"They just go through and don't know anything about Victorville," Swisher
lamented. "It was just devastating."
Like the advent of the freeway system, another quickening of the national pulse in this
century of miracles was mirrored in Victorville. Car-loving Americans began flocking to
malls, where all the mom-and-pop services they needed were ensconced under one roof.
In Victorville, commercial traffic shifted to shopping centers along Seventh like
Victor Plaza, built in the late '50s, to Palmdale Road and later to Mariposa and Bear
The most extravagant, of course, is The Mall of Victor Valley, which opened in 1986.
While beloved by shoppers, it also was "the silver stake in the heart of downtown,
according to Mark Ward, a major residential property owner in Old Town.
"What's happened in Victorville has happened all over America. Main Streets dried
up because the malls came in," said Ward, 39.
Although the downtown stagnated as Victorville spread outward, city leaders made
several attempts the past 25 years to resuscitate the area, all of them shot down by
property owners fearful their homes or buildings would be condemned.
"There was a lot of resistance down here," recalled Augie Reyes, 32, who grew
up in the E Street barrio - literally on the other side of the tracks - and now owns
Nu-Way Cleaners and Laundry.
City leaders threw up their hands at wholesale redevelopment, instead improving streets
and installing the first drainage system but otherwise leaving the area alone.
City Manager Jim Cox said it was frustrating to be charged with ignoring the area,
particularly when City Hall's proposals for action were denounced by property owners. When
times turned bad, Cox suggested, government became a convenient target.
"One of the common things to do when an area begins to decline is to blame
government and say they've abandoned you. I don't understand what that means. Government
can't abandon anybody," Cox said. Private enterprise requires banks to make loans and
developers to build, and government can't force either to happen, he said.
It took the election of Felix Diaz to the City Council in November of 1992 to start the
momentum for change rolling again.
Diaz, who recently retired as a counselor at Victor Valley College, was born on
Cottonwood Street in the barrio in 1934. He called his campaign pledge to revitalize
downtown "kind of a personal thing."
At his prompting, the council appointed an 11 member committee of residents and Old
Town business owners. Led by Diaz, they began meeting in April 1993 to brainstorm ideas to
bring the area back.
Diaz said the movement gained crucial support from property owners with a promise not
to condemn any buildings but rather to work with what is there.
City leaders "put the ball in our court," said Ward, a committee member, who
praised officials for their cooperation and encouragement.
By December the committee had developed a plan with strategies to attract and retain
businesses, shore up the oldest buildings, spruce up sidewalks and building facades,
repair homes and develop new housing.
"Marketable assets," according to the plan, include the historic buildings,
the emotional attachment many oldtimers feel to the area, the high traffic volumes and the
natural beauty of the Mojave Narrows and river.
But the report, adopted by the council last month, strikes a note of warning:
"Until these assets are marketed or emphasized, the area will continue to decline
and the cost to revitalize the area may soon be beyond the financial ability of property
owners and even the city government to address."
Ward is optimistic the area can bounce back and become a funky, fun place to stroll,
shop and eat, a small-scale equivalent to Old Pasadena.
He lauds the bowl-like geography that shields the area from the notorious wind, the
vibrancy of the mix of homes and businesses, the diversity of the thriving Latino culture
and the ambience of living in the old part of town.
"People miss the pedestrian-friendliness of the towns I grew up in," said
Ward, a Michigan native. "We're going to capitalize on that."
13891 Park Avenue
P.O. Box 1389
Victorville, CA 92393
Victorville Transit Center
$2 million transit center could spark revitalization
By David Allen, Daily Press
Reprinted from Daily Press, July 24, 1994
You know things aren't great in Old Town Victorville when one of the so-called assets
to attract merchants is a plentiful choice of empty storefronts.
Those involved in the effort to revitalize the sagging area say their plans to widen
sidewalks, plant trees and foster a homey feeling will be for naught unless people show up
to take advantage of it.
One domino will have to fall, they say, to start the hoped-for string of positive
changes for the area. That domino is likely to be a $2 million transit center planned for
D and Seventh streets.
The proposed center would serve riders of Amtrak trains, Greyhound and Victor Valley
Transit buses and airport shuttles as well as commuters who would use a new park-and-ride
lot. The 6,000-square-foot building would also house a fast-food restaurant and an
Public Works Director Guy Patterson said the city is waiting for approval of $1.7
million in federal money and $300,000 from the state. Signs look good and the project
could go to bid in summer 1995, he said.
Bringing traffic into the area has never been the problem. Patterson said an estimated
25,000 vehicles come through on D or Seventh each day, mostly going to or from Apple
"We don't have to bring people here. We just have to get them to stop," said
Mark Ward, president of the Old Town Victorville Property Owners Association.
By its nature, the transit center should fulfill that goal. The moves to make downtown
more inviting should carry things a step further.
"We hope to create a situation where people getting off at the transit center feel
comfortable walking a few blocks to do some shopping or eat dinner instead of
(immediately) getting in their cars and driving somewhere," Patterson said.
Reflecting the large Latino population, Ward said, Old Town is home to Victorville's
best Mexican restaurants.
While he concedes there's not a lot else in the area to attract shoppers, Ward believes
new stores and investment will come in the wake of renewed foot traffic. He foresees
street vendors, new restaurants and a variety of service-oriented businesses.
"We can't compete against a mall. We're going to do things a mall's not going to
do," he said.
City Planning Director John Hnatek concurs, envisioning "highly specialized"
shops such as outdoor cafes, craft stores and boutiques, similar to Old Town San Diego,
that are fun to walk to and from. One goal is to convert several small storefronts into
and antique mall.
The property owners group hopes to encourage seismic strengthening of 35 old
unreinforced buildings, and to coax building owners on Seventh between B and C streets
into fixing up their facades with a unified Early California look, in place of the current
City officials plan to train federal and state grants and city tax dollars on the area
and employ marketing savvy and other resources to nurture development.
There also are tentative plans for new city-assisted affordable apartments to put a
larger population base near the commercial area.
City Manager Jim Cox is hopeful the new strategy will work. Renewed interest will
create a snowball effect, he said, prompting property owners to spend the money to fix up
their buildings and new businesses to come in.
Hnatek said the area is unique in Victorville because of its combination of commercial
and residential properties, offering the possibility of apartments atop stores and
While Hnatek said most residents of Victorville obviously appreciate the
"insulated and isolated" suburban model - where homes, stores and businesses are
separated - he said some would prefer living amid the mix of uses in Old Town, if it can
Ward is already one of them. "It's exciting, it's vibrant to live in the old part
of town," he said. "Residents are hungry for the homey atmosphere that this area
13891 Park Avenue
P.O. Box 1389
Victorville, CA 92393