In North Tustin, Old Friends on the Block Know It’s a Party All Year

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Illustration by Pete Ryan

 

Orange County always has been a block party kind of place. Go back to the 19th-century ranchos with their weeklong weddings. Probably back to the zenith of the Acjachemen nation.

Or go back a mere quarter century to a tiny burg in North Tustin.

The Zig Zag neighborhood, named for its meandering main road, celebrates its 25th year of Independence Day block parties this month.

I’ve attended dozens of block parties in Orange County over the years. My own neighborhood has five annually, and those are only the official ones. Still, I’ve never seen a block party quite like the July Fourth one in the Zig Zag neighborhood. Though I can’t really call it a Fourth party, because it lasts for three days.

Nine years ago, before he moved into his house, Alan Darnell says his real estate agent called him with an urgent message. “You have to get over to your new neighborhood. They’re having their party.”

Their party? Darnell hung up and turned to his wife, Yvonne: “Who are these people, and why are they bugging me?” Then as they dressed for a party in a neighborhood they hadn’t yet moved to, he added: “What’s going on; are we getting the neighborhood along with the house?”

Um, definitely.

I get my first sense of team Zig Zag when I ask Maggie Hart, one of the lead party organizers, to gather a few neighbors. When I arrive, I’m startled to find about two dozen people have pulled their lawn chairs onto Hart’s front lawn. A coffee table is overflowing with drinks and appetizers, chips, homemade salsa, and a tray of prosciutto-wrapped cheese. There are patriotic decorations stuck into the lawn, and a few of the folks are dressed in red, white, and blue.

Some neighbors, who range in age from newborn to 90-plus, have brought their own evening libations: the babies drain their bottles, the ice clinks inside the women’s “OG Housewives of Zig Zag” drink holders.

An older couple pulls up in a golf cart. Has the party started without them? As the managers of Riverview Golf Course in Santa Ana, Maggie Hart and her husband, Steve, have even provided a Zig Zag transportation system—spare golf carts, which many residents use to scoot around to the 39 houses in the cul-de-sac that is the entire neighborhood. Every new resident gets a copy of a hand-drawn map, which shows each house, who lives there, and how to reach them. Old-school hyperlocal, and it works.

“We’re more than neighbors,” Maggie Hart says. “We really know each other. We watch out for each other. We really like each other.”

The party starts July 3, when dozens of neighbors grease and bury a pig. People volunteer all night for shifts on the pig roast. Other volunteers build a stage for the talent show and assemble a mousetrap-type contraption that involves hitting a wooden target with a ball, which then releases a water balloon. There are card games in the street, kids pitch tents in the yards and camp, and at some point in the middle of the night, a house might get toilet papered.

“I wanted a neighborhood where my kids could lay down in the middle of the street, and I wouldn’t have to worry about them.”

The festivities the next day begin with a pajama pancake breakfast with a resident’s secret recipe. There’s a children’s bike parade. The fire trucks come. There’s a snow-cone machine and ice-cream truck. There are many traditional games, such as cornhole and horseshoes. But there are also creative twists: passing a banana by foot, covering some of the men’s heads in whipped cream (or shaving cream) and seeing who can land the most Cheetos in the cream, a mom-calling contest in which the moms stand on one side of the street and the kids call them from the other. The goal is to recognize your own kid.

I ask them if by staying in the neighborhood, they miss the big fireworks displays. “Are you kidding?” says Jim Stahovich, the unofficial mayor of Zig Zag. “Disneyland can see the fireworks from here.” He says residents can view about five major fireworks displays around O.C. from their lawns.

The final day, they eat the leftovers and clean up—and celebrate Stahovich’s birthday.

The Fourth of July party is just one example of dozens of social activities in Zig Zag. One resident estimates that they get together for about 50 parties a year. A neighbor moved away to Arizona, so every year, part of the neighborhood takes a trip out there.

Monday night is pizza night, when residents in the pizza mood bring the ingredients to a pizza grill. There is mahjong, crafts sessions, and shared celebrations for weddings, graduations, and anniversaries. When Cesar Millan, the “Dog Whisperer,” showed up a few years ago, he was greeted with signs lining the streets depicting big photos of every neighborhood dog. There are wine tastings, a Labor Day baseball tournament, an Oktoberfest, pumpkin-carving contests at Halloween, a holiday party, and Super Bowl parties.

There’s a motto in Zig Zag: “If you see someone walking down the street with a bottle of wine, it’s a party.” There are movie nights on lawns, parties to help a neighbor demo or remodel, and the occasional unexpected get-together—like when a roof caught fire and all the neighbors ran to put out the flames before the fire department arrived.

“I wanted a neighborhood where my kids could lay down in the middle of the street, and I wouldn’t have to worry about them,” Sharon Tesdall says.

Although there is the occasional sale by real estate agent, most houses never make it to the listings because they’re snapped up first by family, friends, and word-of-mouth. It’s not unusual for the extended family to move into a nearby house.

Everybody still talks about prankster Ted Habing. While his brother Chuck, who lived down the street, was away, Ted persuaded neighbors to collect their old Christmas trees and “planted” them in Chuck’s yard with a sign: “Cut Your Own Christmas Tree Farm.”

Most neighborhoods experience age waves, and Zig Zag is seeing second- generation families move back in.

“We just bought my parents’ house,” says Taylor Collery, 29, feeding a baby in her arms. She recently moved back from a newer part of Tustin, where she says she never got to know her neighbors. “I just loved growing up here, and I wanted my kids to grow up here, too. All the doors are always open. The entire neighborhood is like a family.”

But you don’t have to be family to be considered family. A handful of neighbors have lived into their 90s, and the elders are watched over as neighbors provide transportation and meals.

There have been calamities they still laugh about: the broken arm on the zipline, the time they accidentally lit the pig on fire, the “gargoyle people” (no one tells me what this is about, but I’m assuming statuary) who finally moved out.

“People used to say, ‘How long is this going to last before someone screws it up?’ ” Stahovich says. “But it’s gone on now for 30 years. And nobody’s ever gotten in a fight.”

Zig Zag might get together 50 or more times a year, but July is the epic party.

“The Fourth of July is special,” Maggie Hart says. “It’s a party designed by everyone, for everyone. Everyone pitches in with the work. The big payoff is to see the kids’ faces light up. We’re creating memories. We plan things the kids will enjoy and remember their whole lives, something they’ll want to come back for and bring their own families.”

And very possibly never leave.

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