Moved Out or Kicked Out? The Gentrification Battle in Santa Ana (edited)
By Katrina Yentch
The first set of words that one witnesses upon entering the Santa Ana Artists Village, California produce visions of lush, serene, and organic living. The two-block long street is enclosed in forest green fences, and buildings on either side show off elegance and old age, elaborate carvings and architecture. Modern art galleries and arts & craft stores occupy these buildings, and restaurants here advertise local foods. Signs posted amongst shaded trees and quiet, whispering guests, promoting items like “organic produce,” “local art,” and “hand-crafted beers.”
Walk literally one block over to 4th street and Broadway, which is next to this village. Expect to be greeted by hoards of people speaking Spanish and stands with pasta para duros (a Mexican snack). The buildings are mostly uniform in architecture, square and peach colored. Signs here read quite the opposite of the former: “Oros joyas (gold jewelry),” “electronicas (electronics)” and “frutas frescas (fresh fruit).” This is Downtown Santa Ana, and although these two streets parallel each other, they could not be anymore different in style, price, and demographics.
Gentrification has been a problem in U.S. cities since the 1970s. It is a common idea that many do not know the term for; it is the process of typically a low-income city getting renovated. Hip, new areas spring about these urban jungles and the 25-30s crowds flock to these areas. As a result, property owners drastically raise the value of their properties, and business owners are essentially kicked out. They can no longer afford to pay the rent to keep their businesses here and have no other choice but to close shop or move location. David Hartley, a research economist in the Research Dept. of the Federal Reserve, describes gentrification as “a neighborhood is gentrifying if it is located in the central city of a metropolitan area and it goes from being in the bottom half of the distribution of home prices in the metropolitan area to the top half.” (Huffington Post).
Gentrification affects people who are renting apartments and houses in the area too; apartment complexes will also move with the trends and renovate their buildings, or build new apartments, thus increasing rent as well. Tenants are also unable to afford these price increases and are, in a de facto fashion, forced to leave. The cities are revenue-fueled, and they have made little effort to account for the citizens they are kicking out.
In an analysis that ran in the Huffington Post in 2013, Hartley analyzed the economic patterns of 55 cities in America, and ranked the top ten that underwent the most gentrification from 2000-2007. Los Angeles ranked in the top ten, and it’s no surprise that Orange County has also been affected by this trend.
Santa Ana is one particular city in Orange County that has been hit hardest by gentrification. Comprised of 85% Latinos, the city is essentially a second Mexico. Many families here are Mexican immigrants with large families to support. When gentrification began to affect the city in the 1980s, these families were and are currently the first who are forced to leave. In 1980, The Orange County Center for Contemporary Art opened, which led to millions of dollars spent in renovations to other arts-related projects. In the mid 1990s, city officials spent $11 million dollars in total for these projects, including a $6.5 million renovation on the Grand Central Arts Center, $350,000 on the OCCCA, and $450,000 on the Santora Arts Building. (Los Angeles Times) In the last decade of the 2000s, the Santa Ana Arts Village opened, bringing a new culture of restaurants, youth, and community art galleries to the game, resulting in around $9 million in improvements between 8th Street and Columbine. With this, property owners began to raise the prices of rent, and still do so this this day, leaving residents unable to afford their living and essentially getting kicked out.
This isn’t to say that the entire city is pro-gentrification. In August 2011, Voice of OC reported the resignation of two members of Santa Ana’s downtown promotional organization, Downtown Inc., for its failure to create promotions for the Latino Fourth street merchants. As quoted, “Raul Yanez and Adolfo Lopez, the only two Mexican immigrants who were on the Downtown Inc. board, say that for the past two years the rest of the board ignored their requests for promotional activities that would cater to a Latino clientele.” Earlier in the spring of 2011, KPCC 89.3 FM’s Larry Mantle called attention to the problem in a broadcast of his Air Talk statement, which drew several figures in the area to debate the issue, and was broadcast all across Southern California. That same fall, residents and artists of the Santa Ana area artistically protested in front of City Hall during a monthly Art Walk, singing and dancing to traditional folk music, chanting “Santa Ana no se vende” (Santa Ana is not for sale). Santa Ana residents are not ready to let go of their city without a fight, and to this day, organizations like “Occupy Santa Ana” and “United Artists of Santa Ana” actively fight the ever-rippling wave of gentrification.
Carolina Sarmiento is a doctoral candidate in the School of Social Ecology at UC Irvine as well as a native of Santa Ana. Recently appointed to the Santa Ana Arts Commission, Sarmiento is also on the Board of Directors at El Centro Cultural de Mexico, an “alternative space in Santa Ana where the community can find cultural, educational, and artistic activities that strengthen their identities, develop their talents and develop a sense of leadership in their community.” Efforts to gentrify Santa Ana also hit this center, and it has been forced to move to multiple locations in the area (one of them being the newly renovated Yost Theater) as a result of raised rent for the building they are hosted in.
Sarmiento comments on gentrification in Santa Ana: “This idea [gentrification] overlaps with the displacement of the Mexican immigrant community. The new businesses are bringing in a different class of people and some of us who can access these businesses. The people excluded are Mexican immigrant families, the people walking around with their strollers. A person who has three kids isn’t going to pay seven dollars for a strawberry organic beer.”
In a Voice of O.C. article calling attention to Santa Ana gentrification in The New York Times, Adam Elmahrek stated, “merchants have complained that larger property owners are planning to push Latinos out of the area…Other property owners and merchants say they simply want the downtown to become a successful destination for everyone, regardless of race.
As a major representative of the Latino community in Santa Ana, Sarmiento also does not see a place for Latinos in this new destination. She asks, “Where does that Mexican community have a place in that vision? Do we even have a place? The new vision for Santa Ana doesn’t include us,” Sarmiento notes glumly.
From Jennifer Medina’s NY Times story, he quoted, “The owners, who were mostly white, were determined to make it more welcoming to English-speaking clients and bring in customers from more affluent parts of Orange County. What they really wanted to do, opponents said, was scrub away any suggestion that it is an immigrant hub, in a city that is 85 percent Latino.’”
As mentioned earlier, 4th Street in Santa Ana is another world comparable to a small city in Mexico. Everyone here gives warm, welcoming smiles. They greet one another in passing, creating a very clear community vibe. In addition, everyone is speaking Spanish; the stores are simplistic in structure and hold items like piñatas and wedding gowns, and the prices cater to lower income residents.
Unfortunately, gentrification breaks this community vibe as well as networks of families that have built communities in the area. Sarmiento describes the process:
“You decide to sell your house because your neighbor is no longer living there, and [he/she] was babysitting, [which] was helping with the cost. When you leave, a red flag isn’t waved, nobody is keeping track of you; networks are broken. That’s still displacement; you had to figure out how to survive. Gentrification breaks communities and networks are disestablished. We didn’t lose an apartment complex all at once; one by one leases just aren’t renewed.”
Susanna, a worker at the afore mentioned fruit stands on 4th street, is unable to live in the area as a result of gentrification.
“There has been a lot of change here in ten years,” she says in Spanish (which I desperately attempt to speak and understand).
She does not live in the area either; she only works here, and has been for 20 years. Susanna lives in Anaheim, where property value is somewhat cheaper than Santa Ana. The average price for a one-bedroom apartment in Anaheim is around $1100/month (according to a recent Craigslist search). This is compared to an average price of $1300/month to live in the area she works in.
However, despite the negative effects it has on its cities’ residents, gentrification also has its positives. By renovating an area, cities increase their revenue. It is a clear sign of economic growth. There are “cool” areas to explore; the cities are cleaner, neighborhoods become safer, and the rate of crime decreases. It is an urban renaissance, if you will call it.
When entering the Arts Village of Santa Ana, the hustle and bustle of 4th street and Broadway ceases dramatically. The demographic changes to mainly young adults in their late twenties and early thirties, and everyone looks cool, calm, and nonchalant. There are monochromatic art galleries and chic restaurants from left to right, and the amount of urban hipness is dripping from the cracks of the pavement.
Rich Bohn is a curator for the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, which was established in 1980, right at the start of Santa Ana’s gentrification. The OCCCA plays host to regular exhibitions, films, forums, classes, and the monthly Downtown Santa Ana Art Walk, an event that takes place the first Saturday of every month. Here, residents gather to look at art, share handmade crafts, and socialize.
“The area is really neat to live in. There’s always something going on and it’s a great place for young people, seeing as there are lofts specifically for Cal Sate Fullerton studios nearby.”
You heard it right.
“There are art galleries in the village that have student loft apartments on the top, and studios for their use on the bottom,” Bohn exclaims.
Although El Centro Cultural does the same things as OCCCA, Sarmiento informs:
“The OCCCA pays a dollar a month for rent. We pay 4,000 a month. This difference in valuing this [El Centro] project versus OCCCA…there’s such a clear inequality of treatment.”
Lindsey is a worker at “Road Less Traveled,” a store that boasts as a “modern natural living and community education shop.” The store is adorned with hand-crafted jewelry, handbags, and aesthetically pleasing décor. Lindsey grew up in Tustin, and in addition to gushing over the exciting activities the Arts Village has to offer, she also states:
“It’s crazy how much it changes from one street to the next. I haven’t had a reason to go, but I’ve been told just to avoid anything past First Street.”
In addition, Rich Bohn called attention to another problem that introduces an extended cycle of gentrification to the equation.
“Lately, developers have been coming around the area to take it away from us. Artists will come into an area and make it nice; then they come in and ‘develop’ it, kicking us out in the process.”
Sarmiento recognizes the problem too:
“Artists are part of the gentrification process. [However], I think now they’re feeling the end of it, and they’re trying to figure out what to do.”
Sounds like a familiar problem, right?
It is no doubt that Santa Ana remains a lively, cultural hub. It is a place of community and rebirth of art, ideas, and liveliness. However, when one city becomes countlessly divided, how does the true meaning of “community” become redefined?
“’Santa Ana no Se Vende’ was an art piece made for us by artist Carla Sarata and she created it for us when we got kicked out of our spot. It was our issue but we wanted to say it’s bigger than El Centro. Our community is not for sale, you’re increasing the property value, but the people aren’t for sale. You can’t kick us out…but you actually can. That’s the problem. One, you can’t sell us. Two, we’re not for sale, and three, we don’t sell out.”