Other Downtowns: Santa Ana

Buster Brown Shoes

The other day I went with Randy Burger, a friend-from-college (and retired university administrator) and old friend Michael Ward (artist and designer) to wander around downtown Santa Ana.

We hadn't any plan except to have lunch and stop at the Grand Central Art Center and the galleries managed by Cal State Fullerton. As usual, we didn't know what we were getting into.

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A lot of redevelopment money has gone into the several blocks that make up Santa Ana's old downtown. Loft units march in respectable New Urbanist style down many of the side streets, the four -story blocks adhering to their lot lines like textbook illustrations of "livable streets." And for all their hip pretense, the units did look livable, although on a Saturday mid-morning their sidewalks were abandoned of the foot traffic that New Urbanists like to see. The hip do not rise early.

Those who do were out in contrasting vibrancy and ballyhoo around Broadway and Main streets, standing at frutas and jugos carts, handing out flyers for shops renting impossibly full ball gowns, and promising to fix all your ills if you stepped around the corner to see Carmen the curandera. There was something more than poetry in her offer (in Spanish) to minister to "the anguish that weighs down your nights of solitude."

The merchants in this mercado look as if they are doing well enough; not many "for lease" signs. Their stores are lined up in early 20th century buildings, with deep entrances faced by show windows that once roped in the farmers and farmers' wives who walked these streets a hundred years ago.

They'd be surprised now that the only patrons of what had been then the better shops in town are those who used to live - quite literally in Santa Ana - on the other side of the tracks, down by Our Lady of Guadalupe church.

Michael Ward took the photograph that illustrates this post - once a Buster Brown Shoe store, now a retailer of hot dresses for nights out.

When we went over to the Grand Central Art Center, we found that the galleries would be closed until evening, when receptions for two shows would begin. George Herms - one of the figures in the creation of post-war Los Angeles art - was opening an exhibition of assemblage pieces as part of the Getty-funded Pacific Standard Time retrospective of post-war L.A. art. The Lebanese painter Choucrallah Fattouh - an artist in residence at CSUF - was closing a show of new works he produced while in Southern California.

We stood at the entrance to the gallery when the tall, casually dressed Mr. Fattouh, seeing our disappointment, invited us in to look at his installation of paintings and metal sculpture. His English was hesitant, but he told us that his new paintings were the result of the freedom he felt in coming to Southern California. He had also found a "new muse." he said, and in painting her he began a series of half-abstract, half-figurative, black-on-white works that traveled from his hand to the canvas in no more than a dozen or so wide strokes. He made them with a plastic card, rather like a credit card, loading the edge with black paint and pressing it to the canvas in brief hits and longer sweeps, the paint thinning into a mesh of lines at the end of most strokes.

But they weren't just gestures, in the manner of Abstract Expressionism. The tapering rectangles and patches of black paint resolved into a figure - tall, composed, both present in the paint and missing from it. (Later, Randy and Michael returned for the reception and saw Mr. Fattouh "draw" one of these paintings, working with his model. Michael said it took the artist about a minute.)

I missed that part, as well as meeting George Herms, whose place in the art of mid-century Los Angeles is touched on in Rebels in Paradise by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp.

But lunch at Chapter 1 down the street was good. So was walking around, by which Latino Santa Ana was mashed up with Lebanon and high-end bistro food. Just what a proper downtown - scaled very much to human dimensions - is supposed to do.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The image on this page was taken by Michael Ward. It is used by permission.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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