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The Gentrification of Santa Ana: From Origin to Resistance

Top Image: W. Fourth St., Santa Ana, circa 1920 | Orange County Archives/Flickr/Creative Commons
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From the displacement of Native peoples to the enforcement of Jim Crow, the history of U.S. land policy and practice is a history of inequi¬ties. Gold rush-era Chinese workers and Blacks fleeing Southern racism were barred from California’s housing market and segregated to particular communities. After the Great Depression, the federal government backed mortgage lending as a route to homeownership and wealth accumulation, but redlined minority communities. White flight to suburbia left the urban core starved for investment and government services. Predatory lending and the 2010 foreclosure crisis further depressed rates of homeownership in the inner cities. Today, housing deeds still bear restrictive language such as “no lot in said tract shall at any time be lived upon by a person whose blood is not entirely that of the Caucasian race.” The restrictions have lost their legal standing but their spirit lingers in more nuanced ways.
Ch. 1: Legacy

City Rising is a multimedia documentary program that traces gentrification and displacement through a lens of historical discriminatory laws and practices. Fearing the loss of their community’s soul, residents are gathering into a movement, not just in California, but across the nation as the rights to property, home, community and the city are taking center stage in a local and global debate. Learn more.

In 2005, La Opinion, the largest Spanish language newspaper in the United States reported, "Downtown Santa Ana emulates many cities in Mexico. Fourth Street, between Main and Broadway, is the largest commercial area of this Orange metropolis ... and where the slogan is: Made in Mexico." This story titled “Santa Ana Tieñe Sabor a Mexico” spoke of the central city’s downtown cultural uniqueness, one that stands worlds apart from its 1950’s middle- and upper middle-class, white identity. Today, this cultural identity is in flux as an all-Latino city council is gentrifying its downtown, a vision that began over forty years ago when city officials were virtually all white and the downtown was browning.

Governmental, corporate and public-private partnerships are key actors producing Santa Ana’s gentrification, deploying redevelopment models that have accelerated gentrification since the 1990s. Such processes have largely left out long standing business owners and the considerations of the majority, the Latino working-class and immigrant population in favor of the middle classes.

History of Santa Ana

Santa Ana is about 30 miles south of Los Angeles, California and approximately 100 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. From the late 1800s, the city has gone from being a historic urban center in wealthy white and conservative Orange County to a large center with a Mexican, working-class and immigrant identity. During the World War II era, growth of the defense industry created thousands of jobs and accompanied a housing boom in the city and region. In addition to attracting a largely white population, the era also brought the first major wave of Mexican immigrants via the low-wage seasonal Bracero Program, following Mexican immigration patterns in the southwest region. While whites were still the majority in the 1960s, Santa Ana experienced the same white flight to the suburbs by way of racial housing policy patterns that were characteristic of many American cities at the time.

During the 1970-1980 period, Latinos accounted for the largest population growth in Santa Ana for the first time, going from 40,000 to over 90,000 people, the majority of this growth from immigration. The vast majority of immigration was from Mexico and included transnational communities who sustained strong networks with their native country. The city entered the 1980s having as many Latinos as whites and less economically well off compared to the rest of the county.

Children at Birch Park, Santa Ana, May 1910
Children at Birch Park, Santa Ana, May 1910. |  Orange County Archives/Flickr/Creative Commons
Mexican American Family at Centennial Park, 1992 | LAPL
Mexican American family at Centennial Park, 1992. | Los Angeles Public Library

Disinvestment and Uneven Development

In 1974, the Downtown Santa Ana Development Plan (DSADP) was the city’s largest and most ambitious redevelopment plan for the time. White collar businesses, such as law firms, mid and high end retail, such as Rankins, and mainstream retailers, such as J.C. Penny, had moved out to newer shopping centers and malls within the city and Orange County. The city sought to revive the retail heart of the area with more upscale stores for the gentry. According to city officials and the Plan, Fourth Street had largely emptied out, began to be filled with too many affordable and low quality stores, and was overwhelmingly blighted with deteriorating buildings. As a result, it quickly became riddled with criminals and socially undesirable activities and people, many of whom were minorities and immigrants.

The class and racial ambitions of the plan carried to the 1980s. In 1986, City Manager Robert C. Bobb was direct with the type of professional communities the city and developers were working to pull:

The city’s plan is to remold downtown into a "blend of the old and the new" with commercial space and upscale apartments that officials and developers hope will attract yuppies.
After the 1933 earthquake, Fourth St. & Sycamore, Santa Ana
Rankins Dry Goods Company after the 1933 earthquake, Fourth St. & Sycamore, Santa Ana. |  Orange County Archives/Flickr/Creative Commons
Former Rankins building in 2002
Hispano America Jewelers at 117 W. 4th Street in 2002, the former building for Rankins Dry Goods Company which was built in 1917. |  Santa Ana Public Library/Santa Ana History Room Photograph Collection

La Cuatro is Born and Gentrification is Put on Hold

The city fell short of gentrifying and re-whiting La Cuatro in the mid-1970s when it was at the incipient stages of forming its identity — a Mexican cultural and working class commercial zone. At the time, Semanario Azteca newspaper profiled typical businesses there in 1984, such as Mexican movie theaters, stores that make and sell tortillas, Latina/o record stores that routinely played rancheras and Spanish language pop music, restaurants and bars, beauty salons, shoe stores, photography studios, print shops and money exchange businesses. In 1987, store owners in the area reported that anywhere from 75 percent to 95 percent of their clientele was Latina/o. One former councilmember in the 1990s reflected of this era saying Latinas/os went on to “save” the downtown by creating “a thriving cultural business district infusing cultural diversity and economically sustaining the downtown.”

In 1989, La Cuatro’s growing economic success helped support the creation of a public-private partnership to develop the Fiesta Marketplace, a four block open air shopping district, on the eastern edge of La Cuatro. This culturally themed redevelopment offered affordable amenities, consumption options and urban design with a Mexican and working-class consumer in mind. Moreover, the downtown commercial district and most neighborhoods in the area as a whole escaped large-scale eminent domain and the city offered commercial property owners subsidies to retrofit their buildings.

Fiesta Marketplace Construction 1980s
Fiesta Marketplace's construction, circa 1980s. |  Santa Ana Public Library/Santa Ana History Room Photograph Collection

Disinvestment and Uneven Development

By the 1990s and 2000s, city council and private developers would not attempt to directly gentrify La Cuatro but rather made no serious investment in it. Instead, the city supported redevelopment plans and projects on the edges of La Cuatro. As Gonzalez points out, the city shifted its language about what constituted a desired community and pursued newer en vogue redevelopment models sweeping the nation that have consistently been linked to gentrification in the United States.

Artists Village

The city created the ten-block Artists Village, Orange County’s first publicly subsidized artist colony, on the southwest downtown portion and strolling distance of La Cuatro in 1994. The Village idea is said to have begun with Santa Ana native Don Cribb, who leveraged his Santa Ana Council of Arts and Culture (SACAC) group to steer the city to commit subsidies “to assist with the donation of land and exclusive right-to-negotiate guarantees.” The city invested heavily to jump-start the Village. This included $5 million in federal community development block grants, $1 million in general redevelopment dollars to purchase and renovate buildings for lease at $1 a year, as well as to provide forgivable loans to area investors for rehabilitation.

The Village consists of historic buildings, restaurants, art galleries, studio apartments for university students and in-residence artists, a theater, retailers, bars and an art non-profit. Few of these art galleries and shops have been Latino owned. While they sell medium to high priced Latino themed artwork, the Artists Village has been heavily marketed to a combination of upwardly populations and general art enthusiasts from outside the city and such patrons make up the majority of consumers in the Village.

Jairo Banuelos | Tyler Stallings
Work of Jairo Banuelos in Santa Ana's Artist Village. | Tyler Stallings

Renaissance Plan and Station District 

The 2007 Renaissance Plan (RP) and the Station District within it became the city’s largest gentrification initiatives, combining Creative Class, New Urbanist and Transit Oriented Development principles. New Urbanism emphasizes urban design to create mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly housing and commercial zones, which promote an approach it says is common in white and economically prosperous neighborhoods. The RP aimed to revitalize 421 acres over 124 blocks, stretching one mile from the county’s civic center to the city’s train station, consisting of the downtown district and historic Logan and Lacy barrios. 

After the halt of the RP, in part due to community protest, the city repackaged a portion of the plan into a transit-oriented development plan called the Station District (SD). The SD covered about a quarter of the original RP acres, continuing to cut across the Lacy barrio and La Cuatro and connecting to artist housing including the Santiago Lofts. The proposed streetcar line would run through Lacy, a neighborhood with many city-owned, boarded up homes ready for eventual demolishment to make way for transit and the La Calle Cuatro shopping corridor. There are mixed views in the community about the need for such transit. One immediate threat to the areas is that businesses and residents could be displaced due to rail construction.

Santa Ana Amtrak Station
Santa Ana Station, which serves as the station for both Amtrak and Metrolink.  |  Loco Steve/Flickr/Creative Commons

East End

Rebranded in 2011 from the previous Fiesta Marketplace, the East End is the most recent example of gentrification. It consists of a four block square area of modestly upscale retail and restaurants, bars and other shops, as well as a few businesses from the Fiesta Marketplace era. A kiosk, carousel and a seating/socializing area were removed and replaced with an open promenade. Other changes included replacing the colorful pastel tones of the commercial buildings that used to represent a symbol of Mexican architectural design with neutral tones; not renewing leases unless tenants expanded their merchandise to include items that could appeal to groups other than Latino immigrants; and actively soliciting new types of small businesses and retailers typically associated with the creative class and middle-class. Visible changes to the East End have, in part, come from very generous subsidies from the city to Downtown Inc., a private nonprofit that was formed to oversee the redevelopment and investment in the downtown area.

Downtown Inc. represented a controversial consolidation of both private and public interests in a vision for downtown Santa Ana. For example, in 2008 the City awarded $765,000 of the $1,250,000 “Fourth Street Façade Program” to Fiesta Marketplace Partners. One of the original Fiesta Marketplace Partners, Irv Chase of S & A Properties, had at this time gained 98% majority interests in the partnership. It was around this time that S & A Properties began aggressively rebranding and redesigning the campaign of Fiesta Marketplace to The East End.

The 2011 grand re-opening of the Yost Theater within The East End was arguably the loudest outcry among anti-gentrification activists. From the 1950s to the mid-1980s, the Yost was the cultural and performing arts center that showcased Mexican musical and cinema legends and made downtown the “happening place” for generations of Mexicans in Santa Ana and Orange County. The same partner who created the East End had acquired the Yost Theater during the formation of the Fiesta Marketplace, allowing it to decay and eliminating the cultural music entertainment and programming that was significant to the area’s predominant Mexican community.

Yost Theatre in Santa Ana
Yost Theater, Spurgeon St., Santa Ana, 1974. | Orange County Archives/Flickr/Creative Commons
The Yost Theatre
The Yost Theatre, which has been turned into a night club. |  demxx/Flickr/Creative Commons

Latino City Council, Urban Hardships and Demographic Change

In 2006, Santa Ana had an all Latino city council for the first time — the first U.S. city with a population over 300,000 to have an all Latino city council. It was a turning point in racial and ethnic redevelopment representation politics. Nonetheless, in 2006 and to the present day, gentrification controversies persist. This tests the assumption that the racial and ethnic background of elected officials are a strong predictor of political representation politics, such that these elected officials would advocate, vote for and wield resources to directly and primarily benefit the city’s poor, working-class and immigrant residents, the majority who are of the same racial and ethnic background of the city council.

Santa Ana’s 2010 population totaled over 320,000 and 78% of the city is Latina/o, half of which are immigrants. Santa Ana continues to have some of the highest overcrowding and poverty rates in the nation. We can infer that redevelopment has helped reduce population density and increase the White population, particularly in the downtown area. From 2000 to 2010, the downtown area's two census tracts lost an average of 14 percent of residents where whites increased by more than 17 percent and Latina/s decreased by 16 percent — the most drastic demographic shifts experienced throughout Santa Ana. During the same period citywide, there was a 4% population decline and less than half a percent increase in the Latino population.  

Downtown Santa Ana 4th St
Downtown Santa Ana along 4th St.

Community Activism

The community has a strong history of voicing opposition to the aforementioned plans and projects while voicing alternative redevelopment priorities. A group of downtown merchants and allies challenged in court the Property Based Improvement Districts (PBIDs) that taxed businesses and heavily steered economic resources to the East End. The Santa Ana Collaborative for Responsible Development (SACReD) initiated much of the activism around the SD, including the negotiation of a Community Benefits Agreement. Although the agreement did not pass, the collaborative succeeded in increasing affordable housing units and broadening affordable housing median income guidelines that were originally proposed by the developer. SACReD also formulated the Sunshine Ordinance, which the city passed in 2012 and was designed to increase public participation and transparency in planning and local government. In 2016, Thrive Santa Ana, an organization designed to help acquire land for long term affordability, established a community land trust to ensure that working families and residents have a meaningful stake in making decisions concerning the development of land. Community activism continues to test different approaches to community development and participation, with some victories and mixed results. Nonetheless, the growth of groups resisting gentrification offers a path to redevelopment that can help maintain the downtown’s retail cultural sabor, provide proper affordable housing, and redefine local governance and planning practices.

Top Image: W. Fourth St., Santa Ana, circa 1920 | Orange County Archives/Flickr/Creative Commons

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Almada, Morales Jorge. 2005. "Santa Ana Tiene Sabor a Mexico." La Opinion.

Haas, Lisbeth. 1995. Conquests and historical identities in California, 1769-1936. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gonzalez, E. R., 2017. Latino city: Urban planning, politics, and the grassroots.  New York, London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Sarmiento, C. S., and Beard, V. A. 2013. Traversing the border: Community-based planning and transnational migrants. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 33(3)

Velo, Fernando. 1984. "El Pez Mas Grande Se Come Al Chico." Semanario Azteca 4, Julio 11, 1984.

Dougherty, Kathleen. 1987."It's time for the Fiesta to begin-Construction starts soon on four-block mercado downtown." The Orange County Register.

Marsh, Diann. 1994. Santa Ana...An Illustrated History. Second ed. Untied States of America: Heritage Publishing Company.

Gurza, Agustin. 2009. "The Resurrection of Santa Ana " Orange Coast Magazine.

Mena, Jennifer. 2002. "Santa Ana Hopes to Get a Lift From Lofts." Los Angeles Times, September 14, 2002.

Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. 2000. Suburban nation : the rise of sprawl and the decline of the American Dream. 1st ed. New York: North Point Press. Saab, Joan A. 2001.

Elmahrek, Adam. 2015. "Santa Ana’s Streetcar Project Has Inside Track." Voice of OC, April 6, 2015.


Delson, Jennifer. 2006. "Santa Ana City Council is All-Latino." Los Angeles Times, 9 November 2006.

Rojas, Leslie B. 2011. "Will Latino-led redevelopment in Santa Ana ultimately rob it of its Latinoness?". 89.3 KPCC Radio

Sarmiento, Carolina S. and Sims, J. Revel. 2015. "Facades of equitable development: Santa Ana and the affordable housing complex." Journal of Planning Education and Research, 35(3).

Montiel, Lisa M, Richard P Nathan, and David J Wright. 2004. An Update on Urban Hardship. Albany, NY: The Rockefeller Institute of Government.

González, E.R., Sarmiento, C. S., Urzúa, A, S., and S. Luévano. "The Grassroots and New Urbanism: A Case From a Southern California Latino Community." Journal of Urbanism: International Research on Placemaking and Urban Sustainability, 5(2-3).

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