By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Just three years after Santa Ana officials drove a celebrated all-ages venue from downtown, city fathers are at it again. The problem this time, though, isn't punks or artists, but one more prosaic: parking.
On Sept. 15, the Centro Cultural de México moved out of its location on 2100 N. Main St. The nonprofit—which offers free music classes for kids along with a music stage that continually hosts such influential artists/activists as Zach de la Rocha, Martín Sorrondeguy and (soon) KRS-ONE—will move out the next day so bulldozers can clear the way for a new Bowers Museum parking lot.
Just up the street from the Centro, at 2202 N. Main St., Sol Art Gallery and Café is also preparing for the movers. It's a nonprofit too—but not by choice. Sol Art owner Sali Heráldez has unsuccessfully spent the past year fighting for a business license that would allow her to sell coffee and pastries (see "Caffeine Free," May 28, 2004). She still doesn't qualify, according to the city, because Sol Art doesn't have enough parking. The result: a sadly diminished personal bank account Heráldez estimates will hit zero by early October.
Supporters of the organizations say it's a generational thing: Santa Ana officials are hostile to the idea of young people operating all-ages venues in the city that is America's youngest, most Latino, most Spanish speaking, most crowded and, by at least one measure, toughest to live in.
"These groups are homegrown," says Adriana Alba-Sánchez, a Santa Ana native and former Centro board member. "They're not going to up and leave if a crime wave starts. They're from the community—it's a long-term investment. We grew up here. We're here to grow a vital city. But officials don't seem to care."
The struggles of the Centro and Sol Art are similar to those of Koo's Art Gallery. Koo's is now housed inside a first-floor space in a downtown Long Beach apartment building, but it spent eight years in a converted Chinese restaurant in downtown Santa Ana. Koo's gained a national reputation for its commitment to all-ages shows, independent music and activism. City officials, uncomfortable with the many young punks and progressives that haunted Koo's, constantly harassed the club, finally succeeding in closing it in early 2002.
Santa Ana is far more sympathetic to the Centro and Sol Art. The Centro has received annual Community Block and Development Grants (CDBG) for its children's music programs since 2003, and Santa Ana City Council Member José Solorio proclaimed Sol Art "is what Santa Ana is about" during a recent council meeting.
But the city's obsession with parking codes—at least where small businesses are concerned—is behind each group's woes.
The Centro rented a space in south Santa Ana for two years until code enforcement officers suddenly decided in late 2004 that it didn't offer enough parking and threatened to shut down the Centro. The city helped the organization quickly find a replacement space this February even though the new building's owners had plans to turn it into a Bowers Museum parking lot by year's end. And now, city planners have told the Centro that most of the downtown locations they're considering for relocation don't have enough parking.
Lack of parking is a major issue in Santa Ana, which the 2000 Census pegged as the country's most crowded big city. But for the city to tackle that issue by cracking down on youth-run venues is perplexing. If any Orange County city needs all-ages venues, it's Santa Ana, which the 2000 Census determined has the lowest median age of any big city in the country. Recently released test scores show the city's four high schools with some of the lowest in the state. And the elimination of all CDBG funding by the Bush administration in 2006 will put city-run youth programs at risk of disappearing.
Neither the Centro or Sol Art is looking for government handouts—more like hands-off. "My plea is for the city to make exceptions for smaller organizations just like they do with big businesses," says Carolina Sarmiento, 25, president of the Centro. "If the city can't help us with money, we understand that. But they can at least get out of the way." And, if they don't get out of the way, Sarmiento says, Anaheim officials have offered them a space free of charge.
Heráldez is more pointed in her critique.
"I've lived here my entire life," the 30-year-old sighs, "and I can't even open a bloody business."
Full disclosure: Gustavo Arellano is a board member of the Centro Cultural de México and performs at Sol Art's Thursday open-mic nights.