Three the Hard Way

Marc Yamaoka, Phil Nisco and Chris Alfaro wanted to open a hot new nightspot—But first, they had to fight Santa Ana City Hall

A former member of the environmental-transportation-advisory commission and now on the Santa Ana Council of Arts and Culture, Cribb recalls, "When we started Artists Village, it seemed like Santa Ana had become so unacceptable to Orange County that the idea of putting the arts (largely considered the domain of upper classes) there [was incomprehensible]. Of course, the administration itself thought it was ridiculous. They said, 'Don, you'll turn downtown into nothing but homosexuals, prostitutes and drug addicts if we support the arts there.' My response was, 'What's your point?' Santa Ana was so derelict then, anything would've been an improvement. What were they protecting? You don't protect disadvantage. You protect opportunity. There was no opportunity."

Cribb considers Santa Ana's current leadership to be as myopic and unadventurous as its predecessors. He expresses disgust over the troubles besetting the Crosby, which he views as "the legitimate future of Santa Ana. You have [ethnically diverse individuals] who are young and pushing experimental concepts. I am excited for the Crosby and will do anything I can to help them."

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The Crosby's owners (from left: Marc Yamaoka, Phil Nisco and Chris Alfaro) envision th space as a "haven of creativity" for their friends, themselves and other free spirits.  Photo by John Gilhooley.
The Crosby's owners (from left: Marc Yamaoka, Phil Nisco and Chris Alfaro) envision th space as a "haven of creativity" for their friends, themselves and other free spirits. Photo by John Gilhooley.

The Crosby's saga is noteworthy not only because it underscores Santa Ana's problematic attitude and policies toward progressive businesses, but also because of the grandiose ambitions of its owners. Alfaro (25), Nisco (24) and Yamaoka (23) view the Crosby as a "haven of creativity" that will promote everything they deeply care about: unconventional music, visual art, books devoted to visual art, street fashion and healthy food. Oh, and liquor, but that's secondary to the facility's other facets.

The Crosby concept has germinated for years and gone through several changes (its original emphasis was on films from the owners' personal collections and booze). Nisco and Alfaro had worked together in various musical projects, including Nisco's now-defunct band Vela. Alfaro helped to get Yamaoka—who has known Nisco since grade school—hired at Subject Matter, the Costa Mesa gallery/boutique where he was working until it folded last year. Yamaoka was on the verge of moving to Spain when Nisco and Alfaro made him an offer to be a partner in their budding business. He couldn't refuse. They signed the lease in January and are hoping to open later this month.

"We finally had the chance to do all the concepts we had," Nisco gushes, "all the different collaborations that we wanted to do, whether it be art, music, design, whatever. We can involve all of our friends and make a communal place people can feel comfortable at."

It sounds pretty utopian, with fostering creativity taking priority over monetary gain. "That's the only thing that keeps us going," Nisco says. "There are so many risks; people keep us aware of that every day. [But] we thought about everything. We tell people if we're doing what we love, that's enough reward for us. We want to build a place we enjoy and feel comfortable at, and hopefully that can transcend just us and other people can grasp it."

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Meanwhile, other Artists Village establishments express mixed emotions about their own prospects and city-hall interactions. Bradley admits that Memphis' business has improved after an initial rough patch, noting that there's "much more room for improvement. This will require the continued nurturing of the fine-arts component that the downtown is already known for and which is also the area's biggest draw, [and] also the addition of more complementary attractions such as restaurants/bars in the area, creating a destination with more options, so a thriving after-dinner scene is part of that," he says. Downtown also needs to draw more urban sophisticates, Bradley believes, expressing discouragement over the stalled construction of a three-phase loft project and other shelved concepts.

Proof Bar proprietor Joey Mendes knows from discouraging, too. Proof's liquor license came only after more than two years of struggle. "Our permit includes all sorts of restrictions that we are still in the very long process of trying to amend," Mendes notes. "Sometimes I feel that they were being cooperative just by approving [it] to begin with. Our Type 48 liquor license is a rarity and has not been granted in the city since 1986." This license permits hard liquor to be sold until 2 a.m. in a facility that only admits people 21 years old and over.

Asked if he can explain why the city institutes such a hassle-intensive process, Mendes says, "It seems that [the city] fears a resurgence of the 'problem bars' that were prevalent in Santa Ana during the '80s. This is why they went 'overboard' in listing operational restrictions."

Assistant city manager Cathy Standiford says Santa Ana's regulations are necessary because of the city's past crime problems, when downtown had a high concentration of bars. "[Downtown Santa Ana] was not seen as a desirable place for people to be," she says. "The city's been working hard to try to transform that. What that means is a balance between regulations that allow restaurants and other types of businesses to thrive, but at the same time to protect against harmful effects that can happen there.

"There are other communities in Orange County that don't require a conditional-use permit, don't require certain standards in their downtowns, and what they experience is a huge cost for services for their police department, increased crime, problems with crowd control. All we're trying to do is find a balance that allows business like the Crosby, which we feel will add tremendous value to the Artists Village, to succeed. But at the same time, [we need to] make sure that the downtown is a vibrant, desirable place for people to come."

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