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

Overall, Mendes is dissatisfied with the city's "lax and unsupportive" attitude toward downtown bars and restaurants. For example, Proof's use permit calls for a police review after six months of operations. "We are a year and a half in and still waiting on amendments to the many restrictions placed upon our operation," Mendes laments. "I feel like they gave the license and sent us out into the wilderness to fend for ourselves.

"If you look at other 18-hour downtowns like Fullerton, Long Beach and San Diego," he continues, "they have a thriving nightlife scene with restaurants, bars, valet parking, plentiful street transportation, well-lit walkways. It seems that the city is so afraid of regressing toward the Santa Ana of recent history that they are unwilling to grow. It's like they made the one big decision to step forward and then decline on the numerous small decisions that make for real progress."

Speaking of that pre-Artists Village Santa Ana history, Alfaro's memories include "crack[heads], gangs for days, creepsters; stray animals were everywhere. According to my pops, there was a crack house right across the street. Walking around wasn't always fun; [there were] a lot of random unfriendly confrontations."

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.

Despite the institutional hassles, Mendes reports that business at Proof has been good lately, and it's been building a loyal clientele. A recent Friday night there saw a large, hip, ethnically mixed crowd animatedly socializing and dancing to Santa Ana resident Dan Sena's Busywork crew of DJs.

"What is very encouraging is that we are seeing business from all over the county, not just Santa Ana," Mendes says. "Once again, I have mixed feelings about the developing nightlife scene. The thing that gives me hope is the people. I meet so many fun, interesting, creative and enthusiastic people at [Proof]. It gives me hope to see people with such character and unique personalities coming down, especially considering the fact that other parts of the county have a reputation for being a little sterile and lifeless.

"What discourages me is the constant hesitation we see from city hall in making progress down here," Mendes continues. "I am just a businessman who gave up my life and my life's savings to try to run a successful bar in a 'burgeoning' downtown. I knew what I was getting into as far as the 'stigma' attached to the city, but I had no idea that the internal forces would be so resistant to positive growth."

Despite these frustrations, Mendes is a city booster. "I believe that Santa Ana is a hidden gem. With its historic buildings and unique cityscape, it has a feel like no other place in the county. I took a huge risk in coming down here, but I have never regretted it. It has been an uphill battle the entire way, and [it] would be very nice to see some continuing support from the city that gets my tax dollars."

While discussing Santa Ana's attitude toward progressive businesses, Delilah Snell, president of its downtown business council and co-owner of the Road Less Traveled, repeatedly used the word "ridiculous." She can sympathize with the Crosby's situation. [Full disclosure: Snell is dating OC Weekly staff writer Gustavo Arellano.]

"They should've had their business up and running by now," Snell asserts.

It seems as if Santa Ana wants positive developments, but it's still gun-shy from what's happened decades ago. So there's stagnation, trepidation and systemic inertia. Snell agrees: "They need to take a different approach. Instead of working against them and putting all these restrictions and regulations . . . they need to be working with the businesses to make sure that they develop into the kinds of businesses they want to promote."

Even with new businesses that clearly have good intentions, Santa Ana seems to be resistant. Exasperated, Snell says, "I can understand the city's apprehensions about letting a 'bar' come in because they've had a history of having too many bars in the area. They tried to get rid of all of 'em. Their thinking is that if they easily allow for one bar to come in, whether or not it's good for the city, then they're probably going to get some backlash from other people who've been trying to open bars in the city and [weren't allowed] to. Like, why them and not us?

"Also, the city's had a history of being standoffish and not as embracing as other cities have," Snell continues. "But there's a lot of old thinking in the city, as well. Times have changed. If we want to change the image of downtown, if we want to be more progressive and look like what other downtowns are doing, like Old Towne Orange, we're going to have to be more embracing of different businesses and drop the past. That happened 25, 30 years ago. We have new people coming in."

Snell notes that Santa Ana's dynamic is unique, yet she thinks "the city should still be strict when it comes to bars, but with the Crosby, they know it's not just gonna be another late-night place where maybe there's [undesirables] walking around. The city's had some problems with that and litter, windows being graffitied. I don't think it's going to be that kind of crowd.

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