By Adam Lovinus
By Lilledeshan Bose
By Gabriel San Roman
By Rachel Mattice
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Daniel Kohn
By Nate Jackson
By Mike Seeley
When the 99-year-old Yost Theater in downtown Santa Ana reopens on Aug. 5, it will be both hauntingly familiar and brand-spankin'-new. Anchoring what used to be called Fiesta Marketplace—the Latino shopping plaza on Fourth Street—on the corner of Spurgeon and Third streets, the oldest theater in Orange County was closed to the general public for 25 years, and then open intermittently since 2005.
The Art Deco signage and the façade will look pretty much the same, but once inside, the venue will look nothing like it did as its last tenant, Mount of Olives Ministry, a Latino Pentecostal church: Projection screens will hang from each side of the stage, and lights will dance and bounce off the walls and the handcrafted chandeliers hanging from the antique-tin ceilings. House DJ Colette will spin from a movable DJ booth wrapped in 16-foot-by-20-foot LED walls rising from the stage, looking down on what could be as many as 1,000 revelers on tiered dance floors. Stage dancers will perform on a platform. From the stage, a catwalk will extend. Carved iron railings will separate the VIP section's plush lounge seating from the dance floors.
Upstairs, there will be another room. The balcony will hold reupholstered seats, an extra bar and viewing bays from which to view the scene below. About $750,000 worth of audio/video equipment translates into the same sound board as the one at the Hollywood Bowl and the same speaker system as that at the City National Grove of Anaheim. In 2013, it's scheduled to expand to another 500-person space, opening in what used to be the Ritz Hotel.
307 N. Spurgeon St.
Santa Ana, CA 92701
Category: Music Venues
Region: Santa Ana
For the partners who manage the Yost—Dennis Lluy, founder of the late, great punk-rock venue Koo's Cafe, and Level One Promotion head honcho Dave Leon—the reopening is a gigantic feat.
It's also a project that's at the forefront of Santa Ana's great gentrification debate, one fraught with drama and intrigue, as well as claims of racism, trickery and deceit.
The 25-year-old Fiesta Marketplace was recently rebranded the "East End Promenade," and the name isn't the only thing that has changed. In the midst of the wild plumage of the quinceañera shops, the cowboy and boot stores, the peddlers hawking phone cards, and Mexican foodstands, hipster enclaves have been popping up. There's an old-school barbershop that shapes designs onto your head with a straight razor and a coffeehouse that specializes in cold-pressed coffee. A gourmet burger shop is opening up, and so is a gigantic rehearsal studio that will offer bands lockdown spaces. What's gone? A Ritmo Latino store, the old carousel, the kiosk where Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha played with a local son jarocho group not even five years ago.
Lluy doesn't like talking about all that, he says, because "it has nothing to do with me." That's not exactly true; he signed a 15-year lease to operate the Yost in 2008, but it took him three years to get the venue up and running because of what Leon calls "growing pains."
Those growing pains have everything to do with the resistance from the local, majority-Latino community that sees the Yost as the main battlefield for white people running it out of the neighborhood. (Even though Lluy is of Cuban descent.)
There was opposition to the Yost's plans to serve alcohol while allowing minors in the theater (it now has a type 47 license, which allows alcohol to be served with food). Lluy, who founded Koo's on a DIY, punk ethos, has been called a sell-out by audiences who once celebrated his efforts. He's been accused of stealing the Yost management from the nonprofit El Centro Cultural de México. There have been claims from neighboring merchants that used condoms were found in the alley beside it after a recent event. Even as the duo has spent the past few months on site for at least 12 hours per day, overseeing the construction, the changing face of the Yost has been a sore point for many longtime tenants on Fourth Street, who remember its heyday as a Spanish-language theater.
This week, an anonymous group called Artists and Musicians Against Displacement asked for a boycott of the Yost and events hosted by Downtown Inc. In an open letter, it says, "It is impossible to perform at the Yost Theater without legitimizing and furthering the gentrification of our city."
And at a contentious July 18 City Council meeting, Councilwoman Claudia Alvarez called for an inquiry into how the biggest property owners on Fourth Street—led by the Chase family, who own the Yost—have handled the renovations. "I definitely see a pattern," Alvarez told Adam Elmahrek of the Voice of OC after the meeting. "And it begs the question: Is there a deliberate attempt to get rid of Latino businesses?"
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That the Yost is at the forefront of a huge change is undeniable; whether it's good or bad is still up for debate, depending on how you feel about downtown Santa Ana—what it is now, what it once was, what it should be. Leon lauds the area as authentic, living proof that Orange County isn't a sterile cultural wasteland. Ten years ago, he says, "if you didn't speak Spanish, you'd never come down here"; these days, downtown is "Latino-based, but a lot of artists and musicians have come down to live here." He points out that there are more historic buildings in the area than anywhere in Orange County. "We're trying to add to the party down here."