In 1769, Don Gaspar de Portola discovered a valley and river in Southern California, which he named Santa Ana. And white people have been bitching about it ever since. Oh, not the movie stars in the '20s and '30s—Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks used to weekend here like it was Palm Springs or something—but that was when the city was still safe for honkies. Back then, they even segregated the pools—prescience warning them this place would one day be just brimming with Mexicans. Just about 80 percent now, as a matter of fact—a number that strikes cold fear into the neighbors' hearts. Even the Weekly had an employee quit when we moved here from Costa Mesa, because she didn't think the area would be "safe." To her, we say, adios!
Santa Ana's still the county seat today—in your face, Irvine!—home of the Ronald Reagan courthouse and a row of little bistros serving the lawyers and civic planners until their slice of downtown becomes a ghost town at 5:15 p.m. A whole block away, on Fourth Street, a thriving Latino mom-and-pop business community stays up late, stocked with bodegas and wedding-dress stores and cheap cute boots imported from Italy. But don't tell the city planners, who keep trying to condemn it as blighted so their redevelopment boards can auction it off to the whitest developer. Hey, remember when the city of Santa Ana used Department of Housing and Urban Development funds to build a jail? Good times.
Contrasts here are sharp. Santa Ana has flat-beyootiful neighborhoods—I'm looking at you, Floral Park!—surrounded by misery. Santiago Elementary, which serves the children of Floral Park's doctors and bankers and lawyers and state senators and mayors and assemblymen, is a verdant little jewel, with quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson painted on the shady walls. Less than half a mile away, schools are dingy and shadeless and rooted in asphalt, surrounded by potholes the size of Easter hams. It's good to know that, just like in New Orleans, everybody's got an equal shot in life.
Last year, Santa Ana, a city of about 400,000, was named the country's hardest place to make ends meet—a day of great pride for the folks who are living 12 to an $1,800-a-month rental. Fortunately for them, by next year, I'm a-figuring the people who name things might find another city that's an even harder place to live. I'm talking, of course, about Stanton. Can you dig it?
Photo by Jeanne Rice
Best Blast From the Past Santa Ana Lawn Bowling. Isn't that so Rip Van Winkle? I think so too. I mean, I've never actually been lawn bowling or even seen it, but it seems like it would have all the afternoon breezes of croquet and none of the hissy fits and violence. Show up, watch for a few minutes and bring flat-soled shoes, and the fine folks at Santa Ana Lawn Bowling will give you a free lesson. Sweet! 510 E. Memory Lane, Santa Ana, (714) 639-3577.
World's Best DMV For serious! Last year, I moved at the same time I needed to renew my license—the 10-year renewal, with all the ensuing paperwork. I walked in with an appointment at the Santa Ana DMV and: reregistered to vote, had my photo taken, changed my address and took the written test, all in under 17 minutes. Another time, the DMV was overcharging me about $800 to register a car I'd bought out of state—until I went here. The incredibly pretty girl at the counter listened to my explanation, hit some keys on her computer, and handed me my new, $800-lower bill. She never even got a supervisor's okay—she just took care of it. I would have married her right then, except I'm not a lesbian. 1330 E. First St., Santa Ana, (800) 777-0133.
Best Place for Disabled Kiddies Orange County Children's Therapeutic Arts Center. Founded just three years ago, it is already gaining fame for its innovative Mexican cultural programs for disabled and at-risk Santa Ana kids. 208 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-5468; www.occtac.org.
Cutest Kids Orange County High School of the Arts. Drive down Sycamore Avenue at lunch hour, and see the adorable junior- and senior-high kids loitering on their teeny patch of grass and asphalt. They're all artsy and shit, and they look like maybe they make their own clothes. No bros allowed. 1010 N. Main St., Santa Ana.
Best Song About Santa Ana "Santa Ana River Delta Blues" by Wiskey Biscuit. Oh, how we miss them since they up and moved to Silver Lake all those years ago. But the blitzed boys of Wiskey Biscuit can still make us get our ya-yas out with Jason Mason's bizarre nasal intonings of "Beyond the Orange Curtain/On the south side of town," before making fun of bitchy cheerleaders who wouldn't give them any play and moving on to the yowling chorus, "San/Ta Ana/River/Delta Bluuues." We heard they toured with the Strokes lately. Dude, they're so much better than that. It's on their self-titled debut at www.shipwrecords.com.
Best Place to Mock the Rich Teri's Cigars. Funny story: I'm standing next to former Nixon White House chief of staff Al Haig, and he's puffing on a cigar that's clearly Cuban, and I ask him, "Isn't that hypocritical, Al? I mean, given your party's stand on Fidel and the embargo? Aren't you enriching the commies?" Al glances at me sideways with those rheumy blue peepers of his and says, "I prefer to think of it as burning their crops." Hysterical—and true, except that it was Al Franken and not me. Orange County is cosmopolitan enough to have its own sources of Cubans—if you know a guy, I mean, it's a snap, and it's also pretty clear that your guy is probably a Republican, and probably spending far too much on his cigars. We're not into conspicuous consumption: we pay less and get more from our supplier of fresh, hand-rolled cigars: Teri's. In a fabulous Art Deco strip (complete with a botanica and, I don't know, an auto glass store?—we can't always see clearly through the smoke), a local family has been hand-rolling fine ones for like three generations. Really: you'll find many places that hand-roll as a kind of sideshow (like those joints in the desert between Vegas and Phoenix that promise indigenous people will stitch up moccasins for your entire flat-footed family), but these guys really are rolling tobacco they've bought themselves, watching the news while they do so, and ready to help ease you down the road to fine, smooth and inexpensive smoke. Their best number is about $3. 310 E. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 541-9142.
Best Goodtime Down-Home Southern Living Burrell's Bar-B-Que. Sit at a table in this guy's yard and get a small or large plate of spareribs, brisket, hot links and gumbo. Nobody doesn't like peach cobbler. Burrell's Bar-B-Que, 305 N. Hesperian, Santa Ana, (714) 547-7441.
Best Place to Fistfight Over Pho Pho Hien Vuong. Gustavo Arellano once saw a dude try to run out on his tab, and the owner tackled him. There were about 20 OC prosecutors in there at the time. DA spokesperson Susan Schroeder recommends the beef pho; I recommend the bun (vermicelli) with egg roll and shrimp. Don't forget the mint-leaf-packed spring roll—three huge, filling thangs for just a couple of bucks. 2525 W. 17th St., Ste. H, Santa Ana, (714) 554-2696.
Photo by Heather X
Best Most-difficult Place to LiveIn March, city officials considered spending half a million dollars to repaint Santa Ana's water tower, the landmark structure that reads "ARTS & CULTURE" and "EDUCATION FIRST!" But if Santa Ana's first in anything, it's hard living—not the kind that comes with snorting coke off a whore's bottom, marrying serially, and dying young (hello, Peter Sellers!), but with living in a city that New York's Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government recently rated the most difficult place to live in the entire nation (based on life expectancy, transportation, poverty, cost of shelter, crappy education). The $500,000 might go to, I dunno, arts, culture or education. But if this marker—can we call it a watershed?—on the side of the I-5 must be repainted, can it be painted to represent something more honest? I mean a water tower that doesn't hold water can at least hold out the hope of truth: how about "We're No. 1! Eat Me, East St. Louis!"
Best JesusBoner Jesus at St. Joseph's Church. The folks around St. Joseph's have always been pretty appalled by the mural we call "Boner Jesus." With rays of light shooting from all his parts, Our Lord Jesus Christ has an Expressionist wang heading north to the heavens. 727 Minter St., Santa Ana, (714) 542-4411.
Best Historic District You decide. Either French Park, which is where the doctors, lawyers and bankers lived a hundred years ago—or else Floral Park, which is where their kids settled a generation later. Both areas went through periods of benign neglect; both have amply rebounded today. French Park is the slightly more staid of the two, with its Craftsman, Foursquare and late Victorian styling cues. Floral Park knows how to get down with amazing little Federal-style, Spanish-style and frame houses, many of which look as hep today as they did then. French Park, immediately south of 17th Street at Spurgeon Ave.; Floral Park, southwest of the Santa Ana (5) Freeway at Main St.
Most Awesomest Lesbian Radical Latino Punks Centro Cultural de Mexico. We love this fucking place. Whether you're looking for an all-ages hip-hop dance party, a "Grrrl Fair," a talk on the topic "How Punk Rock Changed My Life," or a lesson in the stunningly beautiful Son Jarocho style of Mexican song and guitar, this little DIY box is the kind of sweetly welcoming venue every city should have—too bad it's looking for a new home. P.O. Box 11345, Santa Ana, (714) 953-9305; www.el-centro.org.
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Best Capitalism-Free Zone SolArt. We're sure pretty, young, homegrown entrepreneur Sali Heraldez would love to charge you for that latte she just steamed up, but since the city won't let her, she won't. Instead, feel free to come in and hang out in the great Mod environment, playing chess or helping local kids with their homework or listening to young local Latino bands, and then give her a donation if you absolutely must. 2202 N. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 824-0277.
Best Use of Extruded Aluminum The Orange County Courthouse. You know extruded aluminum—those silvery metal strips that hold in the windows on any midcentury modern building? This place, dedicated in 1969 as the last major civic project of famed modernist architect Richard Neutra, has it in spades, to hold on the acres of huge glass windows. Sadly, while justice may be served here, it ain't serving the courthouse, which has old, stained ceiling tiles getting ready to fall and a reflecting pool that's been dry for years. You know they'll tear it down one day. 700 Civic Center Dr. W., Santa Ana.
Best Endangered Downtown Duh. When superdeveloper Mike Harrah finally gets to bulldoze square blocks here to make his 37-story edificio, expect this historic downtown of Craftsman bungalows and sweet Victorians to go with the wind. Which might be okay, except no, and except the proposed site is bordered by two-lane roads and you can expect thousands of car trips per day. What do we say? Tear down the entire downtown, and futurify the place. Make people park by the freeway and bring them into the center on elevated floating sidewalks. Yeah, man. Floating sidewalks would be fucking sweet. Wait, never mind. That would be public transportation.
Best Tuna Melt Gypsy Den. Sweet and crunchy with bits of apple, this is one of the hippie haven's finest accomplishments. Hang out for the open mic and the pretty guitar duos while you have a glass of wine and avoid the more odious among Santa Ana's city planners. 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 835-8840.