Here's a typical story about downtown Santa Ana, the county's best—some might say "only"; they'd also say "real"—downtown: toward the end of a fundraiser last month at Memphis Caf, an older woman was readying to leave when she paused, lowered her head a bit, and asked (cue hushed voice), "I've never been here before. Will it be safe to walk to my car in the parking garage?"
It was barely 8 p.m.
I told her she'd be just fine. Besides, ma'am, they don't let the prisoners out of county lock-up for their nightly romp around the city until at least half past.
It's likely true that if you're a white woman over a certain age you'll always fear that the black man (or in this case, Mexican) hiding in the shadows is after your purse and wedding ring, no matter what city you're in. But some cities have it worse than others—Long Beach vs. Pasadena, Anaheim vs. Corona del Mar—and Santa Ana, well, has it worst.
"In high school I was told not to drive anywhere near Santa Ana," remembers Jade Howe, owner and designer for Howe Jeans. "I even had a blood sworn oath with my buddies to never move east of the 405." That was when Howe was still living in Dana Point. Today he lives in downtown Santa Ana in one of the spacious New York-style lofts that borders the Artists' Village. This is his sixth year in Santa Ana and his third in the lofts. Before that he lived in Floral Park.
"I can remember not even wanting to go to Floral Park for a dinner party once," Howe says. "But I was blown away once I saw it."
So what's the deal? Seriously, Floral Park has some of the most beautiful mansions and wide, pristine streets outside of the Wilshire District in LA, yet you'd be hard pressed to find many in the Lexus set willing to drive near it. And what's Newport have, again?
Oh, that's right: gates.
Which is sort of funny because for all the missing gates in Santa Ana—unless we're talking about the ones that dot the white picket fences outside the houses along Broadway—the city, downtown especially, retains some of the most intact historic architecture and culture there is left to experience in Orange County.
Of course, Santa Ana is among one of the oldest cities in the county—and with the courthouse, rests at its literal civic center—so city officials did have that going for them. But keep this in mind: unlike nearly every other city, no one's completely shitted development all over the downtown. And the city is now—slowly but steadily—adding to it. Note, for instance, the triumphant return of Dennis Lluy who, with fellow resident Christopher Hall, hosted such events as the Carchestra—exactly what it sounds like—and a free performance by the Sweet and Tender Hooligans (the famous Smiths cover band) earlier this year as part of the SoundDowntown series as well as the First Saturday art walks (always a treat) and the year-and-a-half old weekly Certified Farmers' Market in the Fiesta Marketplace parking lot.
"We have 20 regular vendors who sell fresh fruits and veggies—some certified organic—herbs, flowers, plants, honey, free-range eggs and a variety of prepared and hot foods, plus tamales, fresh-baked breads, roasted corn, dried fruits & nuts, Korean BBQ, rotisserie chicken and more," says Lara Montagne, the market's organizer (and, yes, another resident). "A major goal of the Grain Project [the not-for-profit that hosts the Santa Ana market as well as a new one on Sundays in Costa Mesa] is to provide fresh food to the community and help generate a vibrant location for the community to gather—artists, businessfolk, grandmas, students, families, all walks of life."
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Still, the city is also adding—and allowing for—a lot of other stuff, too: One Broadway Plaza (37-story business plaza directly across the street from the county's only arts high school? Tsk Tsk!), Starbucks (and when SolArt Gallery Cafe still takes donations? Boooo!), American Apparel (not actually bad but can an Urban Outfitters be very far behind?). Which means that this may actually be the last year that Santa Ana is the "Best."
Then again, there's Huntington Beach.
Nahhhhhh.Downtown Santa Ana will always win out.
"It's so vibrant," says Montagne. "It can involve something a bit freaky at times but any city with such a high population has those elements. The mix of people out and about—lots of families walking together, the large trees, old architecture and the possibilities to create are what brought me here. Santa Ana feels like a playground to me." Say hi to Montagne (and the rest of the Grain Project volunteers) at the Farmers' Market, Fiesta Market Parking Lot, Corner of 3rd and Bush, Santa Ana, (714) 542-9392; www.grainproject.org. Every Wed., 3-7 p.m., rain or shine. A special Dia de los Muertos celebration (plus health and resource fair featuring free screenings, nutritional information, giveaways and more) will be held during the market on November 1.