By Gabriel San Román
This past Saturday, within walking distance of people hopping from restaurants to bars in downtown SanTana, about sixty people gathered for a night forum on gentrification at El Centro Cultural de Mexico. Even with the special tax on downtown businesses known as the PBID now dismantled after much anger vented at City Hall, the debate surrounding gentrification (or aburgesamiento, which sounds like Spanglish for "hamburger") remains. It's not going anywhere, even though empty store fronts like El Paso Shoes on Calle Cuatro are. Concerns, on the other hand, can't be displaced so easily.
"There are a lot of people out drinking, leaving bottles everywhere," said Maria Andrade, member of the SACReD coalition in Santa Ana during open testimonies at the onset of the forum. Speaking as a resident of 17 years and a mother of two children whom she used to take to the carousel that no longer stands in the defunct Fiesta Marketplace, Andrade worries about the nightlife culture, saying she's seen people having sex in cars and urinating in public. "The Latino businesses are disappearing. This is my experience and I hope we can do something about it."
A screening of the poetry video Cambios by Marylinn Montano set the tone for event. Poets followed expressing their views on the issue at hand through spoken word before Revel Sims, a doctoral candidate in urban planning at UCLA, gave a half-hour Powerpoint presentation on what gentrification is, defining it as "the development of poorer communities by wealthier people and businesses." Sims named the intertwined culprits: developers, banks, and politicians.
"The people that we most commonly associate with gentrification are these newcomers coming in," he said of the ever-reviled hipsters. "My argument is that they are sort of the product. They are the result of what these other people have already decided."
After laying everything out, the presentation concluded with a number of strategies proactive on the residential displacement front such as organizing for rent control policies and moratoriums on condo conversions. Sims didn't have eviction data for Santa Ana, but warned that recovery in certain sectors of the economy, particularly real estate, bodes ill for the future of low-income residents. The presence of activists engaged over the struggle to preserve the historic Wyvernwood garden apartment community in Boyle Heights at the forum underscored that point from a position of solidarity.
A panel discussion followed the presentation and participants included among others, Alicia Rojas of United Artists of Santa Ana, Illoheem, an undocumented organizer with the youth group RAIZ, and Skeith De Wine, a longtime artist who has lived in the city for decades. De Wine gave an interesting perspective as a pioneer who now finds himself at the brink of displacement from the loft he has lived in for years on Santiago Street. He described his early days as an Irvine transplant that eventually moved to Santa Ana as an artist looking for and helping to develop a scene.
"The newspapers started getting curious. The city council got curious and built the Santiago Lofts," the priced-out resident said of his new neighbors later adding that city officials were practically begging him to come. "It's probably our own fault for coming here and accelerating the process."
Rojas, featured in the Weekly's inaugural People Issue, pushed for coalition building. "Gentrification is historic," she said. "What can we do here that hasn't been done before?" The artist waxed nostalgia from the onset about Occupy Santa Ana where different community members met at the Santora Arts building for a foundational, exploratory meeting. "It isn't about race anymore," she said. The Occupy phenomenon frayed along such notions early on, though, and proved to be short-lived.
Illoheem made connections between immigration policies and gentrification. He said that ICE raids on Fourth Street between 2006 and 2009 instilled fear in a vulnerable population from congregating there and formed a nexus for the clientele changes already in progress. Illoheem also fielded a question about the arts. "We do see some art that is criminalized and others that are funded," he said pointing to the dichotomy where the SAPO community mural projects have faced challenges while the Yost Theater brings outside muralists for its venue.
The panel discussion concluded as people in attendance broke into working groups that sought out action-orientated ideas. A boycott of certain venues was discussed, but more emphasis was placed on a buycott that actively supports loncheras and other businesses that aren't willingly weaved into the web of gentrification. Another flash mob protest was suggested like the one featuring poetry and theater alongside the streets of the former Fiesta Marketplace back in September 2011. Others proposed engaging the issue in the arts and being conscious of the target audience. There was also talk of renter's rights, a tenant's union, and a push for positive code enforcement.
The energetic evening concluded vowing not to let the momentum of the discussion on gentrification just simply dissipate, promising to build like the crescendo of the solidarity clap that concluded it. Memories of what once was will fuel the fury of the future resistance to come.
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