Downtown Santa Ana Gets “Great Neighborhood” Award—And Protests!

SanTana city council members, planning commissioners, and developers all gathered triumphantly last evening at the East End's Spurgeon Promenade. The American Planning Association honored the city's downtown area with one of its 16 “Great Neighborhoods in America” award—the only West Coast winner, apparently. The fancy distinction is bestowed for places notable for “exceptional character, quality, and urban planning.” The Brave New Urbanists who flipped the Fiesta Marketplace into the East End to join with the Artists Village rejoiced, but not all felt like celebrating. 

A dozen activists gathered on the sidewalk near the entrance of the Spurgeon Promenade holding signs that read, “Gentrification is modern day colonization,” and “You are making housing unaffordable for us.” Santa Ana police parked nearby with two equestrian cops keeping an eye on things. 

“Everyone's out here today celebrating how thriving downtown is, but the reality is that once you go outside it, there's a lot of low-income communities struggling,” protester Marilyn Montaño said. She surveyed residents of the nearby Lacy neighborhood for a recent study and found many families making $20,000 or less a year, living in crowded conditions to make ends meet. “This award is a slap in the face to a lot of Santa Ana residents.” 

“They're getting this award saying this was an inclusive effort to benefit the community,” says Chicanos Unidos activist Gaby Hernandez. “That's not true, it's a false narrative.” The early goings of the protest sparked civil conversations. Hernandez showed a development map of SanTana which caught the eye of Christian Buezo, a resident who lives near downtown. “There two ways to it: I want people to feel safe when they come to our city, but at the same time I don't want to feel like we're posers,” he says. “The rent for my studio went up from $900 in 2012 and now it's up to $1,330! This is worrisome.” 

Away from the protests, the Santa Ana High School jazz band played for the celebrants seated at tables set up along the promenade. The autumn evening still felt balmy when the official presentation of the award began at 6:30 p.m. “Ryan Chase had a vision six years ago [to] transform this downtown, but he knew he couldn't do it alone,” councilwoman Michele Martinez—who took a break from hugging the homeless in hopes of becoming a supervisor—said. “He partnered, not only with the city but with nonprofit organizations and residents. What's important and what we all have in common is that we love this city and we want it to be great.” She stressed the inclusion of the Wellness District in the cause for celebration.

The protesters began marching towards the center of the promenade when State Senator Janet Nguyen handed the microphone over to councilman David Benavides. “Santa Ana is not for sale, Santa Ana no se vende!” they chanted. “The community coming together is ultimately what's important,” Benavides tried say over the din of the protests. “This is the only true downtown in Orange County.” (He's obviously never been to DTF!)

The shoutdown continued. “We will not celebrate gentrification!” protesters chanted. Two Santa Ana police officers stood in between them and the award ceremony. “Downtown is central to Orange County's creative class,” American Planning Association's Hing Wong struggled to say above the commotion. “It's local businesses, restaurants and longtime residents are committed to the creation of a tight knit community that celebrates diversity.” 

But the best chants came when Mayor Miguel Pulido stepped up to the podium to receive the award. “We've got the theaters, we have the merchants, we have the residential, we have the urban development, we have the street car coming,” Mayor Pulido gushed. “It's just a beautiful, beautiful place.” 

“Pulido es vendido!” protesters chanted back . “Twenty-two years is enough!” Council members next posed for pictures with American Planning Association (APA) members before the celebration turned people next to the Frida Cinema for a special showing of Urbanized. Chase apologized to APA representatives for the protests and later could be seen complaining about how activists crashed the celebration. 
“This has been a great neighborhood and not just because things have been changing,”says Nancy Mejia, Director of Community Engagement and Advocacy at Latino Health Access. The Wellness District advocates are looking into ways to establish a community land trust that can be developed into affordable housing, parks and micro-enterprise. “The [protest] today is an example of the work that we still need to do to bring folks together.”

The city partnered with Downtown Inc., the Santa Ana Business Council, Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities and Latino Health Access for the event. “I'm super excited about the celebration because it's a recognition of why this neighborhood is great,” Downtown Inc. spokesman Ryan Smolar told the Weekly. But Smolar felt saddened that protests tried to disrupt the festivities. “Most of the people here celebrating wouldn't have gotten together two years ago. I hope next year that whoever protested is going to be part of that team and we're going to work together.” 

Not happening anytime soon. Protesters marched over to the Frida Cinema with a new chant of “Gentrification is racist!” while people filed into the theater.  But, hey: at least santaneros didn't go Boyle Heights—yet.

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