The face of the Downtown Santa Ana area has been changing tremendously lately, with more restaurants and nightlife spots bringing many a bustling crowd passing through its streets on any given night. In the artist scene, DIY spots like Top Acid still bring in a steady flow of youths clamoring to be a part of its underground music scene.
But one thing about the artist community here is that when a part of it is missing, the void is felt deeply. Thus when GCS Santa Ana, a hip hop-based streetwear and urban art gallery, announced in April 2013 that after five years of operations it would be closing its doors, the tidal wave of grief set in. Many feared that Jack Jakosky, the new owner of the Santora Building where GCS Santa Ana claimed residence, had evicted GCS owner Hector Ruiz after having run longtime Santora residents out, but Ruiz states simply that nothing could be further from the truth. "We fulfilled our first five-year lease," Ruiz explains. "We would have loved to have continued in that space but the economics didn't make sense for us. Quite frankly, we just weren't making any money."
Faced with the choice of bringing in mainstream streetwear that would pay the rent, giving up its gallery space or checking out completely, Ruiz decided on the latter to retain GCS' integrity. And in the four months in between returning to a new location in the East End, Ruiz was unhappy being away from the scene. "When it closed I had no plan B, but I definitely wanted to come back. You don't put five years in a community and just walk away from that."
The community that Ruiz entered in 2009 was not unlike the one that exists today. GCS, which stands for Globe Clothing Store, started as a streetwear venture in 1995 in Pomona owned by Ruiz's two uncles who were themselves into the nightlife scene. Ruiz says he worked there as a teenager and learned the trade from the inside, and along the way picked up a taste for underground hip-hop culture. "Back then, those first couple of years [the store offered] a hodgepodge of licensed apparel and Transformers shirts, or Thundercats shirts. But we also tried to set up booths at big events or concerts… anything that was a DJ or hip hop event, we'd try to be there."
Ruiz attended UC Irvine around the late 2000's, and would find himself wandering through Santa Ana just to pass the time, eventually discovering the Artists Village. He would soon visit more and more and wondered about opening another GCS downtown, eventually setting on his space in the Santora building on Broadway. "I liked it, made an appointment with the landlord, and pulled the trigger relatively quickly," Ruiz adds. "My uncles thought I was talking about [opening the Santa Ana location] in theory but I was actually taking steps to do it."
For Ruiz, who isn't a native from OC, the appeal in Santa Ana was that it reminded him of his hometown of El Monte and Pomona. "Those three communities are very similar, so it felt like home even though I didn't grow up here. I felt this was the community I wanted to be in." With Grand Central Art Center, Orange County Center of Contemporary Art, and the Santora building in close proximity, GCS fit right in, but being the only hip hop-centric store brought a different vibe altogether than the high art offered at those venues.
The store soon became an avenue for underground artists and rappers from all over Southern California to showcase their work and talents, becoming a worthy addition to the vibrant artist community. Artists like Free Humanity, Haunted Youth, Dino Perez and Irene Garcia graced the walls with their paintings, while rappers Gremlin, ENDZ, and Common Ground spat rhymes at in-store performances. So when GCS closed up shop, the absence was a blow to Santa Ana's hip hop scene, as well as the Artists Village already hit by the artist evictions.
Ruiz was anxious to find a way to return to Santa Ana, and luckily received a deal from a neighboring landlord and was able to open the new GCS across from Yost Theater in the East End four months later. To him, nothing seemed unfamiliar with his beloved art scene.
"We were only gone for four months, so it was not like we lost that much contact with people in the area. Overall I didn't feel like the area changed, but from talking to people I hear that it did. But I wasn't here to see it firsthand."
Although the East End space is smaller than the Santora space, Ruiz makes use of every inch and even has access to the electrical boxes outside the store, which are decorated with a new mini mural every couple of months. Monthly art walks are still a source for stress for Ruiz, who maintains the store's daily operations and curates programming– but it's a good kind of stress. And with a secure setting, there's only bigger things Ruiz has in mind for the future to continue feeding newcomers and regulars alike with the vibrant counterculture its known for. "The key word is more: more in-stores, more art shows, more products, more art supplies… we definitely want to continue to do what we do and we're gonna strive to bring artists that the people haven't heard of before.
GCS Santa Ana is located at 206 E. 4th St., Santa Ana and is open from 12pm-8pm Mondays-Saturdays and 12pm-5pm Sundays. Visit them online at www.gcssantaana.com and check out their blog at www.gcssantaana.com/blog