This article was produced in collaboration with KCET’s City Rising series, a multimedia documentary program that traces gentrification and displacement across six cities, including Long Beach and Santa Ana, through a lens of historical discriminatory laws and practices. Learn more here.
Gentrification in Santa Ana has led to replacing the old with the new, slowly making way for a more affluent class to come into the city and repopulate it, eventually pushing out the lower and working class who, during my grandmother’s youthful days, were the majority.
Three generations of my family saw Santa Ana’s gentrification unravel its many forms before our eyes. Through the decades, my grandmother, my mother and I have been able to observe the changes in our own way.
My grandmother, Maria de Jesus Leon Flores, was born 1929 in a small, rural town in Guanajuato, Mexico. She came to the United States in 1957 with her husband, Sabino Medina, through the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican farm laborers to come work in the U.S. under a seasonal contract.
In the early 1960s, my grandparents purchased a small house in Santa Ana, California.
“Santa Ana was small,” my grandmother recalled in Spanish. “There wasn’t much to see other than the stores [in downtown] and the Santa Ana Zoo.”
Back then, the city was filled with orange groves and the general population was White. My grandmother was the second Latina/o family that had moved into the neighborhood during the ‘60s. My family remembers half of their neighbors as welcoming, while the other half ignored them due to racist attitudes.
Shortly after moving in, my grandmother witnessed the expansion of the city, as more housing development began. The orange groves she was accustomed to seeing were eliminated and in their place, new communities were flourishing.
According to Latino City, written by CSUF Professor Erualdo Gonzalez, “From the 1950s to 1970s, the city’s population began drastically growing and changing racially and economically.” As part of the white flight, the white community moved out and more Latina/o immigrants moved in, especially into the barrios. Santa Ana’s well-known barrios started emerging: Barrio Santa Anita (or “Santa Nita”), Barrio Artesia and Barrio Logan.
The 1980s brought more changes throughout Santa Ana. Besides the construction of more apartments and neighborhoods, my grandmother also witnessed the expansion of businesses downtown.
“You would see families walking through downtown together and shopping,” said my grandmother. “[Downtown] is not family oriented anymore. The shops are smaller, the commerce has changed and moved out.”
After the 1980s, the town took a rough turn. So my grandmother stayed in her immediate area.
“I had no desire to go out, except to go to church on Sundays. One of the reasons why was because of the gangs. There was a lot of violence and shootings during that time.”
My mother, Maria de Jesus Medina-Caro was born on August 20, 1958 in Santa Ana, California. In 1974, at the age of 16, she had her first child and moved out of her mother’s house. In the late 1980s, my parents purchased a house on the north side of Santa Ana, where they would raise five children, including me, and live until 2005.
In the mid-1980s, my mother started a job downtown at the Orange County Courthouse and every day on her way to work, she would pass through Bristol Street, the city’s main commuter street.
It was a street that would soon see its many residents displaced.
On May 5, 1991, the Bristol Street Corridor Project proposal was submitted by Wallace Roberts and Todd DKS Associates, which was passed by the council the same year. The plan sought to “replace residential uses fronting Bristol Street with others compatible with the commercial character of the corridor.”
My mother described her drive to work suddenly becoming unsettling, as each day she witnessed apartment complexes and houses being knocked down. Sadly, an elderly woman she saw everyday sweeping her driveway would be displaced from her home, as it was a residence fronting Bristol Street.
“I remember feeling sad that they were tearing down their homes,” my mother said. “Then as the years passed, feeling angry that nothing had been built.”
After 26 years, what once housed many Latina/o families, some in apartment complexes, year after year now remain as empty lots. Some lots are used for the private high school’s Mater Dei parking, or a walkway. That’s about it. Some businesses are now just starting to build where they tore down.
“Seriously, why did they push people out so prematurely?” my mother said choking on her words. “I still think of the old lady, she could’ve enjoyed more time in her home. I think from the time they took down those homes till now, she could’ve perhaps lived out her life in that home.”
My mother was not aware nor had even heard of the plan before she saw homes being torn down on Bristol Street. It is important for the community to know what kind of development is happening within their city. Without hearing the opinions of the people, developers can take advantage of the city and build something that can affect the community in a negative way. The Bristol Street Corridor Project was a prime example of this and more were to come.
In 2005, I got accepted into the Orange County School of the Arts, located on Main Street near downtown. That same year, developer Mike Harrah began construction on One Broadway Plaza, a 37-story office tower, located directly in front of my school’s campus.
Before construction began, I remembered often walking by the adjacent apartment complex and two large Victorian homes that had been turned into law offices.
During my lunch time, I always saw people that lived in the apartments. I recall one elderly lady who would always hang-dry her clothes. Living beside her, it looked like a grandmother and her grandchildren. The children would always be outside on the balcony with their toys.
One day during lunch, I saw both of these places look vacant, then eventually saw them knocked down. I felt sad for those people. They had to leave to make way for a luxurious building that was supposed to be completed by 2010.
However, the construction of One Broadway Plaza halted in 2006. Recently, in 2016, Harrah was able to relaunch construction, despite local controversy concerning the developer.
According to Andrew Khouri of the Los Angeles Times, residents living adjacent to the building in the French Park community complained to city officials that the zoning area would negatively impact their neighborhood and the surrounding schools. Alas, this all seems of no importance to city officials or Harrah, as One Broadway Plaza is set to be completed.
Eventually, my family moved out of Santa Ana in the summer of 2005. My mother felt that it was time to move out of the city, while I, on the other hand, wanted to stay.
Despite, the gangs, the violence and the griminess of the city, I was very comfortable there. This was the community I had grown up in and over time cherished. Not because of the negative aspects, but because of the people in the city that I saw making a difference to help the community prosper, to help kids stay out of gangs with afterschool programs and who were overall just public servants for the community.
Over the years, we’ve seen our family’s favorite things go away. Some of the shops and family-owned restaurants my family would go to are no more. But some things they miss more than I do.
My grandmother — coming from a rural Guanajuato town — definitely sees the changes a lot differently. She loved how quiet Santa Ana was before the city expanded, while I had grown used to the loud, busy city noise of today.
My mother and I go to Santa Ana often to visit my grandmother and our family that still live there. My grandmother still lives in the first house she bought in Santa Ana during the 1960s. We are currently living in Anaheim, where we are renting a mobile home.
No matter where I end up living, my relationship with Santa Ana will never change. Even through all the ups and downs I have experienced there, it is still a place I like to call home.