How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Will Latino-led redevelopment in Santa Ana ultimately rob it of its Latino-ness?

Photo by Joe Wolf/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Fourth Street in downtown Santa Ana, January 2011

Last night I sat in on the live taping of AirTalk's segment today on the gentrification battle in Santa Ana, a city I worked in years ago that's been through some changes since, and is poised for more.

The gist: Plans are afoot to redevelop the Orange County seat's downtown commercial area surrounding Fourth Street, a strip that for years has attracted stores that cater to the city's predominantly Latino residents, most of them immigrants from Mexico and their descendants.

And it's the descendants, it turns out, who are pushing the redevelopment agenda. The city's all-Latino council wants, as one city leader described it yesterday, to "diversify" the mix of businesses downtown, which right now leans toward the mom-and-pop and attracts first-generation customers.

"I want to shop here," said Carlos Bustamante, a city council member and "born and raised" native of Santa Ana, as he described himself. "I don't want to have to leave my city to go buy a suit."

His statement during yesterday's public forum, held at a local bookstore, reminded me of a quote from a Baldwin Park city leader interviewed three years ago in the Los Angeles Times. In that story, Baldwin Park city council member Anthony Bejarano, a fourth-generation Mexican American and a law school graduate, vented his frustration with what that city's mayor called "amigo stores," businesses catering to immigrants:

"I love to go to traditional Mexican restaurants. I shop at Vallarta [supermarket], but I can't get everything I need," he said. "At the end of the day, it's all Mexican restaurants here. When we want Italian, when we want sushi, where do we go? If I want a pair of Kenneth Coles, I have to go to Arcadia."

The inter-generational component to Santa Ana's redevelopment story has become relatively common in Southern California neighborhoods where second, third, fourth generation descendants of immigrants from Latin America have remained or returned to live. College-educated, L.A.-bred Mexican Americans have snapped up properties in downtown-adjacent Boyle Heights, long a port of entry for immigrants. In suburbs like Baldwin Park and Santa Ana, it's the same demographic that has led the gentrification charge.

So, one might ask, is there anything wrong with a fourth-generation guy wanting to buy his Kenneth Coles close to home, or finding a nice suit (although there's already a mall) in Santa Ana?

The fear in Santa Ana, of course - and it's a viable one - is displacement. Higher rents paid by businesses with deeper pockets would squeeze out the mom-and-pops, transforming the character of the old commercial district. There is also a housing component to the city's redevelopment plan, which could well translate into residential squeezing-out, with renters forced to move elsewhere and, at least once the real estate market recovers, higher property values that are less affordable to those who already live there.

There's another fear: That higher-end businesses would drive an influx of non-Latino hipsters, or what the OC Weekly's Gustavo Arellano has referred to in his columns as "brave new urbanists." There is already a substantial smattering of upscale businesses and lofts in and around the "Artists Village" development downtown, and plans call for more of this. Would a Latino-led charge to spiff up Orange County's most Latino city ultimately wind up robbing it of its Latino-ness?

And is there a better way for immigrants and the Americanized, college-educated offspring of immigrants to coexist in a neighborhood like this one? Can purveyors of sushi and Kenneth Coles coexist with immigrant-owned small businesses and affordable housing?

The audio from the meeting will be available on AirTalk's page on the KPCC website after 1 p.m. Opinions can be shared in the comments section below, or on the AirTalk page.

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