All kinds of music spills from the retail shops on Fourth Street in downtown Santa Ana: hip-hop, Spanish-language ballads, soft rock. Sometimes the genres match the merchandise: edgy sneakers, savory Mexican food, and business suits.
A change has been taking place in downtown Santa Ana over the last five years. The historic Latino shopping district that once teemed with bakeries, bridal shops and discounted clothing stores is giving way to trendy eateries, an funky hat shops, and nightlife activities.
“Some people are not happy with what’s happening. Some people are very happy with what’s happening,” said Santa Ana native George Mendoza.
Mendoza, 40, opened his retro-styled barbershop in 2010, taking over the space where a Latino music store once was.
From the late 1980s up until about four years ago, Santa Ana’s Fourth Street was known as Fiesta Marketplace. The pastel-colored strip mall catered to the city’s majority Latino immigrant population and their families.
Today, Santa Ana remains majority Latino; 78 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. About 48 percent of the residents were born in another country and more than 80 percent of the population speaks another language than English at home.
Fourth Street -- Calle Cuatro to many locals -- is where those figures come to life.
“Look at the streets,” said insurance salesman Alexi Inigo. “It’s like a little plaza in Guadalajara! You can go and get a bargain.”
Perfume shop owner Lucy Gomez, 31, agreed: “I was born in Mexico and this the closest I can be.” But she said business has been slow on Fourth Street.
Corporate America Lured Latino Shoppers
Retail developer Ryan Chase and his family, whose roots in Santa Ana go back to 1919, own properties in nearly four-square blocks downtown. The Chase family with a group of Latino business owners started Fiesta Marketplace in the late 1980s.
Around 2005, Chase said, sales and rental income started to decline. He blames corporate retail chain stores. They began marketing to Latino shoppers, luring them away from traditional Mexican shops, he said.
“Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t get a credit card if you were a new immigrant over the border; now you can,” Chase said. “A lot of the businesses that have been in these traditional Hispanic areas were basically making money on credit.”
Many of the Mexican shops closed down. Rents went up. Chase decided to redevelop Fourth Street into what is now known as the “East End,” a growing collection of trendy restaurants and faddy stores that attract a younger, hip crowd to art and entertainment.
A food hall similar to L.A.’s Grand Central Market is scheduled to open on Fourth Street next month featuring creative chef kitchens, cooking demonstrations, craft beers, and a butcher.
“If you can find it in a mall, I don’t want it,” Chase says.
This shift has dominated discussion on Fourth Street among business owners, shoppers, and the food cart merchants.
“Hay muchos cambios,”says a woman passing out business cards advertising for a nearby Mexican restaurant. “There are many changes.”
Raymond Rangel, 84, has seen them all. He has been running R&R Western Wear on Fourth Street since 1955. The walls of his store are decorated in handmade white and black cowboy hats. There are rows of various tan colored boots.
“Right now, it’s in a transition that I don’t particularly care for,” he said.
Rangel misses the old “Calle Cuatro." But even he has upgraded his store, adding space where shoppers can browse swanky, urban-cowboy styled western clothing.
“We get more people in through here,” he said pointing to the brightly lit room.
But business has not been great, Rangel said. December was slow. And he’s thinking of retiring. He’s got two college educated sons; both have successful careers and neither has much interest in taking over the store, Rangel’s wife Donna said.
Does Santa Ana Have an Identity Crisis?
Santa Ana isn’t the only place experiencing change. There are plans to redevelop Mariachi Plaza, where musicians gather in search of gigs, in the Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights. Renters in Highland Park in Los Angeles are being squeezed out.
Santa Ana City Manager David Cavazos said he hopes residents see the changes on downtown Fourth Street as a reinvention instead of discarding the old.
“We’re proud of our Latino culture,” he said. “We want to build on our successes and we think we’re doing that.”
Cavazos said he’d like to see Santa Ana’s collection of historic hundred-year-old buildings put to good use.
In November, the city passed an adaptive reuse ordinance that allows developers to convert historic commercial buildings into residential spaces with certain waivers on parking requirements and other standards.
The city has plans to turn a parking garage it owns at 3rd Street and Broadway into some type of mixed-use development project.
Still, there is a lot of debate over what Santa Ana is becoming and what it should be.
Just this month, a city council committee voted to consider a proposal pitched by the group Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities, to rebrand downtown Santa Ana as a “wellness corridor,” focused on healthy foods, activities, and personal care products for nearby residents.
The group worries the new stores in downtown Santa Ana could leave residents in the area without places to buy everyday items like socks, food, and other health products.
Maria Vejar is part of a new community garden group in Santa Ana hoping to find space to vegetables, herbs and fruits. She’d like to see a focus on locally, grown food downtown.
“It could really help establish a sense of identity for the Latino community in Santa Ana,” she said in Spanish.
City Council Member Vincent Sarmiento said he wants a balanced downtown – retail and services – both trendy and affordable for Santa Ana’s low-income residents who live nearby.
“I think many of us were timid in the past to not want to embrace the culture,” he said.
He points to cities like San Antonio, Texas and the Mission District in San Francisco that he said have successfully marketed the Mexican culture of their downtown areas.
“If you do it well, you realize, it’s not really a detriment to be identified as an ethnic area,” Sarmiento said. “I think it could be very positive and I think it could be an economic stimulant.”