The Two Sides of the El Centro Ouster

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Thursday, June 23, 2011 | The Latino nonprofit El Centro Cultural de Mexico is being forced from its location on Fifth Street because it neglected the building, according to Ryan Chase, the grandson of the building’s owner and son of large downtown landowner Irving Chase.

El Centro allowed doors to be broken, windows etched and graffiti sprayed, he said.

Carolina Sarmiento, an El Centro board member, isn’t buying this reason.

The organization in no way neglected the building, Sarmiento said. El Centro was kicked out, she said, because a grassroots Latino cultural organization does not fit in the plans that the Chase family and others in Santa Ana’s establishment have for the city.

“The new vision for Santa Ana doesn’t include us,” Sarmiento said.

Ryan Chase said he and his father had no hand in the decison to force out El Centro, which was ordered by Allan Fainbarg (Irving Chase’s father-in-law) and his partner David Williams. He said the Chases didn’t know about it until they read a post in the Orange County Register.

Ryan said other Latino cultural organizations and offshoots of El Centro — the Breath of Fire theater ensemble and the Dream Team — remain in the same building, evidence that the owners don’t have an anti-Latino agenda.

“We have no intention of asking them [Breath of Fire and Dream Team] to leave,” Chase said.

Irving Chase has talked of a new plan for downtown, especially Fourth Street, where he and Fainbarg own several buildings. Ryan Chase said his father was asked to help manage the downstairs tenants in the Knights of Pythius Building, where El Centro is located on the second floor.

Chase wants to replicate the successful model of Artists Village, a mix of galleries and restaurants on Broadway that has attracted a young crowd from all over Orange County.

And Chase has taken steps to set that plan in motion. He has refused to give new leases to his Fourth Street tenants unless they offer more merchandise that appeals to customers other than working-class Latinos.

And the same day that El Centro announced its notice to vacate, the Orange County Register reported that Chase is officially renaming the area he owns on Fourth Street from Fiesta Marketplace to East End.

The Chase family’s recent actions are part of a larger fight for the soul of the city’s downtown core, which has included battles over the assessment tax levied by the city on downtown businesses and over planned developments like the Station District, which proposes new housing.

Many working-class residents, artists and small-business owners say there is an ongoing effort to gentrify downtown and push out the people who have made it what it is. City leaders and other business and property owners say they are only trying to revive downtown.

It’s About Community

El Centro, a mainstay in Santa Ana’s Latino community, has been at its current location for five years. The organization offers 23 classes and conducts workshops that explore Latino music, dance, art and culture. The space the organization rents is known as a hub for Latino youth.

El Centro volunteers work daily to keep the space clean, Sarmiento said.

“We’ve never been formally investigated for damages to the building,” Sarmiento said. She didn’t see how El Centro could be blamed “for all the vandalism for Santa Ana. I don’t know how El Centro would be responsible for that.”

This isn’t the first time that El Centro has had to leave a building owned by the Chase-Fainbarg family. Chase gave the El Centro rent-free use of the historic Yost Theater between 2006 and 2008.

An El Centro event helped bring about a rebirth of the early 20th century theater. The organization held a Mexican folk music concert in 2007 that packed the Yost with 600 people, the Los Angeles Times reported. At that time, merchants saw El Centro’s events as attracting more customers and were elated.

But Chase changed his mind and leased the space to Dennis Lluly, who plans to reopen the Yost in August as a concert venue.

Some El Centro volunteers didn’t mince words about the organization’s ouster and the downtown’s transformation. One said there was a movement “working behind the scenes to kick all the brown people out to Riverside.”

The situation has become so volatile that some residents and merchants have for years referred to the plans of the Chase family and others as “ethnic cleansing.”

Ryan Chase, whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors, said such remarks have no place in Santa Ana. “Anyone who wants to use that term is ignorant and stupid,” he said.

The Chases say their decision has nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with business. They point to the fact that the majority of their buildings are rented by Latinos.

George Mendoza, the 37-year-old owner of the new American Barbershop on Fourth Street, defended both the Chases’ decision to rename the area and Chase’s management of his tenants. He said that Irving Chase has shown great patience and a lot of effort to help.

Mendoza, a Spanish speaker whose parents immigrated from Mexico, says Chase is right about the need to appeal to the children and grandchildren of Latino immigrants. “It’s time for everybody to reinvent themselves,” Mendoza said. “If we refused to keep up with the trends, we’d be going out of business too.”

Archer Altstaetter, a promotional consultant hired separately by both Chase and Downtown Inc., said the changes aren’t about pushing out Latinos. He says they are about increasing diversity, which will help all the merchants. He went so far as to say the racism is coming from some Latinos.

“Some stores won’t serve me,” Altstaetter said. Whites are “not trying to take [downtown] back; we’re just sharing.”

A New Home for El Centro?

There is widespread agreement on the importance of El Centro to the community.

Councilwoman Michele Martinez said at this week’s Santa Ana City Council meeting that she requested the city manager to see “what it is we can do to help them out.” Councilman Vincent Sarmiento also offered his help to Carolina Sarmiento (no relation).

Ryan Chase said his family recognizes the importance of the organization. He approached his father about moving El Centro to a spot at the East End.

“We are in full support of El Centro Cultural de Mexico,” Ryan said. He said his family’s partnership supported the first Day of the Dead celebration, which historically has been an El Centro event. “We’ve supported them from Day One.”

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that El Central Cultural de Mexico was evicted from its location on Fifth Street. The organization received a notice to vacate the building, but it did not receive a notice of eviction.

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