Artist Matthew Southgate gestures in frustration during a meeting among artists in Santa Ana's Artists Village about gentrification and other issues. (Photo by: Adam Elmahrek)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010 | Matthew Southgate can usually be found in his gallery in the dimly lit basement of Santa Ana’s historic Santora building working on his surreal oil paintings of cityscapes and portraits of iconic figures like Cleopatra.

Southgate is not a joiner. And like many other artists who work, and in some cases live, out of their studios in the Artists Village area between First and Fourth streets on Broadway, he’d rather leave the grassroots organizing to someone else.

But things have been happening at the Santora building, things that rile Southgate and his fellow artists. Rile them to the point where they are talking about — and even having meetings about — taking action.

First came the plastic box-frame signs that Santora owner Michael Harrah stuck to the building’s facade several weeks ago. It’s bad enough that the signs are an affront to the Santora’s 1920’s Spanish colonial revival design, the artists say.

But what’s even more galling to them is that the signs don’t even advertise any of the galleries or shops at the Santora (the building is also home to the Voice of OC office). They advertise karaoke nights and Monday Night Football on the jumbotron at Original Mike’s, Harrah’s sports bar and restaurant located down the block and around the corner on First Street.

The artists didn’t mince words. The signs, they say, are disrespectful.

“This is a slap in the face to us,” said artist Gustavo Santana.

“I see it as graffiti on a church,” added artist Kathie Warren.

Then came the city-sponsored valet service. Now, on Thursday through Saturday evenings, a block of Broadway is cordoned off so the well-healed patrons of the area’s bars and restaurants don’t have to search for parking.

Again, the artists weren’t consulted, or even given the heads-up about something that they say not only bothers them personally, but also hurts their business.

The artists say what is happening in Santa Ana is the same thing that has happened to arts districts the world over. Artists locate in a downtrodden place because the rents are cheap. They make the place interesting. Then interesting becomes trendy, and trendy means the rents go up.

The most common word for it is gentrification. Its also been called the “SoHo Syndrome,” after the district in New York City that in the 1950s and 1960s was a center for avant-garde art but now is more known for its high-end shopping.

“We’ve [the city has] put you guys to good use,” Southgate said, summing up the general feeling among the artists. “But now you’re no longer needed.”

‘I Do Own the Building’

When confronted with the artists’ anger over his signs, Harrah reacted with a mixture of indignation and conciliation.

“It is America, and I do own the building,” was Harrah’s first comment. He added that several of his artist tenants are months behind on their rent, and he cuts them a break because the city asked him to.

But then he did say that he’d consider sharing the signs with the artists. Perhaps, he said, he could do an alternating schedule in which the signs would have ads for Original Mike’s for a month or two then ads for the Santora’s galleries for a month or two.

City of Santa Ana officials have been mostly mum on the issue, but City Manager Dave Ream said through an email sent by his secretary that the city has a “long-standing commitment to the arts community,” and has done things like “re-instituted quarterly art forums” to help the city’s artists.

Alicia Rojas, who has joined Southgate in taking a leadership role in voicing the artists’ grievances, said the city hasn’t done enough. “We need a different kind of help — magazine art listings — helping us promote our art,” Rojas said.

Bob Stewart, president of the board of directors for Downtown Inc., a nonprofit property improvement district, says he wants strong communication with the artists, but acknowledges that it doesn’t always happen.

Meanwhile, the artists have not yet gotten over it. Consider this email that Southgate sent out recently:

This is an “Artist Village” Folks. That is the popularity of the place. If the City, or “Downtown Inc.” is intent on gentrifying the area, must they be so sloppy about it? If the idea is to upgrade the clientele of the area, it is not going to be achieved by depopulating the area first.

$8.00 Valet Parking is not a security measure! It is a show off for Pimp Daddies, Wannabe High Rollers, C.E.O.s and Ignorant Tourists that want to”slum” but not really slum and get drunk! The loyal customers of the Artist Village don’t need or want any of this. They just want the alleys to be lit, a cop patrol car and security cameras in the vicinity. This is not “Vegas” and no artist, art patron, or Santa Ana resident wants it to be.

Sweat Equity

Southgate and eight other artists formed a group called the Artists Village Alliance of Santa Ana. The group’s goal is to ensure that, in the future, the neighborhood remains a sanctuary for artists.

The artists contend that they have built up a certain amount of sweat equity in the downtown — their creativity has made downtown more desirable and livable. Therefore, they feel, Harrah and other downtown businesses and land owners owe them to a certain degree.

Harrah said the artists are giving themselves too much credit. “I’d sure like to know what they’ve done for downtown Santa Ana other than not pay me rent,” Harrah said. “If it wasn’t for me building the downtown, there wouldn’t be an artists village today.”

Stewart said he and other members of Downtown Inc. “sincerely want the artists to thrive.”

But he said they could do a better job of helping themselves. For example, he doesn’t understand what the artists mean when they throw around the word “gentrify,” a buzzword he says has been used by artists in the area for years, saying he just doesn’t “see where they’re coming from.”

“It seems to me that it’s [the word gentrify] kind of a scapegoat,” Stewart said, referring to the difficult circumstances the artists are dealing with because of the Great Recession.

Stewart met with the artist Warren and said Downtown Inc. is working on implementing some of the ideas she shared with him, like keeping artist directories at the restaurants in the area and having them direct customers to the galleries while they wait to be seated.

An Attempt to Organize

Meanwhile, the newly formed artists group held its inaugural meeting on Friday in the basement of the Santora. The frustration among group members was boiling over. Their first priority is to do away with the valet service.

The artists contend that the service is hardly used, that it unnecessarily takes up parking spaces, and that the city is trying to turn the area into a Laguna Beach-style restaurant and bar scene. It simply doesn’t fit the character of the city, they say.

The group sent an email yesterday notifying the city of their organization and expressing many of their suspicions, like who authorized the valet service? And did the valet service go out to bid?

It looks like they’re right about the usefulness of the service. Diego Alvarez, facility manager for Parking Concepts Inc., the valet service company, said the first Friday saw only 25 cars use the service.

It remains to be seen whether the artists will be able to sustain their organized resistance.

Some of the artists mentioned that organizations like this have popped up before, only to fall apart after a short time. Many of the area’s artists did not attend the Friday meeting, including Warren and Santana.

Yet Rojas and Southgate managed to keep the sometimes-unruly group focused on an agenda, and they agreed to a second meeting this Friday.

“We’re trying to organize, and that is hard … getting artists to organize,” Rojas said. “But we have been able to bring everybody together to fight this.”

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