Last night, the American Planning Association recognized the City of Santa Ana, designating downtown Santa Ana as one of America’s “Great Neighborhoods.” This was the latest edition in a series of media pieces profiling Santa Ana’s revitalization and development, yet all of them are missing the point. It’s not the hip restaurants or promises of streetcars that deserve awards. It is community power and resident leadership that make Santa Ana great.
Recent publications about Santa Ana’s development in the New York Times and LA Times profiled Santa Ana’s diversity, but failed to address the key issue of EQUITY. The New York Times in particular brought up a conversation about Latino political power, but missed the boat when it came to discussing equity. Equity as a concept includes calling out racial inequality, but it goes deeper than that, and achieving equity requires more than just a Latino-majority City Council. A discussion of equity in Santa Ana should call into question our economy, which excludes hard-working, long-time residents of all colors and backgrounds, while welcoming and encouraging affluent newcomers.
The truly exciting theme in Santa Ana is that poor communities are organizing to extend Santa Ana’s economic opportunity to everyone. Local residents, long excluded from decision-making at City Hall, are now creating real solutions for sustainable development from the grassroots up. They’re calling on local agencies to get on board with a vision of development that actually meets the needs of residents. This is something that everyone can appreciate - not just Latinos, but other communities that are systematically excluded, like workers, youth, seniors, people of color, and immigrants.
The LA Times’s piece on gentrification, published the same day, also misses the point completely, talking about local businesses’ tactics for survival and glossing over the role of city leaders in guiding the city. Of course local businesses are doing what is necessary to stay afloat. What local organizations and residents want to know is what decision makers are going to do to support the local community? In the past, they’ve used public resources to propel a ‘new, hip’ concept for the downtown; seeking to replace Santa Ana’s current residents and shoppers with a younger, wealthier clientele - and like it or not, that’s going to mean a whiter clientele. Property owners have offered discounted rents to attract new businesses that fit this profile of what they believe Santa Ana can and should be.
Shouldn’t these resources be dedicated to local businesses that serve the residents and customers that have lived in and patronized Santa Ana’s downtown for years? Even from a purely business-oriented perspective, Santa Ana’s community deserves to be included. A 2014 market study by The Next Practice found that Latinos and renters are the demographic with the most significant economic potential in the downtown area.
While Santa Ana receives an award, residents protest their exclusion from this ‘great neighborhood.’ Their neighborhood. But most importantly, they are advocating for sustainable and inclusive solutions that will benefit everyone, and pushing for a partnership with the City and with developers. “Together, we can create sustainable development for Santa Ana,” says a representative from the Community Lands in Community Hands coalition, speaking in support of economic growth that would benefit both local businesses and residents. Chief among the community proposals is that of a Community Land Trust, asking the City to dedicate publicly owned land to community-identified needs like housing, open space, community, and small business space that isn’t being provided through Santa Ana’s current growth.
This is what the media should cover. Initiatives, policies and projects led and supported by Santa Ana’s community have spearheaded transparency and openness in city government in the 2010s, revitalized Santa Ana’s downtown in the 1990s and 80s when no one else would touch it. Community leaders have fought for and won walkable streets, bicycle lanes, and community facilities that everyone benefits for and uses. These are the things that make Santa Ana great.
Luis Sarmiento is a resident of Santa Ana and works as a grassroots activist with Radio Santa Ana.
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