SOHO in the sun?
A four-year-old Artists Village has brought economic and artistic
SANTA ANA, CALIF.
Go through the elaborate wrought-iron gates, cross the terrazzo floors, and climb the double staircase to the second-floor lobby of Santa Ana's historic ornate Santora Arts Building, built in 1929.Skip to next paragraph
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These are steps with history, as they say in southern California about anything associated with old-time film stars.
Lucille Ball took tap-dance lessons here, and Milton Berle stopped for supper en route to the beach. So did Rita Hayworth and Jack Benny. Now, after a lengthy delay, this once-elegant area is in the spotlight again as a model for how to revive a dying central city.
Like the legendary Hollywood Boulevard to the north, and New York's Times Square far to the east, the old downtown of Santa Clara began to decline in the 1960s. By the '80s, city officials were close to demolishing what had become a derelict three-square-block area to make room for urban renewal.
But one resident had a different idea.
"The one thing missing from a development perspective," says Don Cribbs, who had recently bought a home in the town of his birth, "was the artists."
Having just returned from sojourns in Manhattan and cities in Europe, Mr. Cribbs was convinced that no city could truly restore its heart without a cultural center. "A positive and relevant urban experience requires a significant role for the arts," he says.
After visiting cities close in size to Santa Ana (population 300,000), such as Winston-Salem, N.C., and Portland, Ore., he gained an affinity for the historical buildings of these mid-size cities.
"These magnificent pieces of architecture are part of the arts in many communities' downtowns that should be preserved as a cultural heritage," he says.
A photographer by profession, Cribbs launched a parallel career organizing an arts movement in this, the largest city in Orange County, California. He helped found and was the first president of a Santa Ana arts council, created in 1988. The 14-member group saw its mission as rebuilding community confidence in Santa Ana, the county seat. The city had earlier turned down opportunities to host Disneyland and the South Coast Plaza, one of the largest shopping malls in the United States. Slowly, the arts council eked out concessions from the city council, such as zoning that allowed artists to live and work in the same space and matching federal-grant money for cultural institutions to move downtown.
Those efforts have borne fruit. The Santora Building anchors the four-year-old Artists Village, a group of about 100 artists with 40-plus galleries, studios, and apartments in the three-square-block area. A cluster of theaters includes the Alternative Repertory Theatre and the Orange County Crazies, an improvisational comedy school.
The Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, a local institution, moved here in 1992 after a $12 million renovation, and the Discovery Science Center opened its doors in December. California State University at Fullerton recently started an arts satellite school in the middle of Artists Village.
More significantly from an urban-renewal standpoint, businesses are moving to Santa Ana.
"We came because the area is growing," says Catherine Graziano, owner of The Gypsy Den Caf, a large coffeehouse that opened its second storefront six weeks ago at the corner of Broadway and Second. "The city is in the process of creating a hub, a destination for people in and outside the city. We want to be part of it."