SOHO in the sun?

A four-year-old Artists Village has brought economic and artistic

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.

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."

Ms. Graziano points out that a large drugstore is set to open soon on the corner, and says she feels the area has just the right buzz to evolve into another SoHo, the New York City cultural hot spot that was born in abandoned warehouses.

"People are leaving the coast and coming inland," she says, laughing, referring to popular Orange County beach towns such as Laguna Beach. "Seriously, I think there are a lot of people who are finding out about these newer spots and appreciating something different. They've exhausted all the old places."

While city officials use the influx of businesses to justify the city's investments in the neighborhood, they are wary of giving the impression that this development is dependent on outsiders to succeed. Rumblings of discontent about money spent on things perceived as "extras," when city streets still need paving, have dogged progress.

"A lot of the early stuff was acrimonious," activist Cribbs recalls. The key to turning that around was winning local support. "There was a neighborhood movement that believed the town was being sold out," he says. "They formed associations in the worst parts of town and triggered a neighborhood movement to save the town."

The pivotal moment occurred in 1992 when all seven members elected to the city council supported an arts agenda. "That's when we went on a fast-track" with the arts program, he adds.

A stroll through the galleries during a recent artists' open house suggests that the studios and galleries are heavily occupied by longtime Santa Ana residents.

"Most of these people are emerging artists who come from the local neighborhoods," says Larry Yenglin, the redevelopment project manager.

"Art has a major impact on the community in every way," says artist Margie Tabor Zuliani, who teaches in a gang-abatement program and runs the after-school arts curriculum for the Santa Ana school district.

Surrounded by her own art work and that of 13 other artists with whom she runs a joint venture, called Legacy Arts Gallery and Studio, Ms. Zuliani calls the arts critical to urban renewal. "I teach these kids that they can put their energy into a gun and go to jail," she says, "or they can put it into paint and maybe get famous for doing something good."

Across the hallway, works by artists from Poland, Iran, and Vietnam hang in the Harmony Quest Gallery. These artists represent racial diversity in the town, which is nearly three-quarters Hispanic, says artist and owner Gary Schwebs, a resident for more than 50 years. The ethnic mix also includes 14 percent white, 10 percent Asian, 2 percent black, and 1 percent others.

"The art brings everyone in the community together," he adds. Casual observers appear to reinforce this. "I came over to see what was going on," says Mexican-born Jorge Magana, who has called Santa Ana home for 21 years. "I heard about it from a friend. I think it's great."

If anything, the area could fall victim to its own success. Artist Michael Maas is concerned. He says he can pay the rent now, but if the area becomes another SoHo, who knows?

That, says coffee-shop owner Graziano, is a problem she would look forward to tackling.

"We could become another SoHo," she says. "It could happen."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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