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Bittersweet Nostalgia : Housing Gains Disbanded Much of Santa Ana's Black Community


On the walls of Mr. B's barbershop are hundreds of fading photos of customers whose satisfied smiles pay tribute to the head barber's mastery of naturals and bone cuts, flattops and fades.

Billy (Mr. B.) Kirby still savors the sweet memory of when those clients lined up 20 deep in the morning chill outside his shop to wait for a clip or banged on his front door to beg for a razor cut.

Today he and his son, "Dollar Bill" Kirby Jr., linger late in the mid-morning, patiently awaiting the arrival of the first $12 haircut.

Kirby's warm, welcoming smile masks a certain wistfulness; his community of African Americans is vanishing and he knows it simply by looking beyond his striped barber's pole.

During the 1960s and into the 1970s, Bristol Street was a solid invisible border that hemmed Orange County's black population into a Santa Ana neighborhood of pastel bungalows and cottages variously nicknamed "Little Texas" or "the Rock."

The color line was guarded by the gatekeepers of real estate agents and police officers who held the border against black residents foolish enough to rent a house, order a vodka tonic or cruise down a traffic circle in the wrong neighborhood.

By necessity, the segregated Santa Ana neighborhood became the cultural hub for black Orange County residents, bound together by churches, clubs, barbershops, beauty salons, and barbecue restaurants with the smoky tang of Texas--the home state for many black migrants.

"We were more together than we are now," remembered Kirby, 55, a tall, lean, former Texan himself whose shaven head is covered by a brimmed hat. "There's no black neighborhood any more. There's 44,000 blacks in Orange County, but they've scattered all over. I remember when it was fun. We had two or three black nightclubs and people running for City Council. We had community meetings to discuss how to help our own people."

Outside his window, clubs like the Greasy Spoon and Sneaky Pete's have given way to a gleaming, flat-roofed shopping strip with offices labeled Clinica Medica. The Ghetto Record Shop, a Santa Ana institution specializing in gospel, jazz, funk and blues music, watched its customer base shift from an equal mix of black and Latino customers to a Latino majority. The trim bungalows and blooming rose bushes are tended by Latino families instead of the black residents who planted the garden patches decades ago.


Gone are the friendly rivals--the barbers at Kelly's, Baxter's and Emily's--who would meet with Kirby most mornings for a cup of coffee and scissors solidarity. And gone are the black doctors and lawyers and teachers who began moving out as fair housing laws opened the borders of new neighborhoods in Orange County.

Even the shop that continued the smoky dynasty of Shaw's barbecue moved out of Santa Ana last summer--to Irvine.

The exodus of Santa Ana's historic black settlement has been building steadily since the the opening of housing opportunities in response to federal and state laws and pressure by local groups. While the population of blacks in Orange County has continued to grow, Santa Ana has been losing its share since the 1970s when the number of black residents crested at more than 8,000.

By 1980, the city's proportion of the county's black population had dwindled by almost half and that decline continued through 1990, dropping again by almost 20% to 7,594. The black student population in the Santa Ana Unified School District also peaked in the mid-1970s at nearly 10% and steadily dropped to 1.5% this year.

"The ghetto is a thing of the past," said Lawrence B. de Graaf, a professor of history at Cal State Fullerton. "Once Santa Ana was a bastion of racism and exclusion, but by 1980 the population was dissipating to every corner in the county. And that continues to be a trend. That looks very positive, but it also has a deeper dimension. There's a lack of a single community of African Americans here. From an integration point, there is something culturally and emotionally missing."

The history of Santa Ana's black community dates back to 1885 when a groom named Willis K. Duffy built a home in Santa Ana and later a reputation for himself as the barbecue king of Orange County.

By the 1920s, black home buyers were able to buy spacious, wooded lots in the southwest section of Santa Ana because whites were willing to sell properties to blacks in areas where neighbors did not live close by. The community grew along Bristol Street between 2nd and 4th streets, now Santa Ana Boulevard, and spread north and west.

Johnson Chapel, an African Methodist Episcopal church with a trim steeple still rising along north Bristol Street, was the anchor of the neighborhood and a variety of black institutions blossomed nearby that drew the community together like a bright bouquet.

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