SANTA ANA — Eight months ago, the little house known since the 1940s as Koo's Chinese Take-Out was plastered in thick layers of flaking wallpaper above a grease-drenched carpet, testament to a business that clung to life for decades in a declining commercial corridor.
But with support from the city, a team of students and aspiring artists have pooled their meager resources and turned the empty building into what city officials describe as Santa Ana's only coffeehouse--an intimate, hand-painted gathering place that opened its doors last week between two new art galleries.
In any other place, the opening of a coffeehouse wouldn't turn heads, but here, emerging artists and city officials see in Koo's Arts Cafe a hope that Santa Ana will shed its tough image and become a place where people can stroll down the street at night, browsing in galleries and gathering to share ideas.
City officials have been working hard on plans for an artists village in the downtown area, but the new galleries and coffeehouse less than half a mile away on North Main Street have blossomed on their own, and supporters hope they will be the catalyst for some gritty, down-to-earth redevelopment.
"This is an arts cafe. It's like a canvas," said Dennis Lluy, one of the four owners of Koo's Arts Cafe.
Lluy, 21; Dan Montano, 22; Lou Bribiesca, 26; and Allan Benavides, 21, looked at sites in Long Beach and Whittier and came very close to signing a lease on a building in Fullerton before they felt the allure of Santa Ana.
Now they're sold.
"It's like Santa Ana's behind a curtain. But when you come here, you see how old it is, how diverse it is, how rad it is," Benavides said. "It's so weird. It's so fun."
The owners stress that they are definitely not businessmen. Three of them ran an alternative art gallery in Orange for a while last year and all share a commitment to no-holds-barred creative experimentation in art and music.
Benavides used to sell used cars before his recent arts-minded conversion, and all the others still hold day jobs. (Bribiesca works in a bowling equipment factory making pin holders: "Somebody's gotta do it," he says.)
With less than $8,000 between them, they pried off the wallpaper, chipped at the linoleum and peeled up the greasy rugs. They even found a 1947 newspaper while cleaning out the cluttered drawers upstairs.
Now, the walls are brightly painted in blue, maroon, purple and green, and the floors are hand-decorated in celestial themes. Everything, from the collage-covered tables, to the art hanging on the walls, to the works of local poets available for perusal, is part of the work-in-progress atmosphere that the Koo's owners hope will encourage artistic growth and exchange.
"If four people can do this in a house, then Santa Ana should be able to do it in the whole city," Bribiesca said.
Montano, who paints and has set up his own studio in an upstairs room at Koo's, recently met Don Cribb--the catalyst of the city's plans for a downtown artists village--and Cribb persuaded him that Santa Ana might just be the birthplace of the kind of raw, alternative art scene the Koo's owners hope to foster.
Lluy had had his eye on the little Chinese restaurant, and when they realized it was empty, the four went for it.
"We're trying to just get people to come in here and express themselves," said Lluy, who works as a music promoter and has already booked a string of alternative bands at Koo's.
They hope the emerging business district will serve as a lure to bookstores, record stores, thrift stores and even other coffee houses.
It's a hope shared by many.
"Even though we're small independent people, I think we're going to bring up the business potential in the area in general," said Richard Espinachio, who with partner Eric Smissen owns the Caged Chameleon gallery, next door to Koo's.
"Having these businesses on the same street gives it the feeling of a small arts district. The thing that's great about it is the fact that it will increase the street traffic."
The gallery operated near the Bowers Museum for five years but only opened in its present location this summer. Dark's Art Parlour, the other alternative gallery down the street from Koo's, also opened recently.
"We're trying to give people the feeling that it's a place to go, a place to hang out. You don't have to go to L.A. to see a gallery. You don't have to go to L.A. to have an espresso," Espinachio said.
Espinachio said the Main Street strip is just the beginning of what the city hopes to achieve down the street with the artists village--a rezoned area of studio spaces where artists can also live.
But the North Main Street art cluster happened on its own, and many are hoping it will be contagious.
"We think that this kind of thing is necessary here. People want it and it hasn't been. It's long overdue," added R.H. Phister, a Santa Ana resident and one of Dark's Art Parlour's founders.