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They Have Simple Hopes for a Complex Problem

Neighborhood: Hastily built '80s apartments are '90s slums. Santa Ana, residents are working to change that.

September 09, 1998|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Far from the cul-de-sacs of Orange County's planned communities, the 1980s real estate boom left another, very different legacy: a ghetto of high-density apartments in central Santa Ana that has become a magnet for poor immigrants and violent gangs.

A place where three families routinely crowd into two-bedroom units. Where children are yanked in and out of school so frequently some teachers hardly notice the new ones. Where families huddle behind closed doors at night to keep safe from the gunfire outside.

A place that after more than a decade of deterioration is only now beginning to turn around.

The tattered and dingy buildings that these residents of the Eastside--the neighborhood southwest of 1st Street and Grand Avenue--reluctantly call home were part of a strategy, then in vogue in many aging California cities, to fix deteriorating neighborhoods. Through zoning laws, developers were encouraged to tear down faded old homes and replace them with modern housing, with the hope of attracting more upscale tenants and revitalizing the city's center.

The apartments were designed, approved and built fast, with no thought to whether the local parks, schools, police protection or other services were up to the burden of so many new residents, or whether upscale residents would really be drawn to them. And they become slums almost overnight.

Populated primarily by recent immigrants, the Eastside today is one of Orange County's poorest and most transient communities.

Its history painfully illustrates how unrestrained market forces and a seemingly simple land-use decision can push a neighborhood to near ruin. Its story of quick deals without regard to long-term impact is perhaps a cautionary tale in urban planning for today, as the real estate market warms up to a similarly heated state.

But this story, although still lacking a happy ending, is in the process of being rewritten. New, community-minded investors are bringing both money and stricter housing rules to the area, while activists provide everything from health care to a sense of neighborhood.

"We just go after one problem after another," said Rita Corpin, president of the Eastside Neighborhood Assn. "That's why a lot of people have moved away. They just got tired of it. But I still love this neighborhood. That's why I stay."

In Rush to Build, Caution Crumbled

The saddest lesson of the neighborhood's decline is that it probably could have been avoided, had city leaders listened to local residents and national urban planning experts.

"I'm flabbergasted . . . that private developers would go wholesale into the downtown on what seems like a whim," said Roland Anglin, a community development specialist at the Ford Foundation. "Where were the marketing studies? Where were the zoning hearings? The lessons of building high-density apartments in inner cities are legion in the United States, going back more than 30 years, and the results have been disastrous."

"It wasn't only here," said Santa Ana City Manager David N. Ream, who moved quickly to ban apartment construction after taking the job in 1986. "Long Beach, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Pomona, they've all experienced the same problems. There were a lot of apartments built in the '70s and '80s, and a lot of problems came with them."

At one point, low-income housing proponents filed a lawsuit to stop the city, arguing that its strategy was unrealistic, and possibly racist. The suit was later dropped in an out-of-court settlement, but leaders of the group remain bitter.

"It was all about trying to get rid of the wrong people and bring in the right people," said Sam Romero, a downtown Santa Ana business owner who helped bring the suit. "They wanted to stop the influx of Hispanics by renting to yuppies."

Those opposed to the apartments were up against overwhelming market forces. Orange County was in the middle of a hold-onto-your-hats real estate boom, similar to the one shaping up now. With land prices soaring, no dream seemed too large, no investment too risky.

Santa Ana city leaders, who watched with envy as affluent commuter suburbs sprouted to the south while low-income workers landed on their doorstep, were eager to benefit from the boom.

"It was a high-flying time for real estate development, with no end in sight," Ream said. "Back then, people assumed that if it was new, it was fine."

Now in the Eastside, apartment blocks and fourplexes bump up against the sidewalks where a mix of modest and elegant homes once stood. Their trampled landscaping and junk-filled balconies give the neighborhood a feel of profound failure that mocks the bullishness of the '80s.

"I call it the rape of Chestnut," said Corpin, a high school history teacher and longtime Eastside activist, referring to a street near her childhood home that was once lined with Victorian houses.

"Everyone was gung-ho for development," she said. "They were tearing down beautiful homes all around us, and nobody would listen until it was too late."

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