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Mean Street Resurrected Into a Safe Haven

One of the toughest neighborhoods in Santa Ana celebrates its renewal.

October 28, 2002|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

For some Santa Ana city officials and longtime residents, it's hard to believe: Minnie Street is now three blocks of tree-lined parkways and clean sidewalks, a place where residents can walk in safety day or night.

It once was one of Santa Ana's toughest neighborhoods, where immigrants stuffed themselves into low-rent apartments only to live around drug dealers, prostitutes and gang members who ruled a community of 3,500 people living in 527 apartments.

"You really couldn't leave your apartment at night," said Araceli Elias, a 30-year-old mother of three, who has lived on Minnie Street six years. "Now, we'll even go and get bread at 8 or 9 p.m. without fear, if we need to."

The will of residents and a publicly sponsored improvement project of 48 privately owned buildings provided the impetus for change. On Saturday, the city celebrated completion of the exterior improvements with food, mariachis, other entertainment and presentations by City Councilman Jose Solorio, Assemblyman Lou Correa (D-Anaheim), and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove).

Improvements to apartment interiors are continuing. The neighborhood once known as "Minnie Street" now bears a sign with gold letters on a slate slab at its entrance that spells its new name: Cornerstone Village. "I do remember when [an improved Minnie Street] seemed like a pipe dream," Solorio said in an interview.

Six years ago, the city began an incentive program that offered money to apartment owners for exterior improvements on the condition they would do interior upgrades and limit to five the number of people in each one-bedroom apartment. The goal was to sign up all apartment owners.

"I think a lot of us didn't even know if we could accomplish that task in front of us," said Pat Whittaker, Santa Ana's housing manager.

Coincidentally, the city last week signed an agreement with the last of the neighborhood property owners to join the program.

City Housing Program Coordinator Shelly Landry Bayle said Valerie Humphries' properties "stick out like a sore thumb. Now there will be a nice continuity."

Humphries, 86, who lives in Sausalito, was unavailable for comment. Her property manager, Jim Ferryman, said he agrees and is pleased that Humphries has agreed to the renovations.

The apartments were built as military housing by the U.S. government in the 1960s. About 10 years later, they were sold to several private owners who rented them, but did not keep up with maintenance. Dirt-cheap rents lured Mexican and Southeast Asian immigrants. Rents remain low -- about $600 a month for a one-bedroom.

Bayle said $6.4 million in local, state and federal money was used to improve the building facades, stairways, decks, parkways and sidewalks. An additional $7.8 million in bonds was issued by Santa Ana's housing authority to help pay for the acquisition and rehabilitation of 278 units purchased by two nonprofit organizations, the Orange Housing Development Corp. and Jamboree Housing Corp.

Residents were temporarily relocated during the renovations.

Diana Pena has lived on Minnie Street for 10 years. The truck vendor, who sells candies, fruits and sodas, never imagined her apartment and the street would look so good.

"Now, just about everybody is inside by 9 p.m. Before, you could have gotten shot out here," she said.

At Araceli Elias' apartment, a few women who live in Cornerstone Village have come together to examine jeans and trendy tops on a recent afternoon. Each marvel at her new carpet, about the men working on new steps outside her door, and the new parkways.

But unlike before, they have hope that remaining problems -- including leaking bathroom ceilings, leaking gas stoves, cockroaches and mice in their units -- will be addressed. About half the neighborhood's apartment interiors have been fully renovated while others have been partially completed.

"We would tell them about the problems before," said one of the women. "That we needed new paint, new plumbing. They'd say, 'If you don't like it, go somewhere else.' Now, we feel like they have changed. Since we can't afford to go anywhere, it is a great gift.''

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