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Return To The Unseen O.C.

Graffiti on a wall near a construction site in Santa Ana, Calif.Santa Ana: One City, Two Worlds

By Tara Graham

An afternoon drive down South Bristol Street in Santa Ana is a far cry from the mini-mansions and community tennis courts hiding in the hills of Ladera Ranch, a half-hour drive away.

Taquerías. Carnicerías. Lavanderías. Clínicas. They're all open for business on Bristol. Taco trucks parade up and down the thoroughfare, as vendors linger on street corners, waving bags of fruit or bouquets of flowers. A mustached Hispanic man wearing a sculpted, white cowboy hat sits in a pickup truck at a red stop light. He stares blankly into the distance as a group of rowdy schoolgirls sporting short skirts, knee-high socks and collared, polo shirts use the crosswalk in front of him. These are Mater Dei kids, walking to get an after-school snack before returning to their cushy homes in nearby Newport Beach, Villa Park, Irvine, or the Anaheim hills.

This is the intersection of Bristol and Edinger—the intersection of two worlds in Orange County. One is the world we've come to associate with the O.C., thanks to the "Real Housewives" and other high-drama, teenybopper shows on network television. The other world, a little less glamorous and a lot less touted, is the first stop for newly arrived immigrants and the part of the county where the tan on most people's skin is a birthright, no fake-'n-bake necessary.

Nearly 80 percent of Santa Ana's 350,000 residents is Hispanic or Latino. The city, which is the largest in the O.C. and home to the county's government sector, also has the second highest unemployment rate (behind Stanton) at 14.4 percent, according to the California Employment Development Department. Moreover, the national mortgage crisis set off a string of foreclosures throughout the city. Houses that were priced in the $600,000 range during the real estate boom are now only worth half as much—on a good day.

"The homes around here are now $250,000 or less," says Shaun Rounds, a Mater Dei parent who was recently in the market for a new house. "In Orange County, that's a mobile home."

Rounds, who was originally looking to buy a vintage house on an expansive lot in Floral Park, an exclusive neighborhood located in the northern tip of the city, was hoping a move to Santa Ana would cut down on his daily commute and gas costs. But he never looked in the neighborhoods around the Mater Dei campus.

"I wouldn't want to live around here even if a house or dorm was included with the tuition," he says, pointing in the direction of a school security guard. "They couldn't give it to me."

The high school has a fully gated campus with security guards on duty at every entrance 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. All faculty, staff and students are required to wear identification badges around their necks, and all visitors must check in at the front office. The unspoken intention is to segregate the students from the local population—mostly for safety reasons.

The area has a history of heavy gang activity. Parents exchange horror stories about Mater Dei students being held at gunpoint and mugged at nearby public transportation stops or on local buses.

Most of these parents, although a bit more frugal in this uncertain economic climate, do have the money to invest in the area, Rounds admits, but "the capable people just don't want to purchase here."

The city, perhaps cluing in on the area's undesirability, has launched a number of housing incentives to help move needy families and first-time home buyers into recently foreclosed or otherwise available properties. The city is also offering tax incentives and rebates to businesses that upgrade or re-face their shops.

Construction site in Santa Ana, Calif.Near Mater Dei, a $225 million Bristol Street widening project has been underway for more than a year. The project, which is already into phase two, will expand a 3.9-mile stretch of Bristol Street—a major commercial corridor—from four to six lanes to ease traffic congestion, plant bushes and trees, build landscaped medians and beautify the area over the next 20 years.

But cruising down the street today, one only sees a long stretch of dirt and wall covered in black tarp.

"Graffiti," says Jason Castañeda, a construction worker who's been helping with the project for the past seven months. "I think it's the work of little gangsters."

Castañeda says the new walls provide perfect canvases for local graffiti artists. As long as the walls are without vines and shrubbery, they'll have to remain under the tarp to deter folks from defacing the property.

But graffiti has nevertheless found its way on top of the tarp—and Mater Dei parents have taken notice.

"Graffiti is all over that construction site," Rounds says while shaking his head. With that, he puts a key into the ignition of his Mercedes SUV and drives out of the school parking lot, passing the security guards on the way.

Santa Ana may be making efforts to pull its housing market out of a slump and improve the local scene, but for the time being, those efforts just aren't enough to lure the privileged out of their gated communities and into shared space.