California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Santa Ana, Downtown Orange County

California Fool's Gold


Santa Ana Novelty Card
The Dutch

Santa Ana is the county seat and most populous city in Orange County.

 Map of Santa Ana California

Pendersleigh & Sons‘ Official Maps of Santa Ana

Santa Ana is surrounded by Garden Grove to the northwest, Anaheim to the north, Orange to the northeast, Tustin to the east, Irvine to the southeast, Costa Mesa to the south, Fountain Valley to the southwest and Westminster to the west. For this blogventure, I was accompanied by Orange County’s Emily Ryan.

Jose Antonio Yorba  Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana

                         Yorba                                                         Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana                                        


At the time of the Spaniards’ arrival in the 1500s, the area was home to the Acagchemem, Payomkowishum and Tongva. After the 1769 expedition of Gaspar de Portolá out of Mexico City, Friar Junípero Serra named the area Vallejo de Santa Ana, after Saint Anne, Christ Jesus‘s grandma (and NOT General Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana. In 1810, a Spanish sergeant, Jose Antonio Yorba, was granted land that he called Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana.

William H. Spurgeon  Santa Ana in 2892

                        Spurgeon                                                                                         Santa Ana in 1891

After the US conquered Alta California in 1848, Americans began to move to what had been part of Mexico. The city of Santa Ana was established in 1869 by Kentuckian William H. Spurgeon. It was incorporated as a city in 1886. In 1889, it became the seat of the newly formed Orange County.

Box Motors 1449 and 1450 in Santa Ana


By 1906, the Pacific Electric Railway from Los Angeles was extended to Santa Ana, running along Fourth Street downtown. The red cars made travel to Los Angeles easier and helped spur a population boom. During World War II, the Santa Ana Army Air Base was built as a training center for the United States Army Air Forces and was responsible for continued population growth after the war. The population of Santa Ana increased from around 49,000 people in 1900 to nearly 210,000 residents in 1950. The Santa Ana Freeway was opened in 1953, spurring more growth.

Downtown Santa Ana

Downtown Santa Ana

Since the 1980s, Santa Ana has been characterized by an effort to revitalize the downtown area which had declined in influence. In 1987, MainPlace Mall (now Westfield MainPlace) was opened north of downtown and became a major retail center.

Yost Theater Santa Ana
Yost Theater

The Santa Ana Artist’s Village was created around Cal State Fullerton‘s Grand Central Art Center to attract artists and young professionals to live-work lofts and new businesses. The process has continued into 2009 with the reopening of the historic Yost Theater. Today, downtown Santa Ana is a bustling yet ambrosial place with attractive old buildings and sidewalks abounding with people.

Bustling sidewalks of Santa Ana California
People walk in Santa Ana

Santa Ana has several neighborhoods: Artist’s Village, Fiesta Marketplace, Downtown Santa Ana, the Civic Center, Midtown, Metro East and The South Coast Metro Area. The city is roughly 80% Latino, 12% white and 9% Asian. The main ethnicities are Mexican and Vietnamese although it’s also home to the largest Cambodian-American population in Orange County. Unlike most of Orange County, it is home to more Democrats than Republicans — this despite the fact that older Santa Ana institutions like the John Wayne Airport and the Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse are named after well-known Republicans, a reflection of its wealthier, whiter past. Although burglary, robbery, rape, murder, assault are all below the national average, it’s not uncommon to hear Santa Ana described as “ghetto” or “third world” by hating knaves and Nativists.

An historic Santa Ana Home
An historic home

Aside from the aforementioned Ronald Reagan Federal Building and Courthouse, there are loads of other sites to check out too. Santa Ana has many beautiful and restored historic homes in the Historic Floral Park and Historic French Park neighborhoods. There’s also Delhi Park, El Salvador Park, El Centro Cultural de MéxicoSanta Ana Historical Preservation Society, Santiago Art District, St. Joseph Catholic Church, Rankin Building, the Pacific Electric Bicycle Trail and the SantaAna River Trail.

La Reyna de Michoacan

There’s a pretty good variety of Mexican cuisines representing several different regional cuisines. There are also many Vietnamese places, especially on 1st. There also seem to be a larger than normal number of places exploiting sweet teeth – bakeries, donut shops, cookie stores and more. Walking around downtown it seemed that almost everyone was eating ice cream so Emily and I went to La Reyna de Michoacan. Emily opted for chongos, I for fruta seca. Both were delicious.

Later, we enjoyed dinner at Taqueria de Anda. Santa Ana eateries we didn’t patronize include Alberto’s Mexican Food, Alfonso’s Mexican Food, Alfredo’s Pizza, Arsenio’s Mexican Food, Bari’s Pasta & Pizza, Big K’s Burgers Drive-In,  Bill’s Burgers, Boy’s Hamburgers, Las Brisas, Las Brisas de Apatzingan, El Cabrito, Cafe Lu, Cafe Lucca, Cafe Suoi Tien, Cafe Thuy, California Sushi & Teriyaki, California Teriyaki Grill, Cancun Juice, Casa Oaxaca, Chelo’s Bakery, China King, China Mex,

China Olive, Chip-N-Dough Cookie Company, Classic Burgers, El Cortez, Costa Azul, The Crosby, Dave’s Deli, Dino’s Burgers, Donut Star, Donut Villa, Duke’s Charbroiler, DX Peruvian, 828 Pho, Fantastic Cafe, Farmer Boys, Favori, Fish Grill Factory, Flame Broiler, Flamingo International, Fresh Grill, Friend’s Donuts & Subs, Gail’s Grand Avenue Lunch, El Gallo Giro, Geisha House, Great Wall Chinese Food, Hacienda, Happy Bagels & Fast Foods, J & J Bakery Cookies Bouquet,

Jax Donut House, Jerry’s Dogs, Juan Pollo 24, Knowlwood, Laguna Cookie, Lamkone, Little Onion Mexican, Lucky Chinese Food, M & Toi Cafe, Mariscos Los Corales, Lucky Guy’s Burgers, Marche Moderne, Mariscos La Sirena, Mel-O-Dee Ice Cream, Men Cafe, Mil Jugos Restaurant, Mill Bakery, Mo’s, Morton’s the Steakhouse, Murrieta Bros, Niki’s Indian Food, Olde Shop, Norm’s, La Pachanga Cantina & Grill, Pacific Bagel Partners, Panaderia La Chapina, Los Panchos, Panda Bowl,

Paseleria La Mejor, Pena’s Mexican, Pho Cali, Pho Tau Bay Ltt, El Picante, Pinehill Sandwiches, La Pizza Loca, Polly’s Bakery Cafe, Los Portales Mexican Food, Puerto Madero Mercado Latino, Qwik-Korner-Deli-Grocery, Avila’s El Ranchito Mexican, La Rancherita Bakery, Raspados Estilo Mexico, Reyna’s Mexican Grill, Rincon Chilango, Rosa’s Panderia y Pasteleria, Saigon Cuisine, Scott’s Restaurant & Bar, Shabu Shabu, Siam Taste of Asia, South Coast Pizza Parlors,

South Coast Winery, Spoons Grill & Bar, Stremick’s Heritage Foods, El Taco Vaquero, El Taco Veloz Mexican Food, Tacos Colima, Tacos Mexico, Tacos Sinaloa, Tan Cang Newport, Tao Ngo Quan, Taqueria Carniceria Tapatia, Taqueria el Granjenal, Taqueria Tapatia, Tical Guatemala, Tito’s La Especial, Trieu Chau, Tropical Ice Cream, Uno Free Pizza,  La Vida Taqueria, Waba Grill Teriyaki House, Whole Pita Greek Island Grill, Yellow Basket, Yogi’s Teriyaki, Zamora’s Mariscos & Mexican and El Zocalo Mexican Steak House.

Gazebo looking serious with Ian and Jim

Santa Ana supports a pretty healthy nightlife. Driving at night, lost, looking for BPM‘s b-day at Viet Bao, I saw several garage doors up, pool tables inside surrounded by partiers drinking to the sounds of Vietnamese New Wave. Another time we all hit the Galaxy Concert Theater, where Italo icon Gazebo performed. There’s also California Girls Nightclub, Center Club, Ecstasy Theatre, El Coral Bar, Los Cristales, Elks Lodge, Fling Cocktail Lounge, Malone’s, Office Bar & Grill, Piccolo Nightclub, Red Hill Café and the Tenampa Inn.


Santoro Building

The Santora Building (named by combining “Santa Ana” and “Orange”) is a building designed in the Moorish style by Frank Lansdown in 1926. Back in the day, there was a jazz club and speakeasy in the basement as well as the hoity-toity Daniger’s Tea Room. Today inside the Santora Building is the Santa Ana Artist’s Village, home of several art galleries.

Santa Ana Performing Arts & Events Center

Santa Ana also supports a number of museums and theaters. There’s The Art Bar, Bowers MuseumCent Gallery, Courbet Art Circle, Discovery Science CenterDr. Willella Howe-Waffle House and Medical Museum, 511 Santa Ana’s Creative Space, Galleria Marconi, Gallery 9 ONE 0, Grand Central Art Center, Heritage Museum of Orange County, Level 3 Art Gallery, Little Angels Galleries, Nese Gallery, OC Performing Arts Pavilion, Opera Pacific, Orange County Center-Contemporary, Orange County Crazies, The Orange County Natural History Museum, Orange County Performing Arts Center, Rude Guerrilla Theater, Saint Joseph Ballet, Santa Ana College Art Gallery, Santa Ana Fire Department Firefighters MuseumSanta Ana Performing Arts & Events Center, Se7en DeadlySouth Coast Repertory Theater, Suzie Vuong Gallery, Yost Theater (although it’s currently empty) and Sol Art Gallery Cafe.


Santa Ana is home to Orange County’s first theater, Walker’s Theater, which opened as The Temple Theater in 1909 at the corner of Main and Second streets. Today, it houses the Main Street Studio Lofts.

Gentleman Jim  Journey From the Fall  Un Dia en el Banco

A few movies have been filmed in Santa Ana, in part or in whole. Much maligned Missourian director William Christy Cabanne filmed the Douglas Fairbanks film Double Trouble (1915) there. After that, several more films followed, including Gentleman Jim (1942), Hollywood Gothic, Jeff Dunham – Arguing With Myself and Journey from the Fall (all 2006), Daniel Tosh – Completely Serious (2007), and Primer Santa Ana and Un dia en el banco (both 2009).

Santa Ana was one of the many California shooting locations for It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Sole Survivor (1983), Star Trek IV – The Voyage Home (1986), Road to Flin Flon (2000), Return to Innocence (2001), Snitch’d (2003), Juarez, Mexico (2005), and Amateur Porn Star Killer 3D – Inside the Head and Herpes Boy (both 2009). It was also among several shooting locations for Lassie Come Home (1943), The Street with No Name (1948), Hells Angels Forever (1983) and Searching for Haizmann (2003).


Santa Ana’s first highrise was the 16-story Xerox Centre, completed in 1988. Today, the 25-story Macarthur Skyline Towers (completed in 2009) are the city’s tallest highrises and the county’s fourth tallest structures. Several shorter but well known Santa Ana sites have featured prominently in film.


Orange County Register Building

 The newsroom scenes of The Ring remake (2002) were filmed in Santa Ana’s Orange County Register offices.


Santa Ana Zoo

 The Santa Ana Zoo opened in 1960 and is home to a great monkey collection. The Zoo was featured in Walt Becker (Wild Hogs, Van Wilder)’s 2009 effort, Old Dogs.


Westfield MainPlace

 Formerly MainPlace Mall, Westfield MainPlace has been featured in at least two films with “cop” in the title, including Kindergarten Cop (1990) and Timecop (1994).



 The Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center (aka “The Depot“) was featured in at least two films with “man” in the title, including Rain Man (1988) and Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992).


Old Orange County Courthouse

The Old Orange County Courthouse was featured in The File on Thelma Jordan (1950), Gideon’s Trumpet (1980), Frances (1982), Killer per caso (1997), Legally Blonde (2001), Catch Me If You Can (2002) and Truth Has Fallen (2009). The Romanesque building houses the Old Courthouse Museum.


John Wayne Airport

The John Wayne Airport was featured in First Monday in October (1981), Gleaming the Cube (1989), Clear and Present Danger (1994), Jerry Maguire and Up Close & Personal (both 1996), The Insider and the remake of The Out-of-Towners (both 1999) and Elizabethtown (2005).



Rickenbacker Logo

One of Santa Ana’s most notable businesses is the Rickenbacker International Corporation (RIC) musical instrument company, founded in Santa Ana in 1931 by Adolph Rickenbacker and George D. Beauchamp.

Bill Medley The Chantays John Raitt Kathy Young Leo Fender Roy Estrada Santa Ana's Most Wanted Vendetta Valentine Westside Cartel

Performers from Santa Ana include Bill MedleyThe ChantaysJohn RaittKathy Young, Leo FenderRoy EstradaSanta Ana’s Most WantedVendetta Valentine and Westside Cartel. Santa Ana was mentioned in Little Village‘s song “The Action.”

Till next time!

To vote for any communities you’d like to see covered in California Fool’s Gold, name them in the comments. If you’d like a bit of inspiration, there are primers for:

Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRWWhich Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubiand Twitter.
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23 thoughts on “California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Santa Ana, Downtown Orange County

  1. Pingback: Eric Brightwell
  2. Good afternoon, My name is Alberto and I was wondering where did you get the image of the old rancho Santiago of Santa Ana from? The thing is that I want to use it so it can be painted on a utility cabinet for Santa Ana. If it’s yours, please email me so I may or may not, have your permission to use the image.


  3. Good afternoon, My name is Alberto and I was wondering where did you get the image of the old rancho Santiago of Santa Ana from? The thing is that I want to use it so it can be painted on a utility cabinet for Santa Ana. If it’s yours, please email me so I may or may not, have your permission to use the image. If it is not may I ask if it is a public image?
    I am a student and artist from Santa Ana College.
    Thank you for your time.


    1. Hello, I’m not sure where I got that picture of. I’m now in the habit of listing the image source when I have it but unfortunately, that hadn’t crossed my mind back in 2010 when I published this piece.


      1. Darn, so this image is not yours then? Do remember if you got out of a public image base or a historical site or something? This image was the only one I could find so your help would be greatly appreciated. Thank you!


      2. No, not mine. It’s crazy because I probably just got it off Google Images but doing a search doesn’t yield any results but my own blog. My other guess is that I got it from the LAPL image archive, the USC image archive, or an Images of America book, assuming that they’ve done one about Santa Ana. Sorry I can’t be more help.


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