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The northern Orange County city of Brea, embarrassed by its historical past as a racist ‘Sundown Town’ with lots of Ku Klux Klan members as ‘civic pioneers,’ is aggressively pursuing a diversification of its downtown area. The process has been coined by a local Cal State Fullerton Urban Studies Professor as ‘gentefication!’ reversing the dynamics of usual urban redevelopment schemes. The Cheesecake Factory, BJ’s, and the Yardhouse are simply hallmarks of corporate culture that can be found anywhere according to a local property owner who is adamantly behind the changes. “Diversity is the 21st century,” says Merv Haze. “We’re going to bring in a kiosco, where Mariachis and other musicians can perform, as well as hole-in-the-wall spots that cater to a more ethnic pallet, and it won’t stop there.”
A new mariscos restaurant is scheduled to open where “The Melting Pot,” a fondue eatery, once was. “The title of the old place was pure assimilation,” Haze says, “We like to think ourselves as more of a salad bowl kind of town and it’s time to add more ingredients into the mix without the hegemonic ranch dressing drowning out all of the flavor!” Also set to arrive is a new nightclub promising to bring a little bit of Jalisco into the heart of Brea.
Overpriced joints are also on the way out with taquerias sizzling carne asada in their wake. Gourmet food trucks are losing space to loncheras setting up shop at an unincorporated area now being called the Brown Lot. Skeptics and some local residents oppose the changes. When, they ask, has a Latino clientele been intentionally and openly courted in a city where they do not form a sizable majority of the population? In fact, the trend has been quite the opposite, opponents claim. And that’s them putting it nicely.
Haze scoffs at such notions. He is currently at the helm of BrownTown ENT, a promotional group that hopes to solidify downtown Brea’s makeover. Whenever the fiery issue of race comes up, he adamantly points to the fact that a few of the new businesses bucking the corporate culture trend are run by second and third generation European-Americans. “We have a chance to build a mecca of diversity where no one would expect it,” Haze proclaims over-excitedly. The property tycoon hopes to initially draw in folks from the surrounding North Orange County area, especially a cities like Anaheim, Buena Park and Fullerton. “It’s just a quick drive on the freeway,” he adds.
There is support on the city council. “I can’t rent a zoot suit on Brea Blvd., but not for long,” says councilman Flan ‘Busty’ Garcia. He and a progressive council majority approved the “P. BIDdy,” a nickname for a controversial tax that will help fund the shifting landscape. It stands for P.urposeful B.rowning I.n D.owntown. BrownTown ENT has used revenue to propel everything from son jarocho encuentros to tamale festivals in order to level the corporate playing field. The courtship is still a tough sell for some residents, though.
“I used to live in Santa Ana back in the good ol’ days” says Wyatt Flite, a flabbergasted resident. “I moved to Brea to get away from all of this, and here I am, in the center of it all, again!”