Neighbors celebrating change in ‘gritty’ Santa Ana neighborhood

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When Soledad Valentin settled her family in a Minnie Street apartment complex more than 20 years ago, the area was what she described as the “Old West.”

Drive-by shootings on the street were common. Drugs were stashed in Valentin’s small makeshift garden by people chased by police. And ingrained in Valentin’s mind is the memory of a boy struck by a car after his brother pushed him in a wheeled crate while the two played on what used to be a two-lane street.

“It was something terrible,” Valentin recalled.

Last weekend, neighbors came together on Minnie Street for a block party aimed to build community. More than 500 people, including residents and city representatives, attended.

Families played soccer, neighbors participated in art contests, and kids hula-hooped and jumped on bounce houses on Minnie Street between McFadden Avenue and Grant Street.

“We definitely met our goal of getting our people to know each other. … With events like this, at least they (residents) have some kind of knowledge of who their neighbors are,” said Sergio Garcia, who with his wife manages apartments at Cornerstone.

Garcia and his wife moved to the neighborhood in 2001 in the midst of a renovation there.

Since then, Garcia, also a community volunteer, has started a neighborhood soccer team and on Saturday helped get residents talking to one another. Activities that day included having teams for soccer matches.

Garcia said building neighborhood solidarity is important because, “You know what tenants you can count on if you ever need anything.”

The event, said Jane Hueber, the director of Lighthouse Community Center, aims to “promote community and a sense of building relationships with our neighbors.”

Lighthouse Community Center, an outreach of Mariners Church, provides volunteer-based programs in inner-city neighborhoods, including a space on Minnie Street.

Organizers – who have been working to build bridges between the community and law enforcement – say the event was organized to help gather police officials, civic leaders and residents to get them talking to one another. Also, it’s a way to celebrate the progress of a community that was once a haven for crime.

“Everybody had the shared vision of getting people together and having fun,” Hueber said.

Minnie Street residents, like Garcia, have attributed neighborhood improvements to a mix of services, including improvements in housing, the opening of a police substation and a learning center operated by Mariners Church that offers help with homework and computer instruction after school.

What used to be a gritty neighborhood with about 12,000 people packed into aging two-story apartment buildings is now a tree-lined community – known as Cornerstone Village – with a curvy one-way street to slow traffic.