Sounding Off: The 'Goat Hill' to 'City of the Arts'

Has 10 years of bickering over the immigration issue paid off in Costa Mesa? Today, the city is a shining tower of right-wing conservatism and anti-immigration sentiment.

While the rhetoric on immigration has grown larger over the years, Costa Mesa's economy has lagged behind its neighbors.

According to Decipher, a research think tank, Costa Mesa was the only city in Orange County with a zero-profit margin from 2000 to 2008, running a $4.4 million deficit during those years.

These new findings might have deepened Costa Mesa's troubled mindset. Back in the heyday, it suffered from an inferiority complex that trickled down to its own citizens. Costa Mesans gazed upon their neighbors in Newport Beach and silently admired their appetite for economic exuberance.

Not wanting to become an enclave for underdevelopment, Costa Mesa followed up on its southern neighbor's footsteps. In 1942, the Santa Ana Army Air Base settled in what today is the Orange County Fairgrounds and Orange Coast College. This move provided seeds for economic development and social mobility.

Once predominantly a rural area, Costa Mesa rapidly evolved into a suburban hub with formidable economic power. However, it was until the 1960s when the city finally achieved worldwide status.

South Coast Plaza opened its doors to the public.

Little by little, local residents spoke highly about their city. Today, Costa Mesa houses one of the nation's most sophisticated arts centers, many five-star hotels, abundant recreational areas and mega movie theaters.

Local government officials and politicians extricated Costa Mesa from its stigmatizing "Goat Hill" label and replaced that with a more alluring nickname: "City of the Arts." Costa Mesa was ready to show off its new look.

The new outlook and economic growth brought demographic changes as well. According to 1980 U.S. Census figures, a total of 82,562 people lived in Costa Mesa. A little more than 80% of the population belonged to the Caucasian or white group; people of Latino origin, 10%; Asians and Pacific Islanders, 5%; and blacks, 1%.

Ten years later, the U.S. Census again revealed a consistent demographic transformation. Minority groups outpaced Caucasians in population growth. Some areas of heavily entrenched Latino residents, such as the Westside, showed signs of becoming more "Latinized," not only in their cultural characteristics but also in their economics.

As a result, local businesses began to cater to Latino markets. Out of the 96,357 counted by the 1990 Census, 19,319 said they were Hispanic; 6,318, Asians or Pacific Islanders; 1,282, blacks; whereas whites amounted to 69,493, or about 72% of the total population — a reduction of nearly 10% compared with the previous census.

As early as 2000, Costa Mesa experienced a bold political wave due to the economic and demographic transformation of previous years. A new generation of actors entered the political scene. They were concerned about a growing number of blighted areas on the Westside.

Mayor Allan Mansoor's arrival at City Hall can be attributed to this new wave. He was first elected in 2002, although his activism in politics dates back to 2000, when an alleged noisy lunch truck broke his neighborhood peacefulness with loud Mexican tones.

For the last eight years, he has been instrumental in turning Costa Mesa into an anti-immigrant city, and has become the poster boy of a new breed of activists pushing for more restrictions on undocumented immigrants.

Recently he pushed a "Rule of Law" ordinance through the City Council to ensure Costa Mesa's ceremonious anti-illegal immigrant stance. His plan to require local businesses to use E-Verify for new hires is pending.

Mansoor now wants to represent the 68th Assembly District in Sacramento. In difficult economic times, voters in this district may want to ask residents in Costa Mesa whether their economic well-being is better off than it was 10 years ago. More likely, they will say "no."

HUMBERTO CASPA, a former longtime resident of Costa Mesa's Westside, lives in Irvine.

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