Barking Up the Wrong Tree

ENDZ OF ODD: Drat! I was hoping we’d at least get a moat out of the deal — one preferably stocked with piranhas, too. But it turns out the illegal fence the News-Press erected in front of its Anacapa Street parking lot will probably be coming down soon. This Monday, city planning czar Paul Casey issued a terse “tear down that wall” note to News-Press mogul Wendy P. McCaw and her ever-smiling paramour Arthur von Wiesenberger, noting the fence in question required not just a permit but special dispensation from the Pope, given the paper occupies hallowed ground within Santa Barbara’s esthetically sanctified El Pueblo Viejo district where even the wrong shade of white paint can get you in hot water. For those of us who find the News-Press melodrama even more riveting than the recent hoo-ha over Mary Worth — the only genuine Santa Barbara-based comic strip I know of — the illegal erection of the fence (did I mention it was against the law?) triggered a thermonuclear chain reaction of rank speculation, gossip, and innuendo.

To my jaundiced eyes, the fence seemed the perfect architectural accent note to express the grim and brooding misanthropic spirit wafting out of that historic structure on De la Guerra Plaza under the McCaw regime. I was betting she’d regard her right to erect an illegal fence as a deeply held philosophical principle and refuse to comply with Casey’s cease-and-desist order, thus precipitating a showdown standoff that would eclipse even the Iranian hostage crisis. (Look it up in Wikipedia!) My theory is the fence — which I’ve been told was initially intended to extend much further than it does — was McCaw’s way of saying “Screw you!” to the City Council for voting two weeks ago in favor of giving De la Guerra Plaza a dramatic face-lift. (People working at City Hall park their cars in the lot right next to the News-Press lot.) Specifically, the council voted to begin the public dreaming-and-scheming process to make the plaza — once the site of bear baiting and cock-fighting — all that it could be.

Included within these very general parameters is the distinct possibility the plaza could be declared off-limits to automobiles. Naturally this idea does not sit well with many of the businesses operating around the plaza’s perimeter. And it galls the heck out of the News-Press, whose advertisers and visitors have traditionally parked on the plaza by the building’s entrance. When the council considered this very idea a few years ago, the newspaper came out against it with a vengeance. But back then, people still cared what the News-Press thought, so the City Council tucked its collective tail between its collective legs and opted to look into a handful of minor but necessary engineering improvements. A menu of those minor options came before the council two weeks ago for review, and with the exception of Iya Falcone, the members opted to revisit the big-picture solutions to what ails the plaza.

As public spaces go, it seems pretty obvious De la Guerra Plaza is a hugely squandered opportunity. That being said, it probably doesn’t lie within City Hall’s grasp to fix what ails it. I mention this because people have been arguing about the plaza since about 1850. And I remember how 14 years ago the City Council totally botched plans to “revitalize” Storke Placita, that weird little in-between space connecting State Street to De la Guerra Plaza. Before they “fixed” it, the placita was a messy but lively space, anchored by the goofy and frequently vandalized statue of Spanish King Juan Carlos — a roosting spot for runaways, homeless people, passive-aggressive Hacky Sack players, panhandlers, pot smokers, and purveyors of street theater, intended and otherwise. But since the council got involved and “improved” it, the place has been a dead zone. Juan Carlos was removed in deference to critics upset with Spain’s genocidal impact on the Americas, and, for a while, there were plans to replace him with a statue of Saint Barbara (whose feast day is next Monday). I liked the idea. Santa Barbara suffers a notable dearth of Saint Barbara iconography, and most of us know precious little about the decidedly violent and somewhat kinky myths surrounding our city’s namesake, and even less about how that myth was embraced by African slaves brought to the New World, who previous worshipped the African deity Shango.

It’s all cool stuff, but because a few people worried this might blur the line between church and state, the statue idea was deep-sixed, but not before a comically overwrought pedestal had been built and installed in the placita. For a brief while, the pedestal became the proud perch for an ornamental bowling ball. For an even briefer period, a few brave dancers climbed the pedestal at lunch hour and shook their leotarded booties for lunchtime passersby. Eventually, the pedestal came down, at great cost to one and all. I still like the idea of Saint Barbara, who, until she was defrocked by the pope about 45 years ago, was prayed to by people facing imminent doom. Maybe she should be accompanied by a statue of Chief Yanonalit, to denote all the Chumash who were “saved” to death by Franciscan missionaries and the Spanish soldiers who settled this burg.

But hey, just because we’re doomed to fail doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to come up with a plan that works for De la Guerra Plaza. Who knows, we might get lucky. But in the meantime, I think someone should place a Saint Barbara statue in front of the News-Press’s illegal fence. In case you didn’t know, Saint Barbara is the patron saint for architects. That’s because she was martyred for installing a third window on her tower without obtaining the proper building permits. But putting a Saint Barbara statue there might make sense in other ways. The News-Press is certainly facing imminent doom, though at the hands of its owner. Given that all efforts to intervene have thus far been rebuffed, maybe divine intervention would help.

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