Mai Tai Museum?

Trust for Historic Preservation Buying Jimmy’s

In recent weeks Santa Barbara City Councilmember Roger Horton has seemed intent on giving out grants or loans in denominations of $500,000. A former board member with the Trust for Historic Preservation, Horton most recently spearheaded an effort to loan the trust $500,000 to help it buy Jimmy’s Oriental gardens—the once-popular restaurant and watering hole famous for its potent Mai Tais, among other things, that closed last summer—and convert the property at 126 Easy cannon Perdido Street into a museum. At Tuesday’s council meeting, Horton noted how City Hall had done much to honor the contributions made by residents of Spanish, Italian, and Mexican descent, but added, “We haven’t done much for our Chinese members to celebrate their heritage they have left here.” Joining Horton was councilmember Grant House, who noted, “Jimmy’s is one of the last historic places that gives us an opportunity to do that.”

When Jimmy’s went out of business last year because its owner Tommy Chung wanted to retire, many mourned its loss intensely. Chung put the property on the market for $3.1 million, but agreed to sell to the trust as a way of celebrating both the Chinatown that once flourished near Jimmy’s between the 1860s and 1921 and his own family’s role in that history. The council’s loan would complement a host of other grants put together by a potpourri of the city’s leading philanthropic institutions, and according to Horton would be paid back with interest after three years. But the problem for some councilmembers was the lack of any real detail as to what the trust would do with the property.

The details are sketchy. In the past, trust executive director Jarrell Jackman has suggested that perhaps the restaurant and bar could be re-opened, and that the operator would install Chinatown memorabilia and artifacts. The trust’s board president explained how the word museum “was too narrow a term,” and that a more apt description might be “interpretation.” Playing the role of quasi-reluctant skunk crashing a garden party, city councilmember Brian Barnwell declared, “I swear to God I don’t know what you’re going to do with it yet.” Barnwell noted that the Santa Barbara Historical Museum already had a standing exhibit dedicated to Santa Barbara’s Chinese history, observing, “I don’t see anyone beating a path to their door. To what degree will this do something new and necessary?”

Barnwell, who was among the mourners of Jimmy’s demise, added, “Jimmy’s is not Jimmy’s because of the structure. It was Jimmy’s because of what went on inside the structure. When it becomes a museum, the vitality that went on inside of Jimmy’s is gone.”

Adding a little electricity to the debate is the historic controversy that’s long attended the Trust for Historic Preservation. Started by Pearl Chase in 1967, the trust’s mission was to acquire, preserve, and recreate as much of the city’s original Spanish fortress—or Presidio—as possible. Working with the California Parks Department, the trust has been working slowly but surely over the decades to do just that. Critics have long complained the trust was intent in destroying what was a lively and authentic downtown commercial neighborhood and replacing it with a sprawling mausoleum extolling the city’s Spanish colonial antecedents at the considerable expense of other vibrant histories. During the 1970s and 1980s, critics of the trust—lead by former arts czar Patrick Davis and local historian Neil Graffy—hammered away at the trust and its expansionist plans.

Over time, the trust trimmed back its sails to some extent, and began to acknowledge and embrace the other layers of history that took place in that same part of town—including the Chinese and Japanese people who once made that neighborhood their home. Graffy submitted a letter to the councilmembers before this week’s meeting, chiding the trust’s performance when it came to preservation and asking pointed questions about who would run the museum and how.

In a telephone interview, Graffly wryly noted, “I have lots of artifacts and memorabilia. Why don’t they give me half a million dollars?” Adding an ironic twist to the recent developments, many of the trust’s most ardent met at Jimmy’s to hatch their strategic plans. And the front of Jimmy’s itself bears a plaque courtesy of E Campus Vitus, the group of guerilla historians who celebrate California’s gold rush past by mixing serious scholarship with generous doses of alcohol and gunpowder.

Mayor Marty Blum—who supported the loan—noted that she too used to be concerned that the trust might be trying to take over too much, likening it to the horror movie The Blob, in which the titular monster enveloped everything in its path. “Now I know the Blob has been contained. We have an agreement with the trust as to how far they can go,” she said. “Kind of like a fence around ‘The Blob’ that will hold it in.” Blum acknowledged the details were sketchy, but cautioned that the building needed to be secured now, and that the detailed plans would come later. She expressed confidence that with City Hall participation and oversight, the plans would be good.

On this score, Barnwell was not sanguine. “I’m kind of worried about this being unstoppable and turning this whole neighborhood into a state park,” he said. “I don’t see how adding a Chinese component will increase the vibrancy down there now.” But councilmember Das Williams said he liked the idea of histories that went beyond the elites and ruling classes. Williams described Chinatown in colorfully lurid terms—with its opium parlors and brothels—saying, “There’s something beautiful about seeing the underbelly of Santa Barbara.” He added, “It’s a part of our city’s heritage—not that Chinatown was always a seedy place.”

Councilmember Iya Falcone took to heart that so many of the community’s leading philanthropic institutions were backing the effort to secure Jimmy’s. “It makes me feel as through we’re proceeding as a community, not just two government entities,” she said, referring to the City of Santa Barbara and the State parks Department. Councilmember Helene Schneider wanted to make sure that the $500,000 loan would be repaid with interest, and that the Trust would not return a few years later asking that the loan be forgiven and transformed into an outright grant. She was assured this would not be the case. But without the loan, explained trust treasurer John Poucher, the Trust would lack the funds necessary to sustain its normal operations. Schneider, Williams, and Barnwell all expressed concern that the three apartments that are part of the deal—located behind and adjacent to Jimmy’s restaurant—be subject to some kind of affordability control in exchange for the city’s loan.

Ultimately, the plan is for City Hall to be paid back once the trust sells the land to State Parks, as it has done with all the Presidio related properties it has secured over the years. But some councilmembers were concerned that this arrangement was too loosey goosey, and that there were no assurances that City Hall would be paid back in the three year time frame the trust guaranteed. Poucher was aksed if there was anything in writing, even a handshake understanding, as to when the State would buy the land from the Trust, thus generating the funds necessary for the trust to pay the city back. “We have nothing in writing, Poucher said. “It doesn’t work that way with the state.”

Ultimately the council decided not to grant the loan outright, but to begin negotiations withy the trust do so. The matter will be back before the council after about 30 days for final action.

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