As a downtown resident, I have strong opinions about Plan Santa Barbara, the city blueprint for the next generation. I read the preliminary documents a year or so ago and submitted my comments.
Since then, I’ve written random, anonymous blog posts in the face of withering criticism from other anonymous posters. I see my ideas labeled as dangerous and something that will destroy the city and ruin what we all love about it. I’ve come to think it’s because of my culture. That’s right—cultural insensitivity in S.B.!
I believe that there are significant cultural differences between those living in the city core and those living in the suburbs or neighborhoods away from downtown. We have a different culture down here. I think the Plan should celebrate the differences, not ignore them and certainly not impose our downtown culture on others or vice versa. There are lots of examples.
Take for instance city services. In the core, we need city government for many things. Anyone who thinks density reduces per-capita service requirements has never lived really close to a bunch of strangers. Our houses are small, our yard may actually be a balcony, and we may push our dirty laundry down the street to the laundromat. In the city center, a morning alarm clock can be enjoyed by many.
Ours is a culture of personal closeness. Ours is a culture of incredible diversity in age, income, ethnicity, and mental health. Someone walks, rides, drives, or pushes their cart within 25 feet of my front door every 10 seconds for 18 hours a day. Things happen. Interactions are constant.
In the suburbs when you leave on vacation, you notify your neighbors. Downtown you try to slip out without anyone noticing you packing the car. On holidays many suburban homes are crowded with family coming back to celebrate. Down here, it’s a ghost town and parking is never easier.
In the suburbs people may “commute” by bike, but downtown we simply ride to work, probably without a helmet. And downtown we all keep our eye out for our last bike that was stolen from our porch.
As a kid living in the country, I used to make money mowing or doing small projects for the neighbors. Since I’ve been living downtown, the neighborhood kids have painted my fence numerous times without asking for anything. They’ve also painted my tree and a white truck parked out front.
Suburban tough-guys will rant about what they’d do about gangs and illegal immigrants. Downtown I greet them all with a smile and a pleasant hello. They are, after all, my neighbors.
People speed through my neighborhood and probably don’t even notice the many “Slow Down Santa Barbara” signs. People get killed crossing the street in my neighborhood. People get killed for other reasons too.
Downtown we love living near a bus stop and I’ve never heard anyone in my neighborhood complain about the “empty buses.” Downtown we walk to eat and shop and go to the theater, or to the grocery or to a friend’s house. In the suburbs, people may go for a walk, but then get in the car to “run errands.” I say there is a cultural difference between running errands and walking them.
Like a lot of people in the area, we enjoy the many fine restaurants and clubs downtown, but I can’t remember the last time I had a designated driver other than Francisco at Ocean Cab. I’ve walked back to get my car many, many Saturday mornings. I live downtown and downtown is my home—with 50 kitchens.
In most neighborhoods, the mere mention of a Housing Authority project would create a firestorm of opposition. Downtown we know they are a great landlord and their properties are wonderful and well maintained. They could buy all of lower De la Vina and I wouldn’t complain.
As the city’s budget has deteriorated, services have been reduced. Downtown, we feel the furlough. I bet no one out in San Roque or on the Riviera has felt anything. Our downtown culture depends on Parks and Rec, street sweeping, and someone to empty the trash cans. It depends on someone helping the homeless so that they don’t use our yards as a toilet. It depends on someone keeping the nightly bar-closing ritual under control.
Plan Santa Barbara anticipates even more density in the city core. I applaud that, but only if it comes with a recognition of the services that go with it. If we recognize the issues that come with density, maybe we might even be able to sell some of the many brand-new, but empty, condos down here. I look forward to meeting those new neighbors.
Brian Fahnestock is a resident of Santa Barbara’s downtown.