Frank Mannix, assistant police chief for the City of Santa Barbara, announced Tuesday morning that his department would be seeking the removal of a sprawling brick street sculpture — Crescent Crossing — located on the 600 block of State Street in front of The Habit because it’s become a popular spot for younger, more aggressive street people to congregate. Mannix made his remarks at the monthly board meeting of the Downtown Organization.
The police have long contended that these younger street people — dubbed by some “travelers” or “young urban vagabonds” — are decidedly more volatile and confrontational in their attitude and have been the cause of stepped-up enforcement activities. About a month earlier, Officer Kasi Beutel — the downtown beat coordinator — and Councilmember Randy Rowse addressed the same concerns in front of the City Arts Commission, the organization that had the art piece that doubles as a public bench installed in 2003.
“The vibe is definitely ‘You got it, and I want it,’” said Rowse, former head of the Downtown Organization and owner of a popular downtown restaurant. The sculpture — originally intended to serve as a public bench for the MTD downtown shuttle — acts as a pinch point, Rowse said, forcing pedestrians and passersby to “have to get closer to people they’d rather not get close to.” Compounding the issue, he said, the crews occupying the brick bench are at times unruly and insulting and appear to delight in the discomfort they cause. “We don’t have enough cops to make sure everybody plays nice in the sandbox,” Rowse said. “We’re not going to enforce our way out of this.” His suggestion was that the piece be moved elsewhere, as was done a few years ago with some State Street benches.
County arts czar Ginny Brush said City Hall should exhaust all efforts to modify or change the urban art bench before removing it. “Removal of the bench should be the last resort,” she said. Brush suggested that it could be cordoned off or have planter boxes installed on it. Others have suggested that the bench could use a good cleaning, a process that could take time and keep the popular roosting spot off-limits to anyone for a while.
Brush noted that the art bench — an inviting, sprawling perch that mimics the brick sidewalks that were then being installed throughout downtown — has been a huge success. It was installed as part of a wholesale change of street furniture designed to make downtown a more open and inviting pedestrian experience. The art bench — designed by noted Santa Barbara sculptor Donald W. Davis — replaced a forbidding tile planter box about four feet high that blocked sight lines and impeded a sense of shared open space.
“Isn’t that shoving the problem under the rug?” he asked. “Doesn’t that become someone else’s problem two doors down?”
Davis termed the proposal to remove his bench “preposterous,” and vowed to fight it. “Isn’t that shoving the problem under the rug?” he asked. “Doesn’t that become someone else’s problem two doors down?” Davis said the money required to move his work would be better spent dealing with the actual problem.
Until two years ago, the Davis bench had functioned effectively as a place for shuttle riders to wait. But since successive waves of young “travelers” have claimed that spot, MTD drivers no longer use it as a place for passengers to get on or off. The bench clearly occupies a high-traffic zone, located close to the entrance of Parking Lot 10 and even closer to The Habit, with its loud and bustling outdoor lunch crowd. According to police statistics, the 600 block of State Street has generated 312 police contacts in the past year. Only the 500 block of State Street — which boasts considerably more bars and nightclubs — has more. By contrast, the 800 block — popular with an older, frailer, less belligerent homeless population — generated only 139.
Last week, the police department issued three press releases highlighting violent offenses associated with the crowd congregating near The Habit. One detailed how Trevor Ruggles panhandled passersby on the 500 block of State Street while tossing a 22-inch machete into the air. “Give me your (expletive) money,” the press release quoted Ruggles saying to witnesses. The day before, a 32-year-old transient was booked for felony assault after beating another street person — on the 600 block of State Street — over the head with a guitar neck with sufficient force “to cause the tuning machines attached to headstock to break off.” And the same day, the owner of a store on the 700 block was punched in the face by a younger street person after coming to the aid of two young women who sought the owner’s help from the assailant.
Brush acknowledged there’s an aggressive, intimidating vibe from the people now claiming the bench, but she suggested “that energy will only bubble up somewhere else” if the bench were removed. The public review process for installing public art is very careful and deliberative, she noted. So too, she added, is the process of having a piece removed or altered. And according to state and federal law, any changes to the piece would have to be approved by the artist.