TRUTH, BEAUTY, AND THE STREETS OF S.B.: Despite multiple allegations to the contrary, perception ain’t necessarily reality, and what you see ain’t necessarily what you get. I bring up this metaphysical intrusion in self-defense after having attended so many City Council candidates’ forums in which downtown Santa Barbara is described in terms that call to mind scenes from The Walking Dead or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In the constricted cocoon of these forums, the debate often comes down to whether we’re under siege by “criminal vagrants” or “vagrant criminals.” In either case, they’re leaping into our hotel swimming pools en masse, leaving behind large deposits of human excrement, and otherwise chasing well-heeled visitors — and their much-needed tourist dollars — out of town. These forums tend to take place in large cavernous rooms with no windows. When I leave, I am always shocked not to encounter obnoxious, aggressive panhandlers with signs reading “Will Work for Brains.” Instead, I see streets teeming with people. Young women in short shorts and cowboy boots. Young men wearing expensive, thin T-shirts, glorying in their well-defined triceps. A fixie hipster sucking down a cigarette like he was Jean-Paul Belmondo. Happy parents pushing strollers. Screaming babies. Designer dogs yapping up a storm. Cyclists with bowling-ball butts riding bikes that cost more than most cars. Shopping bags on parade. And most wonderfully, throngs of people surrounding all the painted pianos sprinkled by gods unseen all over downtown, filling the air with tunes once known plunked out by rusty hands. Our efforts at public art have not always been successful, but the pianos are nothing short of magic.
But then I remember everything I heard inside. Where are all the tumbleweeds, I wonder, rolling through our dead downtown? Where is the Mad Max universe I’d been warned about? All this cognitive dissonance, of course, brings to mind Yogi Berra’s old line: “Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded.”
First, let me say what I’m not saying. I’m not saying there are not obnoxious belligerent people downtown asking for spare change. There are. There are packs of the young and the restless, usually accompanied by dogs, who don’t feel they’ve put in a full day’s work unless they’ve made every passerby a little uncomfortable. And sometimes, more than a little. But the vast majority of Santa Barbara street people — and yes, it is a growing population — are exceptionally polite and well behaved. Yes, they are here. But guess what? They are everywhere. Have you visited San Francisco lately? About the only place on the planet you won’t find them is Catalina Island. Otherwise, welcome to the human race. Do we really need to hire 20 more cops at a cost of $150,000 per cop per year — as some candidates have suggested — to protect our visitors from potentially surly encounters with the unwashed? And to put them in a jail in which there’s absolutely no room? More to the point, is it really true that tourists are fleeing Santa Barbara in droves never to return because of unhappy encounters with the unmannered and un-scrubbed? No doubt there are instances where this is the case. It’s true that on rare occasions, Santa Barbara Independent employees have been greeted by a pile of human feces by the office’s back doorway. But how do I reconcile this reality with the fact that the city’s bed taxes — the fee extracted from our hotel and motel guests for putting head to pillow — has gone up month after month after month?
I checked in with the organization that until recently was known as the Santa Barbara Conference & Visitors Bureau and Film Commission — and now has a new name that I can’t remember, even having written about it. It turns out that Santa Barbara has been experiencing a 2 percent increase in the number of overnight visitors this year. That’s good but hardly great. But here’s the interesting thing: Hotel and motel owners are charging them more for the privilege — in fact, 7.4 percent more. Admittedly I never passed logic, but the fact that rates are going up so much faster than demand suggests that Santa Barbara is seen as a very desirable location. Likewise, the fact that no less than 22 cruise ships have decided that Santa Barbara is a cool spot to dump their passengers for a day of sightseeing and barhopping also indicates we may not quite be the Black Hole of Calcutta.
It’s worth noting that the Conference & Visitors Bureau conducted a couple of visitor surveys this past year to see what people actually thought about their time here. In one survey, they managed to get 356 people to fill out a lengthy questionnaire that, among other things, included the open-ended question about what they liked least about their stay. It is a fact that 7.5 percent of the respondents listed the homeless. As this info becomes more widely known, it will no doubt be deployed to argue the need for greater expenditures on law enforcement. But let’s get some perspective. The number one issue listed by visitors as their least favorite experience — named by 24.8 percent of respondents — was traffic. Another 18.3 percent complained that Santa Barbara was too expensive, and 12.8 percent said nothing. Parking was cited as Public Enemy Number One by 9.5 percent.
Parking and traffic, it must be acknowledged, also generate a lot of attention during the campaign forums. But on the passion meter, they do not achieve anything like the full-bodied tumescence generated by the homeless. When it appeared the State of California was going to force City Hall to sell off its downtown parking garages — as part of the statewide dissolution of redevelopment agencies — Mayor Helene Schneider led a delegation of high-ranking city officials to Sacramento on a well-mannered jihad. In the end, City Hall prevailed. Likewise, Schneider recently went to Sacramento to meet with a representative of Governor Jerry Brown, the head of Caltrans, and the head of the state’s new Department of Transportation to convey how far she was willing to go — all the way, it turns out — if the freeway-widening plans for Highway 101 now under discussion aren’t changed to City Hall’s liking. Both displays of muscle were appropriate and impressive.
But since we’re in the season of empty promises and lip service, I’d like to hear some serious hot air expended on behalf of the mentally ill. To a very large extent, many of the walking wounded who make up the bed-roll brigades have serious mental illnesses. They do not belong in county jail. And to pay $150,000 a year so a city cop can bust them for illegal camping seems neither fiscally prudent nor a good use of that officer’s extensive training. Somewhere out in the universe of good ideas, there are better ways to handle this problem than the way we are now. If we spent one-tenth of the time we waste complaining about the homeless working on the mentally ill, maybe we’d get some place. No, City Hall cannot solve the problem by itself. Mental health is a county function. And the county is severely hamstrung in this regard by a host state rules, regulations, and funding issues that would drive anybody crazy. The problem is multi-jurisdictional, so any solution will have to be, as well. But I’d love to hear some of the blowhards now running for council huff and puff a little more about mental-health concerns. And really, I’d love to see Mayor Schneider — a masterful incrementalist — and the rest of the council avail themselves of the bully pulpit on this matter a little more. They’re not nearly so shy about climate change and a host of other issues that are equally global.
That being said, there’s a good reason nobody wants to take this on. There are no easy solutions. There may not even be any hard ones. No one running for office wants to appear ineffectual. No one in their right mind wants to piss up a rope, especially in public. I get it. But in this case, maybe true leadership entails taking a golden shower or two. It’s not just a good cause; it’s a necessary cause. If you want to stay dry, bring along an umbrella. In the meantime, the next time you walk down State Street, take a moment to stop and tickle the ivories, even if you don’t really play. No, especially if you don’t play.