Kicking the Dog Down the Road

Hysteria over Worms in the Apple in the Garden of Eden

Thursday, October 24, 2013
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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.

Angry Poodle

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.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

It's like we don't understand the independence of the subliminal and the subconscious need for us to be sociably mixed up about what we see in the state of our community...
How else then could we explain why we understand how the Independent voters help get RINO and TEA PRTY politics elected by basically being turned into "walkers" that attend (in this reporter's words) zombie apocalypse prep rallies.
Happy Halloween! Hope you got your safe room installed...

touristunfriendly (anonymous profile)
October 24, 2013 at 11:26 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Yes, I have visited San Francisco lately! That's why I can see the future of life in Santa Barbara with the increased density being proposed by some and endorsed by the Indy. So, Nick, you are right that San Francisco is worse, at least for now.

Botany (anonymous profile)
October 24, 2013 at 1:32 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I agree with the Poodle ... the homeless/vagrant issue, while a serious one, has been inflated for political gain.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
October 26, 2013 at 12:25 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Nick, Helene's "impressive" muscle flex on the 101 project was a counter productive stunt that only served to impress her 1% er fan club from "common sense 101". Her pandering antics will result in a more expensive and worse 101 project for the city. Eventually Caltrans and SBCAG will grow tired of Schneider holding her breath like the spoiled child that she is and they will put in an ugly wider 101 and there is nothing that she can do about it. People are tired of Schneider ' s all hat no cattle rodeo side show. Do not be surprised by how many votes Scoles gets in the mayoral election.

Herschel_Greenspan (anonymous profile)
October 26, 2013 at 1:08 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Schneider's done considerable good for our city, but to state her Fwy 101 widening stance (and love of left-side on- and off-ramps) and antics in Sacramento to suit the Montecito 101 one-percenters' was "appropriate and impressive" misses the point, Nick. She will need those (very few) Montecito 101 moneybags for her next campaign for higher office. HG's got it on this one.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
October 26, 2013 at 1:26 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Why do you have the impression that people love these left-sided on and off-ramps? It's just a question of why change something at great expense that works and is safe just for the sake of conformity?

Botany (anonymous profile)
October 26, 2013 at 3:53 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The left hand off ramps may work now with two lanes, but it has been agreed years ago that US (not Santa Barbara or Montecito) 101 will be three lanes from the Ventura County border to Goleta with the third lane being a HOV lane. Anyone, except for a fool, wcan see that you cannot have a left hand off ramp comming from a HOV lane. However there is a cabal of well healed foolls that think that they can stop progress, good enginering and common sense. Unfortunately our mayor is now the paidmouthpiece for these folks.

Herschel_Greenspan (anonymous profile)
October 26, 2013 at 4:05 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Conformity is not the issue. It's safety.

The Highway 101 widening project is supposed to upgrade capacity to fill our needs until 2040. With an additional lane in both directions, higher traffic loads, and higher speeds due to less congestion, you have to re-analyze the safety of left-hand ramps.

A great example is the on-ramp at Sheffield. The ramp is uphill and most drivers there get on the freeway at a slow speed. That sometimes works because the freeway is also uphill and congested. But when that congestion clears after the new lane is added, the potential for accidents will increase greatly. The same situation existed at the old south-bound onramp on the left-side at Hot Springs. Good thing they got rid of that.

EastBeach (anonymous profile)
October 27, 2013 at 5:10 p.m. (Suggest removal)

As a driver, I find some degree of road conformity helpful, changing the location of that left lane ramp would be an ideal safety situation. But if given the choice between spending the money on that or education for example, I'd choose education, including financial aid.

If it's road construction jobs we seek, there are plenty of crumbling streets in our area and the highways in general.

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
October 27, 2013 at 6:11 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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