Rich Appelbaum: Creating the Future

Or, How to Make Waves and Still Accomplish Stuff

Richard Appelbaum
Photo Credit: Paul Wellman (file)
By

Rich Appelbaum may be the most influential Santa Barbaran whom most people have never heard of. Certainly, his fingerprints are all over not just the South Coast’s political landscape but the actual streetscape itself. A quintessential activist-academic, Appelbaum — who recently announced his retirement as a sociology professor from UCSB — was a major contributor to the now-famous Impacts of Growth study, written in the 1970s, which functioned as the equivalent of the Ten Commandments for environmental activists then coming of age and seizing the reins of political power. Likewise Appelbaum’s work would have a profound effect on how State Street would evolve.

Were it not for his political opposition to a freestanding Bullock's department store — proposed in 1983 for the intersection of Victoria and State streets — there likely would be no Paseo Nuevo today. Unlike many eco-minded slow-growthers, Appelbaum was equally focused on issues of economic justice. His studies on rent control seem once again urgently interesting, given the South Coast’s astronomical rents. Indirectly, his studies on homelessness — now almost 30 years old — gave rise to a core group of homeless organizers who, over the years, played a defining role in shaping the course of public debate. Since then, Appelbaum has shifted his focus to international labor and sweatshop working conditions and, more recently, to preparing graduate students on how to effectively run nongovernmental organizations operating in less-than-third-world circumstances.

When Appelbaum isn’t busy struggling to save the world from itself, he and his family while away the hours climbing mountains or riding their bikes up Santa Barbara’s steep, scenic, forbidding Gibraltar Road. All this he manages to do with an utterly deceptive “Look, ma, no hands” casualness. Santa Barbara Independent editor Nick Welsh bombarded Appelbaum, via email, with more questions than anyone should ever have to answer. Their exchange follows, as does The Budding of a Radical. Rich Appelbaum | The Early Years, a short film by videographers Phyllis de Picciotto and Stan Roden about the professor's formative years.

We first met during the Bullock's battle. In hindsight, what do you think that accomplished?

The Bullock's project was a bad idea from the start. It would have used redevelopment money to put a single department store in a part of Santa Barbara that clearly was not in need of redevelopment. And of course, apart from that, it brought on the wrath of Penny and Terry Davies and the loyal clientele of the Earthling Bookshop.

Perhaps some of The Independent’s readers are old enough to recall that once upon a time — this was, of course, before Amazon — there were these places called bookstores, where people could go, hang out in front of a fireplace, and actually read physical books — and sometimes even buy them. The Earthling was a Santa Barbara hangout, and no one wanted to see public money go to put up a department store in its place. I mean no one.

Ben Bycel ran the campaign, John Davies did the media part (this was before John went over to the Dark Side), and I did the research. It was a tough sell: We took on the mayor, City Council, and the Redevelopment Agency, and we forced a referendum on Measure D, which was a pro-Bullock's measure. (A campaign whose slogans included “No on Measure D Means No on Bullock's” is clearly fighting an uphill battle!) We had a live televised debate, and we hosted a public design charrette, where people came and fantasized, with paper and models, what they would like the downtown to look like. We brought one of the Nordstroms to town to look over the lower part of State Street, which was struggling economically. (You can see where this is going!) We won the referendum hands down — something like 58 percent against.

We showed that a small group of people, on a popular (and essentially no-growth) issue, could prevail at the ballot box in Santa Barbara, even against elected (and essentially popular) elected officials. A victory for democracy in action! We brought a Nordstrom to town, and — while I can’t attest that this resulted in Nordstrom anchoring the Paseo Nuevo — I like to imagine that it at least whetted the family’s appetite. And I learned a great deal about how redevelopment and tax increment funding works — including the fact that the entire downtown of Santa Barbara, roughly everything south of Victoria or even Micheltorena, west to the freeway, and east probably to Milpas Street — was defined as “blighted.” It was a scam that we were able to use effectively to derail the project. I also learned, once again, not to believe doomsday pronouncements (the powers that be constantly claimed that Santa Barbara was doomed if Bullock's didn’t come to town).

What do you think of Santa Barbara's downtown now? The anti-Bullock's cause seemed to promote an anti-chain-store attitude, but was it inevitable that downtown would be taken over by the chains? Have many cities our size managed things differently?

I had visited other cities that had done redevelopment around Bullock's as part of my research — again, this was nearly four decades ago! One was Walnut Creek, where we were told that anchoring the downtown around a mall (Broadway Plaza dated to 1951; Bullock's opened in 1975) had resulted in little or no effect on areas a few blocks away.

I actually think Santa Barbara’s downtown today is pretty vibrant, as the boosters like to say. Paseo Nuevo may be full of chain stores, but hell, it has a nice Christmas tree and carolers this time of year, good parking, a four-plex cinema (I loved Wild!), and seems to be bustling with activity year-round. Whether it has somehow saved the rest of State Street, I can’t say, but there seem to be plenty of local places still running downtown: Joe's is still thriving; there are clubs where bands from locker rockers to the Foo Fighters have played; there is a weekly farmers market, where they actually close the street on Tuesday afternoon; REI and the rock sport climbing gym are thriving (the latter is the best thing to happen in Santa Barbara since Bullock's was defeated!); and we now have the Funk Zone. Could it be any better?

Oh — did I mention that I hardly ever go downtown, except to REI and the Rock Gym? So this is all based on drive-bys and hearsay.

So without the Davies and The Earthling, there's no reason to go downtown?

I loved working with them. Actually — again with Ben Bycel and John Davies — I helped run Terry’s unsuccessful bid for mayor against Sheila Lodge. Terry was pretty much a Libertarian, so our collaboration proved — well, interesting. One of our major accomplishments was to snag Fess Parker to do a pro-Terry TV spot. (Sheila and the City Council had incurred the Wrath of Fess over his proposed beachfront hotel, now the DoubleTree.)

I should perhaps mention that Ben and I teamed up once again in favor of that hotel, when — once all approvals had been granted and the major environmental groups were on board — those still opposed forced a referendum. Under the slogan “If Selma Says It's Right, It Must Be Right” [referring to Selma Rubin], Fess Parker’s hotel project handily won the referendum, possibly the only pro-growth vote in the city in the past 40 years.

You were among the crew who established Santa Barbara's 85,000 population limit — the 11th Commandment in some camps. How big a deal was that?

The Impacts of Growth study was a very, very big deal. The efforts of the newly formed Citizens’ Coalition (a group of progressive, environmentally minded people that I believe originated in Dick and Mickey Flacks’s living room on Brenner Drive) had resulted in the election of a slate of four environmentally oriented candidates to the City Council, which briefly tipped the vote 4-3 in favor of controlled growth. (It tipped back after the next election, as I recall, then tipped once again, this time pretty much for good.)

The City Council had called for a study of the impacts of growth. The standard approach was to project out past trends, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy requiring public officials to accommodate to the prediction. Harvey Molotch [like Appelbaum, a UCSB sociology professor at the time] would have none of this, and created a team of five: Harvey, myself, Paul Relis, Jennifer Bigelow, and Henry Kramer. (Henry worked at Mission Research, which gave us access to the most advanced computing of the day: some giant machine that had an appetite for punched tape, which we fed it daily). Our strategy was to argue “growth is not inevitable; it should be the result of policy decisions, not past trends.” Or, like the title of a talk I gave when I received UCSB’s Plous Award: The Future Is Made, not Predicted.

We identified seven different "population impact point" scenarios (PIPs for short): no growth (the city’s population at the time was 73,132); making permanent the temporary half-density ordinance that the city had adopted pending the outcome of the study (117,486); full build-out to the maximum permitted by the General Plan (139,720) or zoning (170,039); and probable build-out — given terrain, existing structures, etc. — for the half-density ordinance (93,555), General Plan (103,444) and zoning (119,460).

We got the contract in part, I suspect, because we were very cheap ($47,000). With the exception of Jennifer — who had no other employment at the time and ran the project full-time and so was paid a modest salary — the four of us received modest stipends (as I recall, $2,000 each) for what became virtually around-the-clock work. We were housed on the second or third floor of the Balboa Building (for free — Bob Klausner had bought the building and supported our project), which was under renovation at the time; the walls between our work spaces consisted of open struts. Our Spartan offices did provide great views of the Fiesta Parade that year, however.

To make a long story short, we involved hundreds of people in what I now understand was an example of “participatory action research” — research whose goal is to make a difference, not only in terms of outcomes, but also in terms of “empowerment”: providing research participants with skills and knowledge that would enable (and encourage) them to become engaged activists long after the research was completed.

We had students and volunteers walking the city creek beds, doing coliform counts; researchers identifying neighborhoods, which enabled us to provide impact estimates for different PIPs at the neighborhood level (important for political reasons: people would want to know how their own neighborhoods would be affected by different growth scenarios — hence the Neighborhood Fact Book that accompanied the study); and people like Gerry DeWitt (at the time, a UCSB student), who reviewed all existing “scientific” studies of urban growth (Gerry summarized his conclusion succinctly: “Everybody builds on everybody’s nothing”), who went on to positions on City Council, planning commissions, etc.

We produced an insert summarizing our findings for the Santa Barbara New-Press, and held a packed public meeting presenting our findings at Fleischmann Auditorium, as well as at City Council (where the presentation was introduced by Dame Judith Anderson, who read the poem by John Galsworthy that prefaced our findings: “San Ysidro, tierra adorada … .”

The study of growth impacts had many impacts of its own. It led to a down-zoning, both commercial (the driver of growth) in the form of a city charter amendment, as I recall, and residential. It brought many young planners to Santa Barbara (or so many once-young planners have told me), since the study and city’s approaches were considered to be models — what today would be called “best practices”. It helped launch Paul Relis on his already nascent career as an important environmentalist and Jennifer Bigelow (now McGovern) as a provider of low-cost housing — she later headed up the Community Housing Corporation, which built equity-controlled housing. And I think the study can take some credit for Santa Barbara remaining the paradise that it is: Condé Nast Traveler recently ranked it sixth among the 10 best small cities in America.

Looking back, is there anything you'd have done differently? Do you have concerns that efforts to limit growth effectively limited supply of housing — making it that much more expensive — but still allowed enough commercial development to increase demand?

We argued at the time that to be effective, two conditions had to be met: Growth control had to be region-wide (i.e., the entire South Coast), and it had to focus on controlling commercial expansion rather than limiting housing expansion. Needless to say both of these have been harder to achieve. Limiting housing is relatively easy (you down-zone); limiting commercial expansion — especially on a region-wide basis — not so easy.

Years ago, when I was more focused on housing, rent control, and homelessness, I did some research on comparable California coastal communities (some with growth controls, some without) and found that housing costs were uniformly high in all cases. Still, it is clear that many of the people who work in Santa Barbara are priced out of the local housing market, particularly as homeowners. All you need to do is drive south at 5 p.m. on a workday to appreciate how serious a problem this is. I would say that growth control in Santa Barbara has had mixed results — it has preserved the local quality of life, but contributed, in part, to higher housing costs. Perhaps smart growth can pave the way to a better solution.

Do your sympathies lie with the smart growth crowd, who want alt transit and high densities?

I no longer stay current on this, so I can’t really weigh in with any authority. My instinct is to favor smart growth; after all, many European cities (at least their downtowns) thrive as a result, and Mickey Flacks favors it (“If Mickey says it's right, it must be right!”).

When you came to Santa Barbara back in 1971, a commie pinko world changer, what was your first impression of the town?

I chose UCSB over other job offers for several reasons: It had the largest number of sunny days each year (having lived all my life in the East and Midwest, I was California dreaming); the department was known to be progressive and cutting-edge (after all, it had just hired SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] founder Dick Flacks, from whom I had taken a course on social movements while getting my PhD at the University of Chicago); there was lots of radical activity (the burning of Isla Vista's Bank of America had received nationwide coverage); and — as one of my colleagues at Northwestern, where I was teaching, had put it — Santa Barbara itself was an “ecological climax,” a flowering place where everything would grow.

My first impression: The traffic lights on State Street were turned off at night.

The issue of homelessness was one of your early studies. Way back when, the explanation was that Ronald Reagan created the problem when he shut down the mental institutions. But that was forever ago, and they keep on coming.

I became involved — mainly during the Reagan era — partly because homelessness, by definition, involves lack of housing, a topic I knew something about. The immediate prompt occurred when I was contacted by Mitch Snyder, a nationally known advocate for the homeless who had gained popularity (some would say notoriety) when his organization — the Community for Creative Nonviolence (CCNV) — took over a large empty federal building in Washington, D.C., and turned it into a shelter for 1,400 homeless people. Mitch was also known for going on long hunger fasts to keep the homeless from being evicted from the shelter.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had just issued a study downsizing the homeless population from one million — Mitch’s estimate in Homelessness in America: A Forced March to Nowhere, the book he co-authored with Mary Ellen Hombs — to under 350,000. Mitch asked if I would examine the study and find out what was wrong with it. I testified twice before a Congressional Committee (jointly chaired by Barney Frank and Henry Gonzalez). The first time, I explained the HUD methodology was wrong. They had divided downtown homeless populations, estimated by imprecise surveys, by the population of the entire surrounding metropolitan areas; they had assumed there were no homeless outside of the downtown areas. The second time I testified, Mitch had obtained the raw questionnaires used in the study under the Freedom of Information Act, and I was able to point to marginal notations that showed how bogus the study was. Whether this had any effect on national policy I can’t say; I did note that the HUD figures were seldom used.

I did make homelessness a big part of my Sociology 1 lectures, volunteered one night at Transition House, and helped organize a conference on the topic at George Washington University, but my involvement was mainly as a researcher not an activist.

Way back in the day, you had something called The Das Institute. What was it and does it bear on Das Williams's name?

Long story, but here’s the short version. When I arrived at UCSB in the fall of 1971, I noticed that some of my colleagues had impressive signs outside their offices, embossed with heady inscriptions like “Sociolinguistics Laboratory.” Since I was an aspiring Marxist-pinko-critical theorist, I decided I wanted to have my own sign — something that said Institute for Critical Studies. In German. So I went to the German Department (needless to say, I speak no German) and was told that it is Das Institut für Kritische Giesteswissenschaften. I had a paper sign made up using old German press type and pasted it to my door.

I then decided I wanted to start a program in critical theory within UCSB, but Dick Flacks discouraged me, pointing out that it would be an uphill battle, divert my energies, and not therefore help my tenure prospects. So I came up with even riskier idea: start one off campus. I began meeting with Phil Seymour and the people who worked with him at the Marxist-pinko Homefront Bookstore, and it turned out that the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity house, at the corner of Embarcadero del Norte and Picasso in Isla Vista, was vacant. So we rented it, and 18 of us moved in for the 1972-3 academic year — one professor (me), eight grad students (I think all from sociology), nine people from the Homefront Bookstore (including Phil).

For a year we hosted alternative classes ranging from women’s self-defense to the European Council Communism of the early 20th century, organized demonstrations, and engaged in weekly self-criticism sessions, in which I learned that we men (half of the 18 were women) were slobs (true). We had many debates about what to call our commune, but The Das Institute — which had been a placeholder — eventually prevailed and was proclaimed on a sign that hung proudly where the Sigma Phi Epsilon sign now hangs. The Das (literally, “The The”) lasted a year, after which I think all of us had had enough of communal living to last a lifetime. It was then occupied by the community theater group, and now, once again, houses the fraternity.

One lasting memory: The following year the world’s most celebrated critical theorist, Jürgen Habermas (who certainly did speak German), came to UCSB as a regents lecturer, and I — as his host — took him to see Das Institute. His only comment: “The kitchen is very dirty.” Our female communards beat him to the punch with that particular insight.

You teamed up with Paul Orfalea and Mark Juergensmeyer to create a graduate program for people seeking a career in community nonprofits. Where have your students ended up and what kind of footprints they have left?

The MA Program in Global & International Studies (MAGIS for short) was something I had been pushing for since the early 1980s. When Mark joined the UCSB faculty, he and I pushed together. The first result was the Global & International Studies Program, which soon acquired an undergraduate degree in Global Studies (there are now 1,300 majors). The MA degree, which was to produce scholar-practitioners, remained elusive — until Mark befriended Paul, who had been teaching an undergrad Global course in business practices every quarter. Paul promised a generous endowment if we could get proposal approved within nine months or so. I took the lead on the proposal, the chancellor went to bat for us, and the rest is history. By now we have graduated more than a hundred students. When I last looked at it (two years ago), our students have populated nongovernmental organizations from Direct Relief to the Clinton Global Initiative; business groups like Google, The Gap, and the Royal Bank of Canada; become academics at universities in California, New York, and around the world; worked for the government at the DOD; and taken advanced degrees here, at Harvard, Leipzig, and probably more by now.

What's the coolest thing about students today? The most frustrating?

The students in Global Studies (GS) are terrific. The undergrads are motivated as global citizens. Our GS major, for example, sends more students on Education Abroad’s year-long study program than any other department in the entire UC system — one reason why UCSB occupied top place in this category. I love teaching Global 2 (intro to global studies politics and economics), and I asked to be recalled for one quarter each of the next four years so I could teach it. I find young people challenging, stimulating, and activist. UCSB has one of the most active United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) chapters anywhere. I have used undergrads (and of course grad students) to do research on labor issues, some of which has been published by the Center for American Progress. Hanging out with young people and the many grad students I work with in Soc, Global, and the Center for Nanotechnology in Society, who are not yet jaded, gives me hope. It also challenges me at the Rock Gym.

Now that you're retired, what lake would you most like to jump into?

Labor issues. UCSB labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein and I are currently editing a book on global labor that grew out of a conference we cohosted at the Rockefeller Center in Bellagio, Italy, in the fall of 2013; we are also writing a book on the topic. I just returned from Bangladesh, where fires and building collapses have claimed the lives of some 2,000 apparel workers over the last decade. My retirement energies will largely go into doing research and providing whatever assistance I can to the global struggle for workers’ rights. I chair the Advisory Council of the Worker Rights Consortium, which is playing a lead role in these efforts. And I plan to continue working with students on this topic.

Most important question: What kind of bike are you riding these days, and how often do you do it?

Trek Domane, electronic shifters and all. Last year I did five centuries (including the nightmare Santa Barbara Century, with its 9,500 feet of climbing); Karen (Shapiro, my wife) and I ride pretty much every day up Gibraltar Road. Every summer we try to do a bike tour; summer 2013 it was Slovenia. Last summer we were in Bellagio, where we rented bikes and pedaled up endless switchbacks in the mountains above Lake Como to the Shrine of the Madonna del Ghisallo, the patron saint of — yes! — bicyclists.

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