Ten years ago, the Funk Zone was a bohemian enclave where impoverished artists packed into makeshift studios a block from the beach. Second stories were hastily built without proper permits. Homeless people slept in alleyways. The plumbing was erratic.
Today, the rustic sign from the defunct Divers Den hangs like a slice of nostalgia at the refurbished Municipal Winemakers. The proliferation of wine tasting rooms — more than 10 new ones since 2009 — and recently opened craft beer spots — four of them — has overwhelmed surf shops and clothing stores already struggling to compete with the Internet.
The hair salons and so-called creative agencies that used to be quietly tucked into the back unit of the Anacapa Street building have been forced to relocate to the Eastside and upper State Street. The gritty old-school weights gym, Fisher Strength & Health, moved uptown. The Castagnola family’s fish market, once a hub for fishermen and consumers, is now a popular upscale restaurant — The Lark — where patrons sip crisp cocktails and munch on soft pretzels topped with bone marrow.
And it’s about to get trendier. This spring, new major developments — the recently opened MOXI, an experimental museum for families; La Entrada, a high-end resort; and Hotel Californian — all promise to bring more tourists swarming through the Funk Zone.
“We knew change was coming at some point,” said Jim O’Mahoney, a decades-long resident who is shutting the doors to his Santa Barbara Surfing Museum, “but they are doing all of it at the same time. It’s a big wham.”
Gentrification is a concern in any neighborhood, said Sherry Villanueva, who has opened five successful establishments — The Lark, Lucky Penny, Les Marchands, Loquita, and Helena Avenue Bakery — in a two-block radius in just four years. The “g-word,” as she put it, carries charged connotations, but “responsible development” has cleaned up the neighborhood. “Ten years ago, [the Funk Zone] was dilapidated,” she said. “Buildings were in disrepair,” and building codes were ignored.
Though much of the décor in her restaurants mimics a rustic, beaten-down look that might be described as blighted, Villanueva said it reflects the work of the area’s artists. Pointing to large light fixtures hanging from the Lark’s high ceilings, she said, “We made chandeliers out of chicken feeders! I didn’t make it cool,” she said. “The artists made it cool.”
Artists and old-timers did express some regret that only a “slice of bohemia” is left. But many were careful not to wail about the bygone “funkiness,” and most did not blame anyone for the rapid transformation.
“It’s the way things go nowadays,” said Max McDonald, who repairs and shapes surfboards with his son in a nondescript shop on Anacapa Street. “I’m just really blessed to still be here … I don’t drink wine, but it looks like fun. I’m a quarter French.”
Others have been grappling with how to evolve their businesses. “I definitely don’t want to open a trinket shop for tourists,” said Jason Feist, who owns J7 Surfboards. “We have a specific business. It’s recreation oriented. That’s what this area was designed for.”
In 2004, the neighborhood was rezoned from Hotel Related Commercial to Ocean Oriented Commercial, according to city planner Renee Brooke. That meant restaurants (and wine bars) no longer needed to be attached to a hotel to be permitted. “Wine tastings and beer tasting weren’t really popular in 2004,” she said. “That wasn’t really on our mind.”
Unlike places like Brooklyn, where gentrification drove up rental prices, the Funk Zone has experienced a “gentrification of uses,” according to land-use planner Chris Price. Price grew up in Santa Barbara in the 1970s, when the neighborhood functioned as a working waterfront. “I think the name of the district says it all: Ocean Related Commercial,” he said. “Grapes don’t grow at the beach.” Their only relationship to the ocean, he added, is the maritime climate’s influence on fields in the valley.
It is not uncommon to catch buzzed millennials meandering through the streets on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. The Urban Wine Trail has allowed Santa Barbara County labels to gain the exposure they lacked in the Santa Ynez Valley, Villanueva said. “Now it’s a place people want to visit,” she added. “They are not all 25. The roaming party gets a lot of attention, but that’s not the bulk of the visitors. This is where my friends come.” City cops say there has not been an increase in calls for service in the area, and drunk-in-public arrests are fewer than on the State Street corridor. They added, though, that the Funk Zone now sees more calls related to disturbances and traffic stops.
Though many people lament the parking, or the lack of it, Villanueva disagrees. The five public lots located at the Amtrak train station, Helena Avenue, Garden Street, the skate park and the waterfront are all within two blocks of one another and are never full, she said, even on Saturday nights. She swears she can always find a space. On Thursday, the city’s Planning Commission will take up changes to the entire city’s zoning code, and parking spaces required per square foot is one component.
Will all this development and sprucing up undermine the Funk Zone’s unique character? With the expanding culture of bicycling and Uber and Lyft, the neighborhood is becoming increasingly connected to the downtown corridor — from which it has long sought to differentiate itself. As for the neighborhood’s future, no one offered a firm prediction.
Sheila Lodge, a city planning commissioner who has long fought for slow growth policies, said she has been surprised to see wine and beer tasting take off. “I suppose there are clearly people who are wine connoisseurs,” she said. “I have a feeling not everyone down there is a connoisseur … It seems like a fad. I wonder what the new fad will be.”