Barking Up the Wrong Tree

ENDZ OF ODD: Drat! I was hoping we’d at least
get a moat out of the deal — one preferably stocked with piranhas,
too. But it turns out the illegal fence the News-Press erected in
front of its Anacapa Street parking lot will probably be coming
down soon. This Monday, city planning czar Paul Casey issued a
terse “tear down that wall” note to News-Press mogul Wendy P. McCaw
and her ever-smiling paramour Arthur von Wiesenberger, noting the
fence in question required not just a permit but special
dispensation from the Pope, given the paper occupies hallowed
ground within Santa Barbara’s esthetically sanctified El Pueblo
Viejo district where even the wrong shade of white paint can get
you in hot water. For those of us who find the News-Press melodrama
even more riveting than the recent hoo-ha over Mary Worth — the
only genuine Santa Barbara-based comic strip I know of — the
illegal erection of the fence (did I mention it was against the
law?) triggered a thermonuclear chain reaction of rank speculation,
gossip, and innuendo.

To my jaundiced eyes, the fence seemed the perfect architectural
accent note to express the grim and brooding misanthropic spirit
wafting out of that historic structure on De la Guerra Plaza under
the McCaw regime. I was betting she’d regard her right to erect an
illegal fence as a deeply held philosophical principle and refuse
to comply with Casey’s cease-and-desist order, thus precipitating a
showdown standoff that would eclipse even the Iranian hostage
crisis. (Look it up in Wikipedia!) My theory is the fence — which
I’ve been told was initially intended to extend much further than
it does — was McCaw’s way of saying “Screw you!” to the City
Council for voting two weeks ago in favor of giving De la Guerra
Plaza a dramatic face-lift. (People working at City Hall park their
cars in the lot right next to the News-Press lot.) Specifically,
the council voted to begin the public dreaming-and-scheming process
to make the plaza — once the site of bear baiting and
cock-fighting — all that it could be.

Included within these very general parameters is the distinct
possibility the plaza could be declared off-limits to automobiles.
Naturally this idea does not sit well with many of the businesses
operating around the plaza’s perimeter. And it galls the heck out
of the News-Press, whose advertisers and visitors have
traditionally parked on the plaza by the building’s entrance. When
the council considered this very idea a few years ago, the
newspaper came out against it with a vengeance. But back then,
people still cared what the News-Press thought, so the City Council
tucked its collective tail between its collective legs and opted to
look into a handful of minor but necessary engineering
improvements. A menu of those minor options came before the council
two weeks ago for review, and with the exception of Iya Falcone,
the members opted to revisit the big-picture solutions to what ails
the plaza.

As public spaces go, it seems pretty obvious De la Guerra Plaza
is a hugely squandered opportunity. That being said, it probably
doesn’t lie within City Hall’s grasp to fix what ails it. I mention
this because people have been arguing about the plaza since about
1850. And I remember how 14 years ago the City Council totally
botched plans to “revitalize” Storke Placita, that weird little
in-between space connecting State Street to De la Guerra Plaza.
Before they “fixed” it, the placita was a messy but lively space,
anchored by the goofy and frequently vandalized statue of Spanish
King Juan Carlos — a roosting spot for runaways, homeless people,
passive-aggressive Hacky Sack players, panhandlers, pot smokers,
and purveyors of street theater, intended and otherwise. But since
the council got involved and “improved” it, the place has been a
dead zone. Juan Carlos was removed in deference to critics upset
with Spain’s genocidal impact on the Americas, and, for a while,
there were plans to replace him with a statue of Saint Barbara
(whose feast day is next Monday). I liked the idea. Santa Barbara
suffers a notable dearth of Saint Barbara iconography, and most of
us know precious little about the decidedly violent and somewhat
kinky myths surrounding our city’s namesake, and even less about
how that myth was embraced by African slaves brought to the New
World, who previous worshipped the African deity Shango.

It’s all cool stuff, but because a few people worried this might
blur the line between church and state, the statue idea was
deep-sixed, but not before a comically overwrought pedestal had
been built and installed in the placita. For a brief while, the
pedestal became the proud perch for an ornamental bowling ball. For
an even briefer period, a few brave dancers climbed the pedestal at
lunch hour and shook their leotarded booties for lunchtime
passersby. Eventually, the pedestal came down, at great cost to one
and all. I still like the idea of Saint Barbara, who, until she was
defrocked by the pope about 45 years ago, was prayed to by people
facing imminent doom. Maybe she should be accompanied by a statue
of Chief Yanonalit, to denote all the Chumash who were “saved” to
death by Franciscan missionaries and the Spanish soldiers who
settled this burg.

But hey, just because we’re doomed to fail doesn’t mean we
shouldn’t try to come up with a plan that works for De la Guerra
Plaza. Who knows, we might get lucky. But in the meantime, I think
someone should place a Saint Barbara statue in front of the
News-Press’s illegal fence. In case you didn’t know, Saint Barbara
is the patron saint for architects. That’s because she was martyred
for installing a third window on her tower without obtaining the
proper building permits. But putting a Saint Barbara statue there
might make sense in other ways. The News-Press is certainly facing
imminent doom, though at the hands of its owner. Given that all
efforts to intervene have thus far been rebuffed, maybe divine
intervention would help.

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