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Mai Tai Museum?

Trust for Historic Preservation Buying Jimmy’s

In recent weeks Santa Barbara City Councilmember
Roger Horton has seemed intent on giving out grants or loans in
denominations of $500,000. A former board member with the Trust for Historic Preservation, Horton
most recently spearheaded an effort to loan the trust $500,000 to
help it buy Jimmy’s Oriental gardens—the once-popular restaurant
and watering hole famous for its potent Mai Tais, among other
things, that
closed last summer
—and convert the property at 126 Easy cannon
Perdido Street into a museum. At Tuesday’s council meeting, Horton
noted how City Hall had done much to honor the contributions made
by residents of Spanish, Italian, and Mexican descent, but added,
“We haven’t done much for our Chinese members to celebrate their
heritage they have left here.” Joining Horton was councilmember
Grant House, who noted, “Jimmy’s is one of the last historic places
that gives us an opportunity to do that.”

When Jimmy’s went out of business last year because its owner
Tommy Chung wanted to retire, many mourned its loss intensely.
Chung put the property on the market for $3.1 million, but agreed
to sell to the trust as a way of celebrating both the Chinatown
that once flourished near Jimmy’s between the 1860s and 1921 and
his own family’s role in that history. The council’s loan would
complement a host of other grants put together by a potpourri of
the city’s leading philanthropic institutions, and according to
Horton would be paid back with interest after three years. But the
problem for some councilmembers was the lack of any real detail as
to what the trust would do with the property.

The details are sketchy. In the past, trust executive director
Jarrell Jackman has suggested that perhaps the restaurant and bar
could be re-opened, and that the operator would install Chinatown
memorabilia and artifacts. The trust’s board president explained
how the word museum “was too narrow a term,” and that a more apt
description might be “interpretation.” Playing the role of
quasi-reluctant skunk crashing a garden party, city councilmember
Brian Barnwell declared, “I swear to God I don’t know what you’re
going to do with it yet.” Barnwell noted that the Santa Barbara
Historical Museum already had a standing exhibit dedicated to Santa
Barbara’s Chinese history, observing, “I don’t see anyone beating a
path to their door. To what degree will this do something new and
necessary?”

Barnwell, who was among the mourners of Jimmy’s demise, added,
“Jimmy’s is not Jimmy’s because of the structure. It was Jimmy’s
because of what went on inside the structure. When it becomes a
museum, the vitality that went on inside of Jimmy’s is gone.”

Adding a little electricity to the debate is the historic
controversy that’s long attended the Trust for Historic
Preservation. Started by Pearl Chase in 1967, the trust’s mission
was to acquire, preserve, and recreate as much of the city’s
original Spanish fortress—or Presidio—as possible. Working with the
California Parks Department, the trust has been working slowly but
surely over the decades to do just that.
Critics have long complained the trust was intent in destroying
what was a lively and authentic downtown commercial neighborhood
and replacing it with a sprawling mausoleum extolling the city’s
Spanish colonial antecedents at the considerable expense of other
vibrant histories. During the 1970s and 1980s, critics of the
trust—lead by former arts czar Patrick Davis and local historian
Neil Graffy—hammered away at the trust and its expansionist
plans.

Over time, the trust trimmed back its sails to some extent, and
began to acknowledge and embrace the other layers of history that
took place in that same part of town—including the Chinese and
Japanese people who once made that neighborhood their home. Graffy
submitted a letter to the councilmembers before this week’s
meeting, chiding the trust’s performance when it came to
preservation and asking pointed questions about who would run the
museum and how.

In a telephone interview, Graffly wryly noted, “I have lots of
artifacts and memorabilia. Why don’t they give me half a million
dollars?” Adding an ironic twist to the recent developments, many
of the trust’s most ardent met at Jimmy’s to hatch their strategic
plans. And the front of Jimmy’s itself bears a plaque courtesy of E
Campus Vitus, the group of guerilla historians who celebrate
California’s gold rush past by mixing serious scholarship with
generous doses of alcohol and gunpowder.

Mayor Marty Blum—who supported the loan—noted that she too used
to be concerned that the trust might be trying to take over too
much, likening it to the horror movie The Blob, in which
the titular monster enveloped everything in its path. “Now I know
the Blob has been contained. We have an agreement with the trust as
to how far they can go,” she said. “Kind of like a fence around
‘The Blob’ that will hold it in.” Blum acknowledged the details
were sketchy, but cautioned that the building needed to be secured
now, and that the detailed plans would come later. She expressed
confidence that with City Hall participation and oversight, the
plans would be good.

On this score, Barnwell was not sanguine. “I’m kind of worried
about this being unstoppable and turning this whole neighborhood
into a state park,” he said. “I don’t see how adding a Chinese
component will increase the vibrancy down there now.” But
councilmember Das Williams said he liked the idea of histories that
went beyond the elites and ruling classes. Williams described
Chinatown in colorfully lurid terms—with its opium parlors and
brothels—saying, “There’s something beautiful about seeing the
underbelly of Santa Barbara.” He added, “It’s a part of our city’s
heritage—not that Chinatown was always a seedy place.”

Councilmember Iya Falcone took to heart that so many of the
community’s leading philanthropic institutions were backing the
effort to secure Jimmy’s. “It makes me feel as through we’re
proceeding as a community, not just two government entities,” she
said, referring to the City of Santa Barbara and the State parks
Department. Councilmember Helene Schneider wanted to make sure that
the $500,000 loan would be repaid with interest, and that the Trust
would not return a few years later asking that the loan be forgiven
and transformed into an outright grant. She was assured this would
not be the case. But without the loan, explained trust treasurer
John Poucher, the Trust would lack the funds necessary to sustain
its normal operations. Schneider, Williams, and Barnwell all
expressed concern that the three apartments that are part of the
deal—located behind and adjacent to Jimmy’s restaurant—be subject
to some kind of affordability control in exchange for the city’s
loan.

Ultimately, the plan is for City Hall to be paid back once the
trust sells the land to State Parks, as it has done with all the
Presidio related properties it has secured over the years. But some
councilmembers were concerned that this arrangement was too loosey
goosey, and that there were no assurances that City Hall would be
paid back in the three year time frame the trust guaranteed.
Poucher was aksed if there was anything in writing, even a
handshake understanding, as to when the State would buy the land
from the Trust, thus generating the funds necessary for the trust
to pay the city back. “We have nothing in writing, Poucher said.
“It doesn’t work that way with the state.”

Ultimately the council decided not to grant the loan outright,
but to begin negotiations withy the trust do so. The matter will be
back before the council after about 30 days for final action.

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