Visiting Isla Vista with former UCSB students is a little like visiting my grandparents’ hometown with my 90-year-old grandfather. “See that martial arts studio? That used to be a Burger King,” my former student tour guides said.
Or: “See those high-rise buildings? There used to be a soccer field there. They took it out to put in grad housing. It used to so pretty.”
“See that fetid duck pond? My friend skinnydipped in there on a dare once.”
“See that house? I had sex on their couch.”
Oh wait, my grandfather probably wouldn’t say that last one.
Until recently, my trips to I.V. had been confined to buying a used bike-shitty albeit super cheap-off Craigslist and hitting the beach. As Ellwood is my favorite Santa Barbara area beach, offering cliff hikes with stunning panoramas, real waves, and, of course, butterflies, I frequently drove north in my bathing suit without ever really stopping in the town, except when late night hunger drove me to chow down on a made-to-order burrito from Freebirds, one of the last 24-hour institutions in the Santa Barbara area. As I.V. is peppered with fast food cuisine from nearly every country – well, at least the Asian ones – and numerous patios for enjoying pitchers of cold beer, I’d always appreciated it as the perfect town to unwind after a day at the beach; it just had always made me slightly sick to imagine living in the college town attached to a college that Playboy had named one of the best 10 party schools in the nation.
But I kept hearing about people I knew and respected-serious, professional types-who lived in I.V. and loved it. And whenever I stopped by for a coffee on my way to the beach, I passed by families having picnics in one of I.V.’s numerous park; they certainly looked happy. So one day, I let my friend and UCSB alum take me on an I.V. tour to counteract the party hype I’d heard-and believed. “There’s a lot of cool stuff about I.V.,” Drew said. “Independent of the university, I.V. is a pretty cool town.”
He said the summer would the perfect time to sample I.V., when the year-round population dominates the town while student parties and Beer Pong tournaments are fewer and farther between. Indeed, as soon as Drew and I drove into town, I noticed the sharp deviation from the school year atmosphere. We naturally began with a bite to eat at Freebirds, whose clientele was composed almost exclusively of families surrounded by beach bags, as opposed to drunken 19-year-olds making party plans on their cell phones.
And walking the legendary Del Playa Drive, I was struck mainly not by trashy apartment complexes whose front yards were littered with beer cans – though those existed, to be sure – but by the abundance of lovely, well-kept homes seemingly left over from I.V.’s earlier days. On Sababado Tarde Road, for instance, we came upon a house whose front yard was a jungle of orchids and Japanese maples. Next door was a lovely cottage that looked out on an overgrown cactus garden. “I’m pretty sure that house is heaven,” I said. “But, really, no matter how wonderful one’s home is, how great can it be for a family to live on a street called Saturday Night?“
“Actually, this area is pretty quiet,” Drew said. “Students avoid it.” (We were on the 6800 block, it turned out.)
The numerous RVs and vagrants who seem to have free reign over I.V.’s numerous parks gave the place a grittier and more real feel than much of Santa Barbara’s downtown. Okay, so using a public restroom smeared in feces is not exactly the best experience of one’s life, but I’d take that over having to buy a $5 coke at a restaurant just to go pee any day.
We sat in a disconcertingly mobile loveseat swing overlooking the ocean and laughed about the “CAUTION: CLIFF!” sign, which showed a drawing of a person diving headlong off the cliff. We climbed to the top of a boulder fitted with rock climbing pegs in Tridgo-Pasado Park and wondered how many people had had sex on top of it. We watched little kids fly kites in an abandoned lot. We sat in the sun and drank local beer from the tap at Woodstock’s Pizza, an I.V. institution for both students and vagrants (who reportedly enjoy the abundant offerings of the dumpster outback) since 1982. We passed by the Embaradero Hall, formerly the Bank of America that was burned in 1970s student antiwar protests, and checked out the showtimes for Paris Je T’aime, playing at the I.V. Theatre as part of Magic Lantern Films. We had dinner at Little Asia, which served the most authentic Korean food I’ve had since I arrived in California. (So what if the only decoration in the place was one large clock and a sign over the counter that read, “Please Be Patient, Your Food is on the Way”?) We bought organic produce grown locally at the Isla Vista Food Co-op, and then headed down to the beach to munch on strawberries and watch the sunset.
I.V. folklore abounds: Edie Sedgewick overdosed there. Jim Morrison wrote the song “Crystal Ship” about the oil rigs dotting the horizon. Kinko’s, of course, began here. There was that one certain diner – now a thing of the past – that was, like many I.V. eateries, famous for cheap food, if not stellar hygiene. One UCSB alum remembers eating there with a friend who found an insect’s thorax in her food. When she showed it to an employee and asked for her money back, the employee claimed it was garlic and refused to refund her money. “If you’re so sure it’s not a bug,” the disgruntled eater said, “I guess you wouldn’t mind eating it.” So the employee plucked it off the plate, crunched it between her teeth, and swallowed. And it seems nearly every UCSB alum has a tragic story about a tequila-and-trampoline party.
This last fact may be partly explained by one part-time UCSB student’s assertion that “history has so little bearing on the present here. People make the same mistakes over and over.” This is partly the way of college towns everywhere: with each new population of students, the town is remade-but also stays remarkably the same, given that college life does not differ that sharply from one town to another. But it’s perhaps a sadder truth in I.V., where the mistakes being made over and over involve dumping old TVs over cliffs and littering beer cans in parks overlooking the ocean.
But I.V. is now facing the prospect of more permanent change in the form of the Isla Vista Master Plan, which would increase housing, remake Anisq’Oyo’ Park as a town center, and spruce up storefronts. The plan, currently under consideration by the Board of Supervisors, has been the subject of much debate among I.V.’s approximately 18,400 residents, some of whom herald redevelopment as the town’s opportunity for a much-needed facelift, and others of whom worry it could destroy I.V.’s unique history and character once and for all.
That unique character was perhaps summed up best by Drew’s comment, “In I.V., when something comes your way that isn’t the worst thing ever, you really appreciate it. Like if you’re walking on a street that has a sidewalk, you think, ‘Oh cool, this street has a sidewalk now.'” Which is not to say that Isla Vistans are longing for lots of new sidewalks – though some apparently are – but rather that I.V. gives residents lots to be happy about- beer, fetid duck ponds, bank burnings, and all.