Have you ever read the I Spy picture books? You look at an image and scour it for a delicate silver bell, or an old ice skate, and even though you think you’ve familiarized yourself with the picture, sometimes you can’t see the object you’re looking for. But it’s there. You just have to look harder.
I should mention that I’m currently not in Isla Vista.
I’m “home,” though I call where I’m now staying “home” in the loosest sense of the word, due to recent radical changes in my living situation. This has given me a taste of what it will be like when I move away from IV post-graduation.
It’s also helped me see what’s singular about living in Isla Vista. I take for granted how you can carve out your own imagined community in its streets, everyone’s map looking a bit different. Even though I’m not there, I can picture it in my head, the houses which contain people I’ve grown to care for, doorways, pathways, coffee shops where I’ve met people or said goodbye. When I first came to IV over three years ago, those places and people were all there of course, but I saw nothing in them yet. It was time, and my own crawl towards maturity, which helped them light up for me and become something that I could point out, like landmarks on a map.
Even though IV is probably pretty empty right now, given that it’s the holiday season, when I picture it, I don’t see it that way. It’s preserved in my memory as it was before I left, and as it will be when winter break turns into winter quarter; its streets colored with random dudes playing guitar for no one in particular, with friends I run into at Starbucks, and with the hundreds of bicyclists that crowd the streets on school days.
Maybe it’s because it’s almost the New Year, or maybe it’s just because I’m not there, but I wonder: Do my old haunts lose their magic when they are remodeled, when people move in and out, when most or all of the Isla Vistans I care about have transitioned to other places? Of course, college towns aren’t quite the same as hometowns, places where you’ve literally grown up. I mean, it’s not that you don’t grow up here, but the maturation that does happen is different, and less sentimental. I guess.
Anyway, though there are people who stay here for good, or drift off to Goleta or downtown Santa Barbara to carve out a grown-up life for themselves, once your four or five years are up, it’s almost like Isla Vista isn’t really yours anymore. Not like it was when you were a student, anyway. It belongs to others—the nervous freshmen, hurtling down the freeway, their trunks stuffed with luggage and Target dorm room accessories.
And that’s how it’s supposed to be. Places change, and you drive by, and you complain about how it used to be better back when you lived there, back when you were young—like hunched old men remembering how Los Angeles used to just be rows and rows of orange groves. The meaning changes as it becomes someone else’s meaning, as IV’s houses and apartments fill up with someone else’s loved ones.
Looking at IV, then—for me, after I graduate—will be more an exercise in memory than in sight. The meaning will be internalized. But it’ll be there. I’ll just have to look harder.