The Death of Isla Vista?

How the Deltopia Disaster Threatens a Once-Proud Partying Culture

The author (middle in tie-dyed shirt and shaved head) and friends on that fateful Isla Vista excursion 20 years ago.
Courtesy Photo

During my senior year of high school, my buddies and I piled into our good friend’s big blue van, drove down the 101 from San Jose, and landed at “The Oasis,” a pad rented by the same friend’s older brother on the 6700 block of Del Playa Drive in the heart of Isla Vista’s partying culture. At the time, many of us had been accepted into UCSB and other schools around the country, but we hadn’t yet decided where to go when we graduated that next summer of 1995. Immediately after that trip — which retains a mythic status in our still-tight clique, so eye-openingly awash in beer and live music and near-sex and adult-like freedom — most of our minds were made up: UCSB was the school for us, because that meant Isla Vista would be our home for the next four years.

And so it went, a strikingly complete college lesson on life: how to study and work hard, and how to play, often harder. Today, we are fairly successful doctors, lawyers, journalists, filmmakers, and various other type of professional, which is a testament to the excellent educational opportunities provided by UCSB. But it was amidst the kegs and bongloads of Isla Vista where we learned how to navigate the day-to-day situations of real life: meeting new people and sussing out those we could trust and those we could not; dealing with one’s neighbors, those you liked and those you couldn’t stand; throwing social gatherings, and determining how to control the resulting crowds, an effort in patience, tact, and teamwork; avoiding trouble, whether by skipping the stupid train when it headed out of the station on ill-conceived shenanigans or simply staying away from the true troublemakers; talking to the cops, and learning, ever so slowly, that there is value to law enforcement, who, it turns out, are mostly just normal people; and, when it came, we learned how to take our punishments like grown-ups (albeit occasionally with financial help from mom and dad). Most important of all, we learned (or at least started to learn) how to balance the many competing extremes of our lives.

I am certainly biased, but I find that many of my UCSB friends are the most well-rounded people I know, able to churn out a steady living while also appreciating the finer, fun things of this existence. And the older I get, the more I think that the latter may in fact be much more important than the former, but I may have never learned these things had it not been for Isla Vista.

Unfortunately, that Isla Vista may be dead now, or at least limping along on life support, awaiting some miracle cure that no one’s invented yet. By the time I graduated in 1999, the culture was already seeming to shift, away from the hippie-driven, smile-at-everyone-you-see vibe toward something more aggressive and hostile. Brawls were becoming more frequent, it seemed, and the rise of hip-hop (the music I grew up on in East San Jose, before it went mainstream) started to make everyone think they were “gangster” — quite often that translated to wealthy white kids trying to start trouble because they thought that’s what made people cool. (I typically loathe blaming any musical movement, especially hip-hop, for a negative effect on culture, but my memories of at least an anecdotal connection remain strong and clear.)

Fast forward to today, and Isla Vista is in the headlines not for being a groovy place to kick it but for rape and assault and cartel-level drug dealing (okay, maybe that hasn’t changed), and, they now say, riots. (I remain unsure whether it’s the riots that are shocking or that they had taken this long to happen.) While Isla Vista’s partying ways have been the target of law enforcement and other government policy hammers for years now, this past weekend’s Deltopia just lined up the final nails in the coffin. Even the most strident anti-authoritarians among us must appreciate that when cops start getting pelted by bottles and bricks and rocks, the government will act to quell the culture that allowed this to happen. New ordinances are already in the works, I’m sure.

The authorities like to call Deltopia an “unsponsored party” that was fueled by anonymous instigators who used social media effectively to draw thousands and thousands of out-of-towners, who are now bearing the brunt of the blame for disrespecting Isla Vista, instigating and attacking law enforcement, causing property damage, starting fights, and all other hellish allegations. No doubt, plenty of that is certainly true, as even the social-media feeds blowing up on Saturday night directly blamed visitors for acting like fools and advocated for a change of culture. (Plenty, perhaps even more, just said Deltopia was a blast, by the way, which probably means the reported and televised evils were contained to a comparably small segment of the overall attendance.)

But it’s a much more complicated milieu than that, and there is plenty of blame to go around. It would be hard to argue that the County of Santa Barbara powers-that-be, who control Isla Vista, should have done nothing over the years to curb such events as Floatopia, the original “unsponsored” Spring Break bash from a few years back that involved thousands taking to the beach, where they left way too much trash and required lots of medical attention. But closing the beaches during the day has only led to people taking to the streets at night.

Other supposedly well-meaning initiatives, such as the social-host rules that make party-throwers legally responsible for age-verifying their attendees (yeah, that killed the kegger culture for sure) and stricter rules on loud music, also have unintended, perhaps worse consequences: Instead of being able to gather around kegs, like in the old days, with the fence keeping your underage status at bay, now the students must huddle behind closed doors and windows, slam liquor till they’re near blackout, and hit the streets afterward, roaming to nowhere. Less live music (although perhaps symptomatic of electronic music’s modern dominance) also means less creative culture to observe each weekend night, too, further putting emphasis on just getting wasted.

And, it’s worth asking, because many already are, what about the overwhelming presence of law enforcement? Would there have been a “riot” had there not been so many uniformed cops strolling the streets? Would less official government public outreach make for a smaller party? Does the pressure of trying to contain so many people only make it worse? These answers are unknowable now, but there are plenty of massive “unsponsored” parties that happen all over the world that occur without riotous results, so it might make sense to ask what folks do elsewhere. Plus, beyond the “riot” footage and use of tear gas, the scenes from this weekend don’t look much different than a usual Saturday back in the late ’90s. So it’s easy to wonder, at least from slightly afar, how different things really are, or whether it’s just our society’s reaction that’s changed.

This is not to say that special rules for Isla Vista aren’t advisable or necessary. But if county government is going to start enacting new ones, a healthy examination of what works and what doesn’t with the existing ones is called for, as is the courage to adopt or even scrap current laws if their unintended consequences are demonstrably worse than their desired effects.

Then there is my alma mater, UCSB. For decades, there’s been the allegation that UCSB doesn’t do enough to care for the daily needs of the massive student ghetto of Isla Vista that’s grown up around the campus. As UCSB has taken over some central Isla Vista properties in recent years, that argument may hold less water, and it’s a bit of a conundrum how much a university should take on the role of a municipal government — and, beyond that, how would that have any effect on the negative effects of the party situation anyway.

But there is a more silent message out of UCSB that speaks even louder: the head-in-the-sand, nothing-to-see here stance on how much their students love to party, both historically and today. Frequently, magazines and websites list UCSB as a top party school, and they identify certain events, like Halloween and Deltopia, as international attractions. UCSB never comments on those awards, preferring to stay on point about the academic accolades, which are, we’re all proud to say, increasingly prominent and exemplary.

To me, though, being able to say that UCSB is a university that’s fiercely strong in both academics and partying is a powerful message, one that says, “We work as hard as anyone, but we know how to have a good time, too.” There’s nothing wrong with that; in fact, when true, it’s probably the most marketable college combination there is.

Admittedly, presenting that message in a way that doesn’t scare away potential professors, donors, strict students, and even stricter parents is challenging, which probably explains why it’s never been pursued. But there is a potentially game-changing advantage: By embracing UCSB’s joie de vivre and touting the unique culture of Isla Vista, the administration would have the upper hand on controlling that message the next time the world tries to converge on Del Playa. (Hell, maybe UCSB could even throw some version of Floatopia itself, with the proper amount of outhouses, trash pickup, safety measures, and paramedics on hand.)

As for the student population, a pretty much transient bunch that turns over every few years, it’s time to start thinking a bit more about what kind of Isla Vista should be left for the future. Do you want to be known as the classes that ruined the best party town on the West Coast forever? Or the ones who, while standing on the brink of the end, decided that it was time to pull back, work proactively with the authorities and UCSB administration on how to fix things, stop spreading the social-media message of come-rage-in-our-town crazinees, and save Isla Vista?

Clearly, with Deltopia disaster headlines now majorly trending in cyberspace, someone has to do something. If not, the boot will be pressed harder and harder onto the neck of a once-proud party culture. And the next time, it just might snap.


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