INSTANT CITY: I recall driving past UCSB in the early 1960s with my preschool kids, noticing a flat, near-barren expanse of a few shops and small apartments with single-family homes clustered at the far end.
A very few years later, I drove by again and was amazed to find a small city happening, with a forest of absentee-owned, multi-unit apartments rising everywhere.
The UC Regents had plunked down a major campus in the middle of virtually nowhere, or so it seemed at the time, and said, “You’re on your own.” The county, heeding pleas by developers, was quick to rezone to allow a dense student ghetto of stucco moneymakers. It was ugly. I recall asking a student why he smoked so much dope. “It makes I.V. go away,” he replied.
Since then, my kids matured, attended UCSB, and grew up. Isla Vista (which translates to “island view”) just grew. But put 23,000 people with an average age of 20 in a cramped few blocks, isolated from the main community, and you have kids with a lot of freedom and a lot of time and looking for fun. And outsiders looking for trouble.
The main drag, around the Embarcadero loop, is one of California’s densest clusters of humanity, with 13,465 living within the town center of just over a half-acre. And no one’s really in charge. It’s a case of in loco parentis, children running the household instead of mom and dad.
All attempts to form a city or at least include I.V. when the City of Goleta was being born failed. Cityhood attempts failed in 1973, 1975, and 1984.
No one wanted this problem child. Today, one of the main problems with this unwanted child is its friends, who swarm from far and near into what they see as Party Central. It’s also become an overcrowded mecca for Santa Barbara City College students.
I’ve watched as idealistic civic saviors like Carmen Lodise, the former “mayor” of I.V., labored long and hard over the years to save the town from itself. Lodise, who published the landmark Isla Vista: A Citizen’s History, in 2008, now lives in a Mexican fishing village. I emailed him this week to ask how he thought the town had evolved.
“It’s still only a half-square-mile in size, hosting far too many people,” he answered. “It’s 96 percent renters, most traffic starts are on bike, the ocean is close by, and most of its residents graduated in the top 5 percent of their high school class — the brightest young people the state turns out.
“What has changed is the loss of empowerment. In the ’70s, the town was chock-full of people who thought we could change the world, and we would show it by grabbing hold of the reins of power and revenues in becoming a ‘city,’ a conventional method under state law. And that’s the rub. A lot of that caring feeling lasted into at least the end of the ’90s, when I had a weekly newspaper there. But it gradually dissipated after that.
“No matter, critics said at the time, an I.V. city had plenty of revenue capabilities, as any independent analysis demonstrated, especially the county-commissioned EIR of 1984.
“But I.V. was denied that simple pathway three times by [the county’s] Local Agency Formation Commission [LAFCO] that was 4-1 Republican at a time Isla Vista residents were voting 80-90 percent Democratic. And, of course, such an option was opposed by the UCSB administration, which, in alliance with the county, had created the pressure-cooker community.
“Today, I.V. drifts under the failed but absolute control of its overseers — the university and the county. The 2002 Grand Jury concluded that Isla Vista needed more self-government, and I’m expecting that the new Grand Jury looking at Deltopia will conclude the same.”
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I spent many hours in a town that seemed bursting with a zesty wave of intellectual and artistic ferment that Santa Barbara lacked. The Red Lion bookstore and Magic Lantern movie art house attracted Santa Barbarans. Linda and Bob Borsodi opened a coffeehouse that offered food, music, and plays.
But Vietnam War protests and the burning of the Bank of America changed the mood. Isla Vista, like the U.S. in general, was gradually drained of an idealism it has yet to regain.
Could a second renaissance bloom in Isla Vista, or does the UCSB campus itself provide all that young (and older) minds need?