Santa Barbara is not State Street and vice versa. From Eastside restaurants to Hendry’s Sunday sunset family gatherings and all the lands betwixt, the city takes meaning and shape from many neighborhoods, shabby to chic, places where we live, dine, dance and shop; this naked city has 100,000 hearts.
But today we hear our main drag is in trouble again. And doomsayers make it seem like the vitality of State could threaten the health of our whole town.
But I wonder about the fuss. We know that everything changes all the time, even civic centers (consider downtown Los Angeles for a rise, fall, and rise scenario). Besides, people shop everywhere nowadays including in the aether; downtown isn’t the only suffering party. But truly, old timers don’t much visit State Street anymore unless they want to see a movie or their grandkids in a parade. Young timers are a lot more likely to barhop off Chapala Street or in Old Town Goleta. (Or in other parts of State Street that we are not discussing yet.) Many avoid the area fearing “aggressive panhandlers,” the exaggerated blight of conspicuous poverty. That avoidance wasn’t true back when State was a cruising zone with warring high school football teams orbiting the KIST building, or back when schmooze-shopping at a host of local businesses like the Hughes, Kernohans, and Earthling Books drew most people there. For one shining decade, discotheques bloomed from the Art Museum to the railroads. That was then. There were ups and downs, but right now, traffic is down and disco long dead. The police don’t like dance floors, anyway.
And always when this happens, people (mostly landlords and the downtown organization, now called Downtown Santa Barbara) storm De la Guerra Plaza hoping City Council might turn the sad tide. But I’ll tell you what. They have and many times before, so many times I’m sick of it. From a façade facelift in the 1970s to the Paseo Nuevo and the Arts Corridor rebranding, State Street campaigners are like the Lobero or City College theater boards: unhappy unless it’s raising money and expectations for some revamp that will engage many but impress few.
Meanwhile other civic strays go unclaimed for city government rescue. Vibrant commercial and cultural places rise and fall with no help from any agency. Newcomers may not know this.
People my age (66) fondly remember the corner of Mission Street and De la Vina, the hottest part of town in the late 1970s. With Derf’s Café, McConnell’s Ice Cream, Ted’s Books, Miratti’s Liquor Store, the Quality Market, the original Cajun Kitchen, and Mrs. Furay’s enchiladas. It was where you saw your friends. Before that there was the 1960s Coast Village Road, home to The Somerset, the Olive Mill Bistro, the Coast Inn Snack Bar, Gene-O’s, and Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors. There were two record stores there and a massive health food store, even a late night eatery called Casa Linda. The Mesa is popular today, but in the early 1990s it was a full-blown carnival: three video stores, Dean-O’s Pizzarama, Pierre Lafond’s Deli, a French Tearoom, and a vegetarian Restaurant owned by Brigitte and Norbert. What all these neighborhoods have in common is a surge of popularity and then a bust. Some went out of business on their own clumsy terms, some fell victim to greedy landlords, and the rest were swept away by the changing moods of fickle consumers. But no one fretted or bailed out these ‘hoods.
Besides, State Street already has been revitalized. Of course I mean the swath of land between La Entrada and the so-called Funk Zone. Check it out, older folks. Anytime you find the Granada Theatre block desolate, cruise down to the once-ruined California Hotel. The place swims with tourists, Santa Barbarans out to dine and party, and young people — a trifecta, I believe, that defines revitalization. This was accomplished, you might well argue, with a lot of City Council intervention, though they worked more against the initial grandiosity of the plans. On the other hand, the Funk Zone was an invention of contemporary café (post-hippie hippie) society and brave entrepreneurs with good publicity departments. Throw in a lot of booze and you get revitalization in a part of town with businesses you don’t need to buy a ticket to get into. Talk about homeless people problems? My parents wouldn’t let me go in this neighborhood when I was a kid. There isn’t one movie house, opera stage, or even rock and roll cover charge joint down there. Yet.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a libertarian. I don’t think we should let a neighborhood grow and shrink at the whim of the marketplace, even though that’s probably what will happen. A lot of greedy landlords and building-flipping fortune hunters made State Street uninhabitable for any but national chains and ridiculously expensive stores. And now they want help. But how about letting the State Street arts corridor and Old Town theme park prove themselves. Let other neighborhoods get some beautification and attention. And don’t get me started about the so-called Lagoon District. Meanwhile, let’s makeover Milpas, Noleta, Chapala Street, or Haley. State Street just might follow.