Since launching his waterfront walking tour in June 2017, John Ummel’s late-in-life hobby earned a spot as the best historical tour offered in Santa Barbara. Now, after nine months of original research, he has unearthed the records and knowledge to offer tours of the storied Funk Zone, downtown’s trendy warehouse district once known less affectionately as “the Slum Zone.”
The Funk Zone tour spends 90 minutes incorporating the area’s alluring food, art, and wine scene into its industrial past. “Ninety percent of the people who visit the Funk Zone are under 60. That’s my target audience,” said Ummel, “though seniors will undoubtedly love this tour as well.”
Starting across from the Hotel Californian, Ummel leads his group through 10 square blocks of funkiness, filling them in on historic buildings, student art, breweries, restaurants, hidden artisan studios, future development plans, and Santa Barbara’s wine, surf, and aviation histories. Complete with a collection of 11″ x 17″ black-and-white photos to give a visual sense of the Funk Zone’s transformation, the tour ends at McConnell’s, where participants have a chance to win a free ice cream cone.
Modeled after European gratuity-based walking tours, both of Ummel’s tours are free, but tips are greatly appreciated. Ummel donates 15 percent of his earnings to local charities, with the Daniel Bryant Treatment Center as last year’s beneficiary. When asked why he provides complimentary tours, Ummel rejoiced, “Why not? I’m retired! I enjoy reading history so this is just an extension of that.”
The Funk Zone tour is a history lesson you won’t find at the library; some photos took Ummel up to six months to find. It’s the perfect afternoon experience for residents and visitors, regardless of what they thought they knew about the area. Reservations are recommended and can be made online at freewalkingtoursb.com.