The 18 murals that today define Ortega Park — a visual celebration of Chicano mythology and culture — won a very definite, if indefinite, reprieve this Wednesday afternoon as members of the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission (HLC) struggled to figure out how best to preserve the park’s signature artwork. What the commissioners most emphatically did agree upon, however, was that the murals were of great significance and that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department needed to do considerably more public outreach to the surrounding neighborhoods before any decision is rendered as to whether some, all, or none of the murals were deemed “structures of merit” and hence worthy of some form of preservation.
The big question mark looming over the murals’ future is a new and expansive master plan to renovate Ortega Park — now a sleepy park underutilized by the community at large and overutilized, some say, by a small but obstreperous group of noisy drinkers and lay-abouts. A new master plan for the park, adopted in 2019, calls for the creation of a much bigger and more aggressive facility, one that would include a new heated swimming pool, a new skateboard park, renovated basketball courts, new and improved picnic areas, and a vast swath of soccer fields on 5.5 acres of downtown real estate that was once home to a city dump.
The environmental impact report for this master plan gave short shrift to the historic significance of the park’s murals, which started going up in 1979 as a manifestation of Santa Barbara’s burgeoning Chicano pride movement. “The murals do not represent an intact, unique, or particular style that is important to the heritage of the City,” the environmental report concluded, “and does not qualify as a historical resource.” But at the insistence of community activists, planners with Parks and Recreation have been forced to retreat from this categorical dismissal. At issue now, is by how much it will all cost. It’s estimated that it will cost $300,000 to relocate one intact mural.
Leading the charge to save the murals is Mark Alvarado, who formerly worked for the city’s Parks and Rec Department as neighborhood liaison officer and is clearly practiced in the arts of bureaucratic warfare. As a young man, it turns out, Alavarado had been taken under the wings as a de facto mentee of muralist Manuel Unzueta — whose work can be seen in great abundance at Ortega Park.
City Hall responded to the hue and cry by hiring a consultant to evaluate the murals and the city’s options when it came to preservation. That report concluded that seven of the park’s 18 murals qualified as “structures of merit.” Some of the seven, the report found, could be relocated intact; others could be replicated on other walls. Some, it found, should be saved for posterity by photography and then destroyed, though the report used the more oblique term “deaccessioned.” Alvarado found fault with the consultant’s report, terming its conclusions, “a slap in the face to the Latino community.” He added, “Do the right thing and table this item.”
Joining Alvarado in demanding the brakes be applied was Anne Petersen, executive director of the Trust for Historic Preservation, an organization typically far more focused on efforts to preserve the town’s original fortress established by Spanish troops. Also joining in was a professor emeritus of Chicano art history from the University of New Mexico, Holly Barnet-Sanchez. She termed the report’s initial finding that the murals did not qualify as a historic resource “an attempt to erase and render invisible a substantive part of Santa Barbara’s population, history, and present-day realities.” She added, “This is racism in action.”
Members of the HLC — all older and white and predominantly male — made it clear they thought the murals were culturally significant. HLC member Michael Drury — a landscape painter of considerable note — waxed positively rhapsodic about the murals, stating, “Go down and look at the murals; they’re extraordinary.” He talked about their delicacy, their imaginativeness, and their “labyrinthine” qualities. He argued their preservation was of such paramount importance that they trumped community interest in the new active recreation opportunities offered by the new proposed park. Not all commissioners went so far; Ed Lenvik, for example, argued the community might be even more interested in such recreational amenities. The problem was — all commissioners agreed — that no one knew what the community felt on such matters.
In preparing the park master plan, Parks and Rec workers held six workshops, seven public meetings, and spoke with 450 people. Apparently only one person mentioned the murals, the commissioners were told. The commissioners shot back, “But were they asked?”
While the commissioners agreed that more public input was essential on the value placed upon the murals by the community, they disagreed among themselves whether a designation of merit would help or hinder the essential integrity of the art. Commissioner Robert Ooley noted that none of the murals were 50 years old or more; that’s the typical threshold required for historical preservation purposes. Many of the murals had been changed significantly since they were first painted; in some cases the color scheme was altered, in others it was a whole new image done by different artists. In fact, Ooley argued, an essential character of Chicano mural art is that it evolves over time and that new generations of artists are allowed to reimagine and re-render the image. By designating a mural a structure of merit — or the whole park for that matter, a proposal that was discussed — he worried that it would strait-jacket the spirit of flexibility central to the art form. Future artists would be barred from making changes to the murals, he noted, without getting permission from the Historic Landmarks Commission.
This article was underwritten in part by the Mickey Flacks Journalism Fund for Social Justice, a proud, innovative supporter of local news. To make a contribution go to sbcan.org/journalism_fund.