I’m just about officially over memorial services. Too many people kicking the bucket these days and moving on to parts unknown. Too many lives to “celebrate” for me to feel celebratory. The good news, at least from my perspective, is that I have yet to be the guest of honor.
The most recent such event involved Hal Conklin, the former Santa Barbara city councilmember and onetime mayor whose service to the community here had a wingspan on par with that of a condor. About 300 people showed up in front of the Mission this past Wednesday evening just as the sun was going down and the moon was coming up to pay their respects and to be reminded of what ridiculously huge footprints Hal leaves behind.
Like a lot of people, Hal arrived in Santa Barbara in the wake of the 1969 oil spill almost by providential accident. He’d been a draft dodger up in Oakland, where he grew up, and had filed for conscientious objector status with the local draft board. In lieu of military conscription, Hal was allowed to help out Episcopal Bishop James Pike, who had recently moved to Santa Barbara and was with the now-defunct but hugely influential think tank the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
Pike, a civil rights advocate about 50 years ahead of his time, was one of the great charismatic heretics of the United States who believed in pretty much anything except what was agreed to by any organized religion. Hal fit right in. In short order, he would help get the Community Environmental Council up and started. It, by the way, is still going strong. In that capacity, he helped create Santa Barbara’s first recycling program. Today, we take all this for granted, but at the time, it was radical stuff.
Back then, mega developers were plotting various mega schemes to carpet bomb East Beach with truly giga projects ― new hotels, new motels, new condos, a new marina, and maybe even a new freeway. Hal was one of many key activists who helped organize the community to come up with an alternative plan of its own. Out of this, we got a massively scaled-down development proposal that would one day morph into the Red Lion Inn. In exchange, the city got seven acres of new parkland, which was subsumed into Chase Palm Park.
There were no playbooks for making such things happen. It was all seat-of-the-pants, improvisational open-field running. When Stearns Wharf — once the exclusive domain of oil industry support workers ― went up in flames, developers insisted nothing less than a theme park extravaganza could justify the massive investment rebuilding the wharf would entail. Hal — by then a pretty accomplished wheeler and dealer — happened to know somebody who knew somebody at the state level who knew where the funds could be obtained to pursue a significantly more low-key, Santa Barbara–scale alternative. The rest, as they say, is history.
Hal was never a hippie. He was never counterculture. He wore suits. He was not just spiritual; he was affirmatively religious, having been raised in a devout household of singing Methodists. He was openly political. He got along with people of all stripes. He had developer friends. And he grinned a lot. In 1977, he was elected to the City Council, the youngest councilmember to be elected at the time. Meetings were not for the faint of heart. Hal — whose relatives on his mother’s side were Armenian immigrants who fled Turkish genocide in 1919 — got called all kinds of racist names by some of his fellow councilmembers. Hal just smiled.
Over time, Santa Barbara changed, Hal changed, and the council changed. Environmentalism became safely mainstream. Hal became a moderate and a centrist. He was openly ambitious. He wanted to be mayor. He had become a major player in statewide political circles via the League of California Cities. When Hal found himself the subject of barbed commentary, he never got mad. Instead, he got amused. Hal’s life would take more than a few unexpected twists and turns; he would never get to fly close enough to the sun to see if the heat melted the wax keeping his wings tethered together. But in his 17 years in office, Hal managed to get an inordinate amount of stuff done.
As was mentioned during Wednesday evening’s memorial service, Hal had a major hand in getting the Lobero Theatre, The Arlington Theatre, and The Granada Theatre refurbished and seismically retrofitted. At a time when the business community was wed to Santa Barbara as a “surf-n-turf” tourist destination, Hal was focused on creating an arts and culture district capable of drawing tourists and locals alike.
He didn’t single-handedly bring Paseo Nuevo to downtown Santa Barbara — to anchor the city’s central business district with a retail core — but he was involved in it up to his elbows. Back in the late 1980s, Santa Barbara was freaking about finding the right balance between jobs and housing while still maintaining its signature feel and vibe. I can’t say they succeeded, but Measure E — which passed overwhelmingly after an exhaustive public outreach and listening campaign — was a major effort in that direction. Many hands would stir Measure E’s pot, but Hal Conklin was in the thick of it.
All that was then. This is now. But sitting there by the Mission steps watching twilight fade, I couldn’t help but reflect how now and then look so much alike. Just the day before, the Santa Barbara City Council had appointed 15 people — and two alternates — to a special committee designed to figure out the immediate future of State Street. Do we keep the new pedestrian promenade, for example? Do we change it? If so, how?
Today, families wander aimlessly up State Street, kids in tow, just there to be there. Stretches of the street have been commandeered by teams of dog-walking moms as their training fields. Every mutant mode of transportation is on full display except for the automobile and the internal combustion engine. Yes, it’s a mess. But it’s a hopeful mess. Sometimes, it’s even magically messy. Last week, a trombone quartet blasted some of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at passers-by in what could only be described as a random act of beauty. This Thursday, musicians Spencer Barnitz and Gary Sangenitto — two of Santa Barbara’s most musically enduring grace notes — commandeered the space under the Granada for a joyously calibrated R&B explosion.
Maybe the arts will save us after all.
For all the fun around the edges, the underlying reality remains grim. State Street is in many ways the proverbial pig wearing way too much lipstick. Too many storefronts are black holes. What happens now? Can State Street be salvaged? Maybe more to the point, can Santa Barbara find its collective ass with either hand? The jury is out. We shall see. Some of the people appointed to the new State Street committee give me hope. Others, I’m not so sure. Can we come up with a vision that works? I hope so.
City Hall as an institutional entity is in pedal-to-the-metal flux. Four of the seven council seats are up for grabs this November. In the meantime, our city administrator — with 24 years of in-the-trenches institutional memory — just announced he’s retiring. We have a new public works czar about to take over, and this coming Monday will be the first day on the job for the city’s new Community Development director. And then, of course, the search for a new police chief has been extended because the first round of applicants knocked nobody’s socks off.
I got to reconnect with Hal more than a few times before brain cancer laid him out. Even a few times after. Laura Capps, in her eulogy about Hal on Wednesday night, talked about how he managed to be both calm and urgent. She nailed it. There was an ebullience of spirit that made him fun to talk to. He was a great storyteller.
Back in the early ’90s, before his political career would be cut short, Hal had broached the issue of turning State Street into a pedestrian mall. He was not the only one to do so. Former mayor Sheila Lodge would as well. Both got nothing but hell for their efforts. Hal recalled how he tried in vain to get the council to agree to study the idea. Just a study. “I couldn’t even get a second,” he laughed.
I thought about that Wednesday night, sitting there on the Mission steps, watching the sun disappear. I’ll miss that laugh. I will definitely miss those stories. But in the meantime, State Street is closed off to cars. It’s as impossible to imagine putting the internal combustion genie back in that bottle. What comes of the new State Street committee we will all see in good time. But it’s pretty much up to us.
That’s the moral to Hal Conklin’s story. It’s our decision to make.
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