Watching the great city council debate between incumbent councilmember Kristen Sneddon and challenger Barret Reed, Yogi Berra’s great quote — I know, which one? — came to mind. “Nobody goes there anymore,” Berra was said to have said. “It’s too crowded.”
Reed and Sneddon are both running to represent District Four, which includes the Riviera, parts of San Roque, and Foothill, where voters are older, whiter, and tend to vote with a discipline bordering on religious fervor. The issue was, as always, homelessness.
Debate co-moderator Jerry Roberts — the Bill Plaschke of local political sportswriting — asked Reed whether he was engaging in “dog whistle” messaging by referring to the “criminal element” among the city’s homeless population. Reed denied Roberts’ insinuendo and then doubled down. In so doing, he only proved Roberts’ point. “I won’t take our one-and-a-half year-old downtown,” said Reed, a lean and muscular 35-year-old who can ride his bike up Gibraltar Peak and then do 200 push-ups, all on his lunch break. “It’s a dirty, kind of scary place to be.”
Maybe I’m missing something. I have been to the Black Hole of Calcutta. I’ve been in places that are both scary and dirty. The allegedly mean streets of Santa Barbara could no doubt use a steam cleaning every once in a again to get the blobs of chewing gum that tattoo our sidewalks. But dirty and scary? Has anyone visited Barstow recently?
Compared to 99 percent of the rest of reality, we live in la-la land. We have squadrons of dog walkers promenading their Pomeranians up and down our State Street promenade. Beautiful people sip wine. Not quite so beautiful people drink coffee. Those somewhat less beautiful still drink beer. Along the way, there’s much laughter as groups of people sit too close and eat food. Bike riders zip in and out. No one looks both ways anymore because cars are no longer on State Street.
Behind this glittering façade, of course, there are scores of empty storefronts, done in by the pandemic, the high cost of rent, crazy rules and regulations, and of course, on-line purchasing. If people no longer come downtown anymore, as Reed alleged, it’s because there’s only so much beer, wine, and artisanal spirits a person can drink before that enticing little hipster chapeau no longer balances upon one’s head. For those looking to make a utilitarian purchase or two — to buy a pair of trousers, perhaps, to replace the pair I’ve worn out — we are forced to flee to the outer limits of the La Cumbre Shopping Mall or perhaps to Ventura.
Downtown is far from perfect, but’s about 150,000 percent more lively today than it was 18 months ago. Are there street people? Absolutely. But the vast majority are perfectly willing to share the streets — their living quarters ― with the rest of us without making a stink about all the dog droppings left by those who happen to live under roofs. A small handful, admittedly, are known to engage in losing fights with people who aren’t there. A few affirmatively delight in being intentionally obnoxious.
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Hey, have you ever been downtown at bar time?
As for all the defecation and urination to which Reed breathlessly alluded, I would suggest a couple more porta-potties downtown might help. It would seem an obvious solution.
Reed’s comments come as a great disappointment. I spent a couple hours milking a cup of coffee with Reed a few months ago and I found him interesting, engaging, and totally fun to hang with. The guy I saw in the debate had been body-snatched by some paint-by-numbers political campaign strategist intent on stale boogey-man politics.
Homelessness is not a big issue; it’s a huge issue, nationally, statewide, and yes, even here in Santa Barbara. Guess what? Back in the 1950s, the Santa Barbara City Council was debating whether helping the homeless would only attract more of their kind here. The terms of the debate have not changed. If there were easy answers someone would have solved it already.
But as political strategy, I would suggest Reed’s approach is a dead end. Four years ago, when Angel Martinez — a big-brain entrepreneur — ran for mayor, he couldn’t say enough about all the street people on State. Guess what? He came in fourth out of five candidates, his name all but lost to the winds of time.
In that same election, Kristen Sneddon ran against another smart, good looking, well-spoken dad — planning commissioner Jay Higgins — who very much like Barret Reed also said he would not bring his kids downtown. Too dirty and scary. Kristen Sneddon — despite having two left feet on the political dance floor — convincingly cleaned Higgins’ clock.
The reality is we’re making some genuine progress getting people off the streets and under some sheets. Not enough. But some.
In the meantime, if you’re really too afraid to come downtown with your kids, then just stay home. City Hall, after all, is smack in the middle of downtown. And you can’t represent residents of District Four without going to City Hall.
During the debate, Reed commented that the Santa Barbara of today is not what it used to be. Had he bothered asking Yogi Berra about this, this is what Yogi would have told him: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”