Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Been Down So Long It Looks Like Los Angeles to Me

Santa Barbara, California, a coastal town, is located about a hundred miles north of Los Angeles, but it better watch out. Los Angeles is moving outward in all directions, with rows of condos, single-family dwellings, and strip malls. Of the cardinal directions, Los Angeles seems at the moment to favor north, spilling inexorably, like an upturned can of Navajo white paint.

Essentially a resort town, Santa Barbara likes to think well of itself, relying on a sanitized version of a brutal history, hiding among such pleasures as sumptuous beaches, a dramatic coast line, and quirky neighborhoods some of the dumbest tourist attractions in the eleven Western states and one of the worst Mexican restaurants west of the Mississippi.

Being in Santa Barbara for any length of time is like having a seat at a 24/7 game of Monopoly, where property values seem to ignore stagnating markets and the crime rate is measured not by muggings or robberies but by real estate brokers hiding or stealing the signs of their competitors. If you think fortunes were made by those who sell the magnetized Support-Our-Troops signs, you will begin to appreciate the profits inherent in the Open House signs that proliferate like poppies in Afghanistan.

On some of the local web sites, the Chamber of Commerce is fond of reminding us that the Motel 6 chain began here as well as Sambo's restaurant, offering rationales for the name Sambo's that would be convincing if the wording were not so defensive.

Older people, it is said, come here to play golf and to visit their parents; young people generally cannot wait to move south, to the Los Angeles sprawl, or north to the legendary turf of San Francisco, another place so steeped in tradition that the muggers use surgical gloves, scrupulously changing for each new victim, where flashers in Golden Gate Park are so considerate that they only describe themselves.

Los Angeles and San Francisco are two of the major magnets, drawing a multifarious demographic from the south, the midwest, and the colder climes of New England. Although each city has its merits and its suburbs, although each has amenities and weather that rival such competition as New York, Boston, Atlanta, and yes, even Seattle, many of the emigrants find frustrations that drive them off, headed for that magical terrain called the Central Coast, where Santa Barbara beams forth, a cultural lighthouse.

They come with beards, ponytails, and buyer's remorse tattoos, willing to work at some of the available service jobs or simply to find a mobile home or illegal apartment in which to brood while trying to figure out why so many people are willing to stand in line on Milpas Street to be served such dreary tacos, drowned in sauces that remind one of Kraft Velveeta cheese, badly overcooked.

Each time I see the lines of tourists waiting patiently to be served and overcharged at La Super Rica, I tell myself that similar lines waited to vote for one of the worst presidents in the history of our republic. I tell myself that many of these tourists probably voted for one of the worst presidents in the history of our republic and would do so again if they could, because, they reason, no one who speaks so poorly can be all bad.

The Central Coast of California is a conglomeration of small, quirky, cranky places with quirky, cranky names, ruled over by two civic approximations of the Emerald City of Oz, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. There is a universe in between, a universe of Morro Bay and Avila Beach and who ever heard of Grover City or Pismo Beach? A universe where the orange-vested Cal Trans authorities don't bother to do things that will disrupt traffic during rush hour. There is no rush hour. There is the continuous buzz--or is it snore--of the Central Coast Dream.

Although billed as left leaning in its politics, The Central Coast is about as left leaning as Fox News. The Central Coast is a comforting place to live, except for August, when the residents simply cannot cope with all the zucchini that comes bursting forth. We should do with zucchini what Mao did with population explosion in China. But we denizens of the Central Coast, we happy few, we band of others, have off-season sun, pea soup marine layers, tourists wearing the full Cleveland, which is white loafers, polyester pants, and a white belt. We have found a turf worth homesteading, but it is a turf the real estate brokers cannot penetrate, it is the inner turf, the turf of men and women who have learned to dodge the dumb tourist attractions, the yearly Fiesta Days, and La Super Rica Taqueria.


Anonymous said...

Why are you so hard on Fiesta and La Superica? Bad hangover? Bad Taco? I know why you teach writing. Your work is lacking in intellegence, and creativity.

Anonymous said...

As a local gal,I thought it was
accurate and slightly amusing.
As the years roll by,it is really hard to watch your home town snap, crackle and burst from the seams.
When I can actually get a parking spot downtown, I'm so elated that I forgot what I came down for!

lowenkopf said...

Hey, crankykitty,
Watch what they do to the Miramar.
And what they did to the Victoria Theater. And that Forrest Lawn annex called Fess Parker's Doubletree Inn. We've got to love the good parts while we can.

Anonymous said...

Is it all worth the high priced and many times overly priced property price tags? I am trying to buy up there Shelly and I am shocked these days at how high the property is listed (after the downturn). Many times I see a house listed whereas two months earlier the same house two or so doors away sold down for $400,000 less. Many are not selling because of this and when they start going down in price shoppers like me have either moved on and purchased a reasonably listed home or have so great a resentment at their arrogant earlier listing, the buyer won't give it another look. Is it worth it compared to the Westside of Los Angeles? There are so many areas that are dirty and old and many neighborhoods where the homes are just not cared for, nor the lawns manicured (for the price the person pays).

By the way how is Santa Barbara for an MFA in poetry and creative writing. Is there much social life for me? Poetry readings, writing classes that are up to par to USC and Ruskin reading etc? Playwriting groups? Book readings for the newly published? If so, I would say, yes, with all of Santa Barbara's pimples and poison ivy delusions it just may be worth the dang price tag.

Great article though. With such a large Hispanic community how could they have such a horrid Mexican restaurant that has so many customers?

It sounds like Ty Warner is trying his best to price out everyone except the super wealthy. What is up with that?

Anonymous said...

Living here for 45 years (arrived at 19) there were a lot of things wrong with your blog re: Santa Barbara. But what you got right is Super Rica is so overrated and how can there not be good Mexican food in this town?

lowenkopf said...

Hey, anticipatingamazing, Antioch University in SB is currently developing an MBA in writing with emphasis on poetry, fiction, screen, and the new electronic media. One writers' group meets every Wednesday at the Doubletree for lunch and socializing; Heaven only knows how many writing groups there are. Peet's Coffee and Tea has an informal gathering of local writers every Friday morning. In short, the culture for writers, poets, and artists is about as aggressive here as the sturgeon on the Seuwanee River down in Florida.

Try the Altamirano on Milpas, particularly the mole; also El Citio on Salinas, and back on Milpas, Cesar's for sea food goodies.

lowenkopf said...


I not only stand by what I say and write, I sign my name to it. There are some plausible reasons for using on-line "handles" or nicknames, but anonymous is of a piece with tagging a freshly painted wall; it is a way of getting attention without being caught.

jqb said...

You complain about rationales that are unconvincing only because of tone but ... do you write to impress, or to convince? You seem to be working far too hard at the former.

As for complaints about anonymity, it's the crankiest of ad hominems, and your characterization of it is quite mistaken and suggests significant misunderstanding of the sociology of the web. For a balanced discussion of the issue, see

Anonymous said...

I've lived in Santa Barbara for five years and love it here. I suspect that Shelly does too but wants other people to think it's lousy so they won't come and screw it up for us.

lowenkopf said...

Hey, Milt; you're right on about the loving part: people here tend to have a part of SB that's their own SB of the heart, and they don't want the tourists to discover it. Like, for instance, the taqueria at the foot of Chapala, right against the freeway, or the funky streets around the SB Roasting Company off Gutierrez. Or...but you already know.