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The Castle on the Coast : Beautiful Santa Barbara Is a Town That Doesn't Want, or Need, to Bustle

July 13, 1986|CHRIS HODENFIELD | Chris Hodenfield is a Los Angeles writer.

In Santa Barbara, the rich are inheriting the earth. The seniors just graduated from UCSB, the ones who managed to fight off the relentless seduction of the pounding surf long enough to get an education, know this all too well. They cannot stay in Eden any longer. "Go elsewhere and make thy fortune," they have been told. Don't even try to start in Santa Barbara. Even the humblest beginnings are beyond your reach.

Many wanderers have been taken by the area's regal and sultry charms, and many have tried to claim it for their own. In the 1540s, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo claimed it for the King of Spain. In the 1840s, a roving French consul took note of the oceanside paradise and proposed that the area come under the protection of France. In the 1940s, during World War II, the beaches were thick with Europeans escaping the French Riviera; after the war many decided that this tangly garden, where descendants of Castilian aristocracy mingled with children of Eastern maritime families, was a truer Riviera, and stayed.

"And now," groused one retired industrialist and resident, "the movie people are coming up here and raising hell with the real estate prices." He and his wife are among the many locals who departed the high-starched-collar community of Pasadena and traveled a hundred miles up the coast. They retired to a house on the hill in the quietly fantastic suburb of Montecito. Unlike Pasadena, where grandness is on display, Montecito is deceptive, cloaked in thick gardens. Towering hedges line the narrow country lanes, and behind the green walls one can find everything from crusty Tudor mansions to breezy Cape Cods, all private and perfect.

"People around here mind their business," said my host as we walked out on the patio for the sweeping view of a rolling, leafy blanket that tumbled down to the sea. Somewhere below were the estates of Montecito, sheltered by oaks and eucalyptus, sycamores and lemon trees, birds of paradise, lupines and poppies. Farther out, over the gray sea, were oil-drilling platforms. They looked a little out of place, as if the misted horizon was scattered with umbrella stands. Behind the house were the mountains and canyons of Los Padres National Forest. "If we had a fire in this neighborhood," he went on, "people coming out of their houses would meet each other for the first time."

"I don't think it's a good place for the young," his wife warned. "There's too much money up here, and not enough jobs. There're not enough good influences." She offered a tart smile. "Of course, a brilliant young surgeon could always get a job here."

Everyone knows of Santa Barbara's rare and precious air. Any U.S. 101 traveler waiting at the stoplight sees wide green La Cumbre Peak looming over the town, and the veil of ocean's sunlight filtering the afternoon with lightly dusted honey, and the traveler does not mistake it for Oxnard.

Drifters and road people have staked a claim on the city, and they know this is a fine place to be down and out. They can be seen gathering under the century-old Moreton Bay fig tree, a tough but amiable crowd. The presence of the homeless has prompted much-publicized legal challenges to city and county attempts to discourage their number, but stretched out grandly on the steps, they almost seem part of the city now--regal, sultry Barbarenos.

Like Carmel, Santa Barbara seems fated to be the perfect and romantic place that can only get more so. Even the poorest shanties are on neatly swept streets and have geraniums planted in coffee cans on the front porches. The grid of the central city, sloping southward to the sea, is bounded on three sides by verdant hillsides--in the east by Montecito and to the west by Hope Ranch, the Chumash tribal lands turned into estate lands. In the flat live the middle class, scratching to make the escalating rents and mortgages, and asking themselves, "What price beauty?" Those who find the price too high migrate west, over the hill and past Hope Ranch to the normalcy of Goleta and the university area of Isla Vista.

Even the plainest neighborhoods in Santa Barbara seem to be at least within waving distance of splendor. The Mexican-American families of Milpas Street look up at the hillside homes of Alameda Padre Serra and call it Enchilada Heights. They mockingly refer to their own neighborhood as Tortilla Flats.

This is the first neighborhood seen by most people driving up from the south. Although Latinos make up at least a quarter of the city, and although the Mission Revival look is so predominant that at least one architect has bolted town because he couldn't face another red-tile roof, and although this intensely proud community traces its families back either to the Mexican state of Durango or to the old California land-grant dynasties, the Latino population gets precious little publicity. It is almost a parallel universe to old-line Anglo Santa Barbara, but separate, under-represented and heralded only at the annual Old Spanish Days Fiesta.

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