Friends had warned Max and Barbara Gerdts to avoid Ventura Avenue.
With its low-rent side streets, seedy bars and oil-patch machine shops, the city's West Side was no place for a young professional couple in search of a new home, they were told.
But when the Gerdts' saw the expanse of Mediterranean-style, pink stucco houses that had recently sprouted along the Avenue's northern hillside, they knew that something was up in the old neighborhood.
Encouraged by that prospect, the Gerdts did in March what several years ago would have been unthinkable: They sank $200,000 into a three-bedroom home perched above the poorest community in all of Ventura County.
"It's pretty much the only area left," said Max Gerdts, a 35-year-old laser optics salesman. "I can't help but think it will be a fashionable type of district someday."
That prediction no longer seems an improbable scenario for Ventura's oldest yet most dramatically changing neighborhood.
A swell of development already has begun to alter the face of the rough-hewn community and, with plans for a California State University campus on nearby Taylor Ranch, Ventura Avenue appears ripe for investment.
Best and Worst
It is a transition, however, that promises to be both a blessing and a curse.
Although widely considered the bad side of town, the neighborhood, known simply as "The Avenue," evokes reverence from those who call it home. To many, it is Ventura's backbone, the last repository of homespun character, a cohesive community whose soul would be erased by an upscale face lift.
"We are like the last guard," said John Powell, 40, an Avenue bicycle mechanic. "We are trying to keep the tradition of the small town alive. This has retained its flavor, its color, its character. The rest of Ventura has become a hodgepodge of grays."
Even more troubling to some residents is the potential impact on the poor. While rents remain among the city's lowest, the skyrocketing increase in resale value of homes--20% to 40% over the last year--threatens that refuge.
"Nothing is being done to protect the interests of the folks for whom this is a last resort," said Pat Driskell, executive director of Project Understanding, a private nonprofit agency on The Avenue assisting Ventura's homeless. "As prices escalate, they're going to get pushed out."
But with little new land in the city left to develop, The Avenue has become one of Ventura's last frontiers. Its southern boundary is now marked by the Mission Plaza shopping center, and to the north stands the 101-unit Brock Hills Paseo Del Mar tract to which the Gerdts were drawn.
The most imposing changes loom on the west, on a scenic hillside across the Ventura River, where Cal State is hoping to build a classroom complex for 2,000 to 3,000 third- and fourth-year students.
Cal State officials, who are negotiating to buy a 550-acre parcel on the ranch, have indicated that the site might eventually house a full-scale, four-year university.
The increased population and the prestige associated with being near a Cal State campus is expected to encourage development in The Avenue neighborhood, according to an engineering report on the project released last winter.
Those improvements, coming after two decades of declining production in the surrounding oil fields, have been welcomed by city officials as signs of renewed vigor.
"The area's certainly on the way up," said Everett Millais, Ventura's community development director. "I think it's going to come back and be a really vital part of the city."
Still, a walk around Ventura Avenue serves as a reminder that much of the motley community has yet to be touched by sweeping changes.
Its 20-block-long heart, full of small, aging homes from Main Street to Stanley Avenue, remains a low-rent retreat for many of the city's poorest families.
Current estimates based on 1980 Census data show the neighborhood's most impoverished segment has a median annual household income of $14,355. That area, which lies west of Ventura Avenue, is the poorest of any census tract in Ventura County, where the median household income is $35,659.
Home for Minorities, Exiles
The Avenue also has become a home for minorities and a haven for exiles from an otherwise predominantly Anglo, middle-class city. A large Latino population, a growing colony of young artists, an influx of homeless people, and a Hells Angels clubhouse ensure that no one will mistake this for Ventura's more homogeneous east end.
That contrast, too, is found in The Avenue's odd mix of businesses, such as Serene's Boots & Booze, where a roustabout can pick up a new pair of work boots and a fifth of Jack Daniels in one stop; the Bike and Bird Shop, where customized 18-speeds and South American macaws are sold side by side; and the Moo-Moo, Oink-Oink, Cluck-Cluck Restaurant, which had to disconnect its telephone several months ago because of a deluge of livestock-themed crank calls.