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Oxnard Hankering for Respect : Seashore City Looks for Motto, Brighter Image

June 16, 1988|MEG SULLIVAN | Times Staff Writer

Alas, poor Oxnard.

With nothing but uncluttered beaches, succulent strawberries and a quaint harbor to recommend it, Ventura County's largest city might as well be Rodney Dangerfield. It don't get no respect.

Johnny Carson maligns it. Dr. Demento raps it. Even a few residents turned on their own hometown when the Oxnard Convention and Visitors Bureau launched a contest for a new city motto last month.

One Oxnardian proposed a motto that made fun of Oxnard's strawberry festival and former standing as the Lima Bean Capital. Another took a poke at the city's large Latino population. A third lampooned the billboard designed to remind motorists along a rare inland stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway that, yes, it's Oxnard-By-the-Sea.

'Ghetto by the Sea'

"Some guy sent in a motto that said, 'Oxnard: Ghetto by the Sea,"' recalls Robert Varley, director of the visitors bureau, who coordinated the contest. "I said, 'Thanks a lot, pal.' "

Soon Oxnard will have a response of its own. In the next week or so, a winner will be culled from among 100 entrants, and Oxnard boosters once again will undo decades of derision with a few well-chosen words. Among promising slogans so far are "Oxnard: This Side of Eden" and "Oxnard: It's Beachin"--a personal favorite of Varley.

But whether the tag will make a silk purse out of a civic whoopie cushion, and catapult Oxnard out of the ranks of such perennially abused cities as Burbank, Philadelphia and Newark, remains to be seen.

After all, the motto does nothing to remedy what most agree is the problem.

In a region where most communities bear lilting Spanish references to saints, explorers or such stunning geological formations as Palos Verdes, the city's name conjures its roots--and a host of other things--all too vividly.

Target of Comedians

As the surname of a pair of brothers who opened a sugar beet factory there in the late 1800s, Oxnard comes off as "German and guttural," said Harry Capehart, owner of Hornblower's Comedy Club in Ventura and a promoter of comedians who repeatedly take the town to task for its name.

"Oxnard sounds like a beef by-product. 'I'll take a pound of Oxnard,' " Capehart said, quoting one of the comics.

"The name does seem to roll off the tongue oddly," echoes Barry Hansen. A Sherman Oaks musicologist who is radio's nationally syndicated "Dr. Demento," he is responsible for what is probably Oxnard's best known barb.

In a 1978 recording popularized on Hansen's program, Oxnard pop duo Clark Maffitt and Brian Davies crooned about an unlikely romantic evening in "October in Oxnard," a snide spoof on "April in Paris."

"Seagulls up in the sky," they sang, "were dropping little bits of joy on you and me in our lovely Oxnard-by-the-Sea."

Name-Change Campaigns

Proposals to change Oxnard's name have circulated over the years. Renaming Oxnard is a frequent subject of letters to local newspapers, and nary a city election is held that a candidate does not offer a suggestion, said City Councilman Manuel Lopez.

But no movement has ever gained enough steam to rename Oxnard after the nearby Channel Islands, the most popular suggestion. Varley chalks this up to reverence for the city's 85-year history, which, outside of the perennial name-changing discussion, has consisted largely of the same sort of municipal disputes that characterize thousands of other towns.

Ventura County Supervisor John Flynn, whose district includes Oxnard, has another explanation. He believes that such suggestions insult long-time Oxnard residents.

"There are people who've lived here all their lives and they wouldn't want to see it changed," he said. "It's the name they've identified themselves with all their lives."

Meanwhile, such newcomers as Timothy Carrithers, a 29-year-old editor of Cycle magazine, struggle to save face while living in a city with "a lower-order working class image. It's like Oxnard is the Third World Country of Southern California. You can tell when you hit it on the freeway. All the BMWs turn to pickups."

Creative Alternatives

A resident of the Silver Strand beach area, he confesses to telling people that he lives in "anything but Oxnard."

Carrithers is not alone, according to Bill Almaraz, customer service manager for the postal service in Oxnard.

"I've had a lot of calls from customers and businesses who want to use Channel Islands" as their address, he said. "We don't like to encourage it, but as long as they have the correct ZIP code, the mail will get where it's suppose to go. We like to say we don't allow it--but it does happen."

Those seeking the catchy phrase haven't been any less persistent than residents trying to wring the Oxnard out of their addresses.

Promoters three years ago christened Oxnard "The Heart of the Gold Coast" by dumping toy coins from the boat of a local developer offshore from the Colony subdivision at Mandalay Beach.

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