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The Town at the End of The Tunnel : As the county faces urbanization, La Conchita endures with its own concerns.

August 22, 1991|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cherie Chako had a choice. She and her partner could afford to either rent a home in Santa Barbara or buy one in this odd little place called La Conchita.

The neighborhood ran from ocean-view mansions to crumbling mobile homes, and amounted to just 12 blocks. To get out, you had to fling your car onto the busy highway from a stop-sign standstill. To cross the highway, you had to risk your life as a pedestrian or crouch and creep through a waist-high storm drain tunnel.

But at the other end of that tunnel lay uncrowded shores and 180-degree views of Pacific Ocean.

Chako bought.

Twelve years later, she's still there on Zelzah Street, commuting six days a week to the music store she runs in Santa Barbara.

"I love living on the beach," she says. "Except on the weekends. And the summertime, when you can't get into and out of your house."

And so, wearing its advantages and disadvantages on its sleeve, La Conchita endures.

While urbanizing Ventura County struggles with growth, industry and infrastructure, La Conchita's several hundred surfers, seniors, bohemians and young families have chosen life as a roadside distraction.

Habits of the Natives

To vote, they drive to the fire station in Seacliff, about a mile south.

To shop, they head five miles north to Carpinteria or 10 miles south to Ventura.

To attend public schools, their children board Ventura-bound buses.

"The bus ride is so long ," complains Benny Stone, who will soon turn 14 and begin classes at Ventura High School. He says the trip takes an hour, and the bus vibrates so much "you can't even do your homework."

The streets were only paved about three years ago, after many years of lobbying in county offices by La Conchita Community Assn. President Clarence Dean.

"Of course, that didn't make me friends with everybody here," says Dean, a retired engineer who moved up from Los Angeles 23 years ago. "Some of them liked things the way they were."

Every spring, the neighborhood throws a big garage sale. And at the end of every summer, there's a community party and dance among the fruits of the neighboring Seaside Banana Garden.

"It's an awesome place to live," says Robin Lovelady, 32, who moved in two years ago with her husband and four children. They rent a two-bedroom house on Ojai Street, and she works two days a week at the banana plantation.

"It's total Bohemia, and I love it," says Lorence Burndorf, owner of the Palm Street Gallery in Ventura and recent purchaser of a La Conchita home.

"It's the perfect place, I think, to bring kids up," says Jenny Oren, a lifelong La Conchitan who, at 17, qualifies as a kid herself. "You don't have any violence or anything. . . . I think I've only heard of one person who had a house broken into, and that was about five years ago."

And of course there are the storm drains.

Subterranean Passage

Caltrans built them in 1955, one storm drain at each end of town. Volunteers keep the western tunnel clear and tidy, and most of the locals use it to reach the beach. Last year, neighbors Randy Stone (Benny's father) and Jack Oren (Jenny's father) built a wooden deck with benches on the ocean side of the passage.

"People go down there, have a margarita, and watch the sunset," says Jenny Oren. "It's great. Everyone knows each other."

Some go there for a solitary cigarette. Others cast fishing lines from the platform. Young Benny Stone, an aspiring surfer who spends a lot of his time at the beach, estimates that he passes through the tunnel four times a day, either creeping on foot or hunched down on his bicycle.

"You get used to it," he says.

A lot of the the tourists don't even notice the underground route. The plantation lures them off the freeway, they buy some exotic bananas, and the guys at the Arco station charge them about $1.40 per gallon of self-service unleaded gas. For use of the restroom, another 25 cents.

These days, the bananas and the gas station are the only businesses in town, and La Conchitans have their streets, and their dirt alleys, pretty much to themselves. There is no city council, not much evidence of county government, not much crime, and not much interest in seeing those things change. If only the freeway ran a different route.

But then La Conchita would be another place altogether.

Old Days, Oil and Clams

Margaret Scheidman holds an old black-and-white photo. In it, half a dozen young people are gathered around a picnic table, laughing. This was La Conchita, long ago.

"I look at this," she says, "and I realize Rudy and me are the only ones left. All the others are dead. Look. I still had red hair. That was a long time ago."

Her hair is white now, and she is 82. Her husband is Rudy Scheidman, former co-owner of Frank and Rudy's restaurant, once the only dining establishment in La Conchita.

He arrived in the area before World War II and started his business. Soon after the war, he married Margaret and moved her from Santa Barbara to La Conchita.

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