ISLA VISTA — Arianna Paine's partying in this community next to UC Santa Barbara came to an end the night she swigged half a bottle of Southern Comfort and fell off a 35-foot seaside cliff. Lying face down in the sand, with a swarm of tiny sand crabs jumping all over her, the 18-year-old quickly regained consciousness with the shooting pain of a broken leg, pelvis and tailbone.
Within weeks, the community college student moved back home to Sonoma, where she has remained since the incident a year and a half ago.
Like many others, Paine had loved this student community sequestered among eucalyptus groves on a coastal bluff west of Santa Barbara--the endless young people to meet, the carefree attitude. But it was too much in the end. "I have alcoholism in my family," Paine said. "I was obviously over-drinking, and this just didn't seem like the right place for me. It's just chaotic."
In ways that are usually less extreme, young people often go through this cycle of being drawn in and then turned off by the raucous aura of Isla Vista, known as the party town of the UC system. Every so often, an event will jar a student like Paine, or the whole community adjacent to UCSB, back to a more sobering reality.
Such was the case when freshman David Edward Attias allegedly floored his gas pedal, sent his Saab at more than 50 mph down a popular party street on Feb. 23 and veered into a group of students, killing four and critically injuring another. He was charged with murder, indicating that prosecutors believe he did it intentionally. Authorities say Attias showed signs of being on drugs, but there is no indication that the accident had any connection with the college party scene.
And many say the campus' rowdy reputation is overstated. One thing is certain, though: The town around it is unusual. Here, 22,000 young people are concentrated in less than a square mile, the average age is 23, and thousands of 18-year-olds experience their first taste of freedom from parents in an off-campus environment almost entirely free of adult supervision.
It's an area where things have sometimes gotten out of control: the burning of a bank building and riots in 1970, raging Halloween celebrations, kids falling off the bluff to their deaths. But in recent years, there has been nothing like the carnage of last weekend's incident witnessed by hundreds.
Days later, people continued to stand over a shrine of flowers and candles at the crash site, crying. Many sought counseling and missed classes. This weekend was being billed by the student government as Dry Isla Vista. "We challenge students to donate money they would spend on alcohol to the victim's families," a flier reads. Although there were parties on Friday night, the scene was subdued.
But no one doubts that the boozing, funky atmosphere will return.
Students will still saunter around in flip-flops, surf the beach at Devereux and join drum pits in the park. They'll listen to garage bands around kegs of beer, burn couches in the street and ride bikes as frenetically as the people of any city in China--all next to a venerable campus that houses world-class academics, including three Nobel laureates.
The school draws top-flight students from high schools and community colleges, with an average GPA of 3.7 and an SAT score of 1,189. For 3,600 openings this year, the school received 32,000 applications and rejected at least 12,000 students who were eligible for the UC system, said Michael Young, vice chancellor of student affairs.
He said Isla Vista is unlike other UC neighborhoods-- Westwood, Irvine, La Jolla, Berkeley--in that the students are concentrated in less than one square mile.
Drab block apartment buildings and small stucco houses cover the eight-tenths of a square mile of Isla Vista. About half the population are students, a quarter of them from Santa Barbara City College.
On the opposite end, in the business district, students congregate at Freebird's burritos, Woodstock's Pizza, Espresso Romas, Morning Glory records and other businesses, as well as in a cluster of parks. There is no general bookstore. Officials are re-designing the county master plan of the area to deal with parking and housing problems, a lack of sidewalks and other concerns.
For two of Paine's friends, Ruthie Levy and Patricia Petersen, coming to Isla Vista was the happiest time of their lives.
"I just can't imagine living in a regular town with adults," said Petersen, 19.
On Feb. 23, Petersen and Levy, Levy's brother Albert and his friend Elie Israel strolled down the residential streets as people generally do in the area because sidewalks are sparse and drivers generally know to proceed slowly.
Petersen decided to stay at one party, but the others wanted to head to another house. A block from the coast, on Sabado Tarde about 11 p.m., the trio and two others were struck by Attias' Saab. Ruthie Levy, 20; Israel, 27; Nicholas Bourdakis, 20; and Christopher Edward Divis, 20, were killed instantly.