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Sea Change in Santa Monica

Wealth drives out funk, and a famous liberal largess is under attack. The problem, says the mayor, is 'too much success.'

October 16, 2002|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

"The radicals ... haven't renamed Santa Monica 'Ho Chi Minh City,' but if they did, the people who used to rule here -- the conservatives, the landlords, the developers, the business people -- wouldn't be at all surprised."

-- "60 Minutes," 1982


Did somebody once talk about a "People's Republic of Santa Monica"?

Nowadays, Santa Monica seems more like Beverly Hills run by the Green Party.

The city once synonymous with the liberal causes of Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda is filling up with new People's Republicans who earn a median income of $90,000 a year. Designer boutiques have eclipsed mom-and-pop stores on Montana Avenue, giving the street a haughty affluence more familiar along Rodeo Drive.

The ZIP Code north of Montana Avenue has become a gated community without a gate. Private patrol cars prowl a mushrooming array of newly minted monster mansions whose square footage is among the county's most valuable.

Ever wonder what would happen if the Woodstock generation got rich? Check out the bourgeois bohemians at Montana's organic grocer. Choose homeopathic remedies--or "Hemp Plus" frozen waffles--to the soothing midlife angst of Eric Clapton. "Yogi" Green Tea offers yoga poses on the box.

To civic boosters anywhere else, this New Age-meets-Gilded Age might mean success.

But a sense of unease, even guilt, hangs over the place, as if some people are debating whether Santa Monica should be sister city to Brentwood or Berkeley.

Just last week, the Santa Monica City Council wound up an emotional debate with the passage of two laws aimed at containing homeless people--long the beneficiaries of local liberal largess.

Another litmus test comes in November. Voters will face a referendum intended to overturn an ordinance that mandated a $10.50 "living wage" that was to have taken effect in July for workers on the ocean-front tourist strip.

The issue taps into a widening fault line of class struggle: Not everyone who works in Santa Monica can still afford to live there. Stockbrokers are moving in. Artists are moving on.

"The term 'Beverly Hills-by-the-sea' is what is often used here to sum up the fear. No offense to Beverly Hills, but this is a different community," said Santa Monica Mayor Michael Feinstein, 43, a ponytailed Green Party leader. "Our real challenge is dealing with too much success. We have a situation where, if we let capitalism run amok, it will run right over us."

Some say it already has.

Rent control, a cornerstone of Santa Monica liberal politics, now defers to a state law, enacted in January 2001, allowing landlords to raise the rents of vacant units to market rates.

The migration of entertainment firms to Santa Monica's new office park in the mid-1990s accelerated a huge real estate run-up.

"These guys got the idea that entertainment was the biggest clean, nonpolluting industry, and authorizing these big flashy developments was the way to attract it," said "Saturday Night Live" veteran Harry Shearer, whose Sunday morning radio satire, "Le Show," broadcasts from Santa Monica, which he nicknames "Home of the Homeless."

Allowing residents to seal off their streets with permit parking "seems elitist for a leftist City Council," he said. "I think of them more like the current Chinese, who proclaim a left-wing ideology but maintain Hong Kong and Shanghai as bastions of capitalism. One thing this town lacks is real bohemians, so I guess pretensions is as close as we're going to get."

Feinstein, with his sandals, floppy shorts and hooded Green Party sweatshirt, seems to embody the counterculture ethos that plucked Santa Monica from conservative obscurity to the attention of the Free World.

Instead of meeting at Starbucks ("because of the corporate stuff") Feinstein invites a reporter to an Ocean Park cafe where the tip jar reads "Karma."

Feinstein came to Santa Monica in 1983 when the sleepy 127-year-old beach town was waking up and turning into "this deliberately funky place to be," Feinstein recalled.

"Here you could be an individual without breaking the mold and be seen as going against the crowd," he said.

Santa Monica was filling up with the cultured bohemians who, as in San Francisco, Big Sur and New York's SoHo, turned out to be the improbable advance men and women for gentrification. They proved that alternative lifestyles and success need not be mutually exclusive.

Or, as Jackson Browne put it, once upon a time "we were all hippies. Some of us got rich off music" -- and other counterculture industries.

Feinstein, a native of Minnesota, had gotten a degree in philosophy from Carleton College there and backpacked through Europe, where he encountered Green Party leaders who "made me realize that, rather than going to a mountaintop in the Himalayas, I should see how those feelings of inter-connectedness fit in the real world."

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