"If I can't dance then I don't want to be in your revolution." —probably apocryphal, attributed to Emma Goldman
Every scene in every city experiences it eventually; the moment when suddenly the sort of thing that once seemed permanently marginal goes moderately mainstream, and powerful forces collide. The original impulse that characterizes an arts district, which is typically the urge to avoid any kind of scrutiny or regulation, meets the inexorable progress of development and commercialization. In New York City, the short-lived and legendary East Village art scene met its backlash in 1987 during the Tompkins Square riots, when Peter Missing's upside down martini glass graffiti suddenly appeared seemingly everywhere, and the crowds in Tompkins Square Park pushed police sawhorses through the glass doors of the Christadora House while shouting "Die yuppie scum."
It hasn't yet come to that in Santa Babylon, but the scramble is on to stake a claim not only in the city's burgeoning post-industrial real estate bohemia, known for better or worse as "the Funk Zone," but in the culture at large, where a recent national study suggests that there are potentially big bucks to be made by those savvy enough to successfully navigate between the Scylla of cool isolationism and the Charybdis of overt commercial ambition, otherwise known as greed. Two recent events have catalyzed a new level of hype and anxiety in our traditionally laid-back town, a place where the unofficial but strongly felt implicit motto has always been, "when in doubt, mellow out."
Strikingly, the two incidents occurred just a couple of days apart. On Thursday, October 4, civic culture leaders and city officials gathered in the historic Lobero Theater to hear the economic good news presented by Washington-based lobbying group Americans for the Arts. Their message took the form of a 32-page report on the benefits that non-profit cultural organizations confer on the local financial situation. It turns out that Santa Barbara enjoys a significant, some might even say distinctive, advantage in relation to other cities of similar size in its rich offerings in the arena of culture. Compared to the median figure of approximately $78 million dollars in economic benefits generated by non-profit culture organizations and their audiences in cities with populations of between 250 and 500 thousand people, Santa Barbara sports a whopping $124 million arts and culture windfall, with spending by organizations alone topping the median aggregate number for elsewhere. Translation: Santa Barbara's non-profit arts and culture organizations generate $79 million even before the first audience member enters the picture. When it comes to the economic benefits that cities derive from arts and culture, Santa Barbara starts out ahead and ends up over the hills and far away, out of sight of the rest of the pack.
Yet paradoxically, when it comes to what many younger people see as evidence of an art scene, Santa Barbara has for many years appeared to be sadly lacking. There's no shortage of self-identified artists in town, and the hottest names in Pitchfork Media routinely swing by Muddy Waters on Haley Street for small shows in between larger gigs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but at least until recently, when it comes to the kind of neighborhoods like Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Eagle Rock, or even Venice Beach, Santa Barbara has had little to show for itself.
Cue "Focus on the Funk Zone," the one day public event that occurred on Saturday, October 6 to mark the official coming out of what promises to be the answer to that perennial question of "where are all the artists in this city?" This ten square block area that straddles the train tracks to the east of lower State Street has, in just a few years, gone from being a sleepy post-industrial wasteland where the RVs of nomads line the streets at night and few pedestrians venture after dark to being just possibly the new capital of hip. Early adopters like the Arts Fund Gallery, Red's Coffee House and Wine Bar, and the Oreana Winery have been joined by such relatively recent arrivals as Municipal Winemakers, wall space gallery, Channel Islands Surf Shop, Pali Wine Company, and the Latitudes Gallery. Long a safe haven for visual artists and such artisans as surfboard shapers and scuba divers, the neighborhood has seen its studio population double in the last two years, with now over 60 people choosing to work in the neighborhood in a variety of media, with a particular emphasis on painting and graphic design. On October 6, the action started early, with volunteers from the Santa Barbara Arts Collaborative led by arts blogger Nathan Vonk and creative community organizers Laura Inks, Clay Bodine, and Nils Hammerbeck hitting the streets to plant distinctive Funk Zone logo flags. At the Arts Fund Gallery, visitors could see a charrette of locally produced ideas for developing the neighborhood while retaining its character and function as a place where artists and other creative types can meet, mingle, and make noise at virtually any hour of the day or night.
By mid-afternoon, the event was in full swing, which meant different things to different people. At the numerous open studios taking place, the action revolved around art sales, several of which were made on a handshake and personal check basis to people who had never been in the neighborhood before. At the corner of Helena and Mason, several murals were still in progress alongside other finished works, all of them made possible by Laura Inks' tireless advocacy on behalf of public art and opportunities for street artists in the city and the program she founded there called AMASS. At J7 Surfboards, just half a block down Mason and a stone's throw from the burgeoning tasting room row anchored by Muni Wines, shaper/proprietor Jason Feist and a few friends were slow roasting a turkey in a black Bell charcoal grill on the sidewalk.
Later that night, activity shifted north of the tracks to the alley behind the Kirkegaard gallery and studio space, where giant art cars with bars presided over a scene amped up by live music and DJs. This portable throw down attracted a wide range of people, from curious passerby to dancers from the Spearmint Rhino outpost on the corner to fire spinners straight out of Burning Man. As two a.m. approached the music and festivity rolled on, with the police long gone, having shown up only once, around midnight, to shake their heads and shove off in support of the long -standing agreement between the city and the Funk Zone that the rule in this small area is that there are no rules.
The question that remains, now that the debris from "Focus on the Funk Zone" has been cleared away and the brighter light of day now shines where sparkling fires once spun, is how long this little piece of bohemian utopia can continue to exist in this form. There are already several major outside developers who have made multiple acquisitions in the area, and it looks as though whatever property remains available right now will soon be snapped up by eager speculators. Brian Kelly of the Boston-based Eastern company Eastern Real Estate has amassed the most impressive new portfolio of properties, with three separate parcels situated on either side of the train tracks all acquired within the last two years. His next move remains to be seen, although work has begun on a coop space that reportedly will house tasting rooms, a brewery, and a boutique distillery for small batches of the hard stuff. Kelly's representative to the community is his sister, Katie Hay, and while she has assured the local artists that the properties will be remodeled to accommodate rent-paying tasting rooms, a quick look at the Eastern website reveals a company with something of a split personality. Luxury properties that Eastern has taken over like Shutters on the Beach and Casa Del Mar in Santa Monica are listed alongside radical flip jobs in which a suburban lumberyard, a downtown Boston Woolworth's building, and several failed department stores have been acquired, remodeled, and sold or rented, mostly to big box stores, national chains, and health clubs.
The bulk of the Funk Zone properties remain in the hands of a small group of Santa Barbara families like the Castagnolos (fishing), the Nancarrows (the Carrows restaurant chain), and the Sanchez (car dealers), now controlled by the rentier class grandchildren of the men who operated fish markets and car dealerships in the area when the land was known as the East Boulevard neighborhood. The remnants of this era, such as the grain tower of the bakery on Santa Barbara Street, are the prizes that artists and other creatives seek to secure as their playground going forward. Developments that are likely to raze these often decrepit, sometimes toxic structures will destroy the character and limit the use value of the neighborhood for artists, or so say the activists who have banded together to "hold the space." For a closer look, why not hit the next big Funk Zone event, which will take place during New Noise Santa Barbara Block Party on Saturday, November 10, to witness a neighborhood in the process of evolution.