Whose Montecito?

By Gwyn Lurie   |   August 27, 2020

by Gwyn Lurie

As scores of people flee various pandemic-claustro places for the sunny hills and shores of Montecito, it is time to ask ourselves the inescapable question, “Whose Montecito is it?”  

This point was underscored by local reaction to last week’s issue of this newspaper which gently poked fun at tabloid culture and expressed our belief that our new royal neighbors, like all Montecitans, have a right to a normal abnormal life here. The villains in the piece were tabloid culture, the paparazzi, and the invasive nature of both.

We received many appreciative responses to our treatment of this story. But we also received a wee bit of hate mail – two pieces to be exact, from members of a self-professed “multi-generational Montecito family.”

I mention this because even angry letters can facilitate an important conversation about where we are headed, both locally and nationally, and in this case, who gets to curate our culture. There’s a reason this question is especially timely right now.

We normally print all letters we receive (including the negative ones) unless they are: anonymous or contain hate speech or are intended as personal attacks – thank you, but I have my kids for that. Both of these letters fit squarely in that final category and so we are not printing them.

But reading between the ad hominem remarks (“you come across as an ‘outsider looking in,’” “move back to L.A.,” “this village has deteriorated to the lowest common denominator of transplants who now call Montecito home,” etc.) the gist of their umbrage seems to be that as a non-multi-generational Montecitan or “transplant,” I don’t “know” or “can’t understand” the nuances of proper Montecito mores and manners. Manners that, in their opinion, should have included not mentioning whatsoever the royals’ arrival as if we are part of some royal coterie. 

If I understand their position, it’s that this is a place where celebrities should be able to live in peace without neck craning by locals, especially of the interloper variety, who should not be so crass as to notice. Even if those people happen to wear a figurative crown. 

I’ve never been a big royal-watcher, but the royals moving here is not only news, it’s important news. Why? Because a Duke and Duchess from England, the most enduring royal line on the planet, chose to leave their home and royal duties. They instead chose, of all of the places on earth, to come here. That is both global news and local news. We believe that to not acknowledge this story would be a dereliction of duty as the local paper of record, and a disservice to the local business community and everyone for whom local commerce is their lifeblood. And let’s not forget that an important part of the story is that what the royal couple fled was a tabloid culture of snobbery and exclusion, citing what was described as “unbearable … racist attitudes from the British media.” 

But these arbitrary, unofficial rules of community etiquette can be slippery. If longevity (read bloodline) is the yardstick by which one measures the right to define the unwritten “rules” of behavior for this, or any, region, then perhaps we should consult the Chumash, who have lived here for 13 thousand years. That’s 400 generations. Talk about multi-generational.

The reason custodianship or perceived custodianship of Montecito’s mores matters right now is not because royals moved here. It’s because, like it or not, we are at an inflection point; not only here, but across the country as well. The unavoidable conversation is: what is Montecito going to “be” going forward? And for whom will it be? And who controls the velvet rope?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, approximately 153 homes and condos have sold in Montecito. From what we’ve been told, more than 75% of the inquiries and transactions regarding real estate are from outside Santa Barbara County. That’s a lot of “outsiders” joining our community. If each sale represents an average of two to four people, then certainly this will have a palpable impact on Montecito’s composition and culture. 

But change is not new to Montecito. We have triple the number of restaurants we had just 10 years ago. We have a spiffy new hotel. We have 5G, we have more than 50 houseless people among our ranks. And doubtless there will be more interesting demographics revealed once the 2020 Census gets processed.

I think this town has done an extraordinary job of preserving and protecting the semi-rural, understated, sand-between-the-toes elegance that has long defined Montecito. And the Montecito Association, the Planning Commission, and MBAR have done a superb job preserving our housing stock and curtailing overgrowth.

But what is our attitude going to be toward people “not from here”? That is, if they don’t seamlessly and quietly fit into some predetermined version of what Montecito is supposed to include. And exclude.

Not unlike our country, it seems like there are two extreme positions. With a vocally silent or at least shouted-over center.

On one side there are those who would like to freeze Montecito in time – create a living diorama or snow globe of a bygone “better” time. Which is certainly something we hear in the national conversation as well. At the other extreme, there are those who see places like Montecito as monuments to wealth inequality and privilege and would like to see that abundance redistributed. It might sound like I’m being dramatic but we’re in a high combustion moment, and we live in a high fire zone, as everybody knows.

For me, as I suspect is true for many, I land somewhere in the middle. Yes, there were some great things about that “bygone era” – a simpler time when we weren’t so worried about the environment, when there was less traffic, when people looked each other in the eye to have a conversation, when we knew our neighbors. But the fact is, a lot of people were excluded from the joys of that special time, and many suffered from the very systems that others remember so fondly. 

My own opinion resides in the Japanese concept of “kaizen” which means “always be improving.” I vote for taking the best of what was and mixing it with the best of what is and the best of what could be. Kaizen, say, mixed with a little kumbaya. 

The Chumash and the Rainbow Bridge

Interestingly the Chumash, Santa Barbara residents who have been here since the last Ice Age, since the Pleistocene (an entirely different geological) era, have their own beliefs about noise and crowds and their impact on local culture.

The Rainbow Bridge is the Chumash origin story which explains how they got from the Channel Islands to Santa Barbara proper thousands of years ago. Apparently, the Channel Islands (still one land mass when the Chumash first settled there) got so noisy and crowded, the gods gave them a rainbow bridge which would take them here (one reason today there’s rainbow iconography sprinkled throughout Santa Barbara).

But the rainbow bridge was really high and many Chumash feared walking on it. So the elders advised the tribesmen not to look down and not to look back but to only look forward. The story is seen as a parable about how a people can strategically move from their past and into the future.

Our new neighbors were obviously willing to make huge sacrifices in order to make a home in a gentler environment where they could join the ranks of the “normally abnormal” community of Montecito.

I hope and believe they made the right choice.

This Week…

2020. A year to which many of us will be very happy to wave goodbye. Adios. Good riddance. With a world-wide pandemic, an economic disaster, and a national reckoning of systemic racism, I’ve stopped asking myself what else could possibly happen for fear that the answer will come.

Nick Schou writes about a local resident still living the fallout from another disaster that some of us have already happily put in our rear-view mirror. Paul Madsen spends his days in his car outside of the home for which he still awaits a building permit to repair, the home he’s lived in since growing up there in the ‘50s, and to which he intends to return. Nick’s piece is a sobering reminder that some Montecitans are still also suffering the fall-out from that other painful and disastrous time about which we’d like to forget.


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