A Love/Hate Relationship with Montecito

By Stella Haffner   |   October 5, 2021

It is a truth universally acknowledged that those in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a Montecito property with an ocean view – to paraphrase ever so slightly. What our friend Ms. Austen said with irony, Mack Ellis does not. Having gained perspective since leaving for college, Mack’s letter contrasts the natural beauty of Santa Barbara with its more alienating properties. Discussing our inherited social privilege, today’s author explores how we can reconcile a complicated relationship with the town in which we live.  

Dear Montecito,

I initially turned down the offer to write this piece multiple times. What can I say aside from the fact that I have a perspective that is planetary distances away from what it used to be? I grew up in Montecito. I grew up in a town that is a marvel of architecture, an oasis of food, a short walk to some of the most beautiful beaches I have ever seen, and home to some of the highest-ranked elementary schools in the country. But it’s not a place I ever loved growing up. In the 19 years since I moved here, I have not been around people who excite and engage me in nearly the same capacity as the people I’ve met outside of Montecito. In this way, I think my hometown and I are simply at odds. 

I don’t want this piece to be entirely negative. What’s the point then? If you want negativity with no hope, get a Twitter. One thing Santa Barbara as a whole can claim is that it inspires hope. I’ve been back here for most of the time since March 2020, and I’m ever surprised that I can’t get enough of how beautiful the natural world is here. I remember running off the plane at LAX after leaving freezing New York City plagued by ever-increasing COVID numbers, and I can’t tell you how happy I was that day, that week, for the next two months just to be home in Santa Barbara. With my friends, my family, reminiscence of my childhood. Sure, any childhood hometown brings up nostalgia. I could probably re-open Franny and Zoë if I’d grown up in Huntsville and feel the same way, and as long as I had friends and family whom I loved and loved me it wouldn’t have mattered in that regard where I’m from. But that’s not all of why I was so excited to be home.

There was something so magical about seeing this place through new eyes. For years, my Santa Barbara friends and I have remarked how we live in paradise. How lucky we are that unlike many of our friends from other places, we’re actually sad to leave home when winter break ends. While I was home, I rediscovered that I could walk to the beach. And even though my mask was a bit too tight those blissful walks, I cherish each. I can’t tell you how often I try to relive the joy I had when I got back to Santa Barbara that spring. Every sunset I worry that I won’t feel the same joy upon seeing the mountains again, and every sunrise my fears are assuaged.

We have desert, the beach, a chill urban area, homes scattered through the mountains, a world-class film festival. I feel like we have it all.

Whether it’s the glimmering light on the purple hills, the creeks that still stand, the preserves that the Chumash have so desperately fought to keep alive and protected from ecological destruction, it’s the nature of Santa Barbara that reminds me why I want to be here. And it is the Chumash to whom this land I call Santa Barbara belongs. They were its shepherds for more than 10,000 years, and they deserve to have it back. I ask my readers to seriously consider what should be done with stolen property, even if you did not steal it yourself or know that you were buying from someone who bought from a thief. If you love this land, as I do, ask yourself who should be in charge of it. I have listed so many things that the land of the Chumash people has given me, and I know many of my readers, Chumash and not, feel blessed to live on this land. What is the right thing to do with something that was stolen? Especially something as meaningful as a home.

And whether I like it or not, this town is my home. I have so many memories. So many memories I don’t want to share with you – because they are mine and special, and I want to keep them that way. But one more memory: I remember the last night I was in Santa Barbara the winter of the mudslides, just came back from Call Me By Your Name at the Riviera Theatre with my friend, hugging in the car for as long as possible, not wanting each other to go. We didn’t want to have to face the world again. Even though we’d been home a month, it was too short. Interrupted by the mudslides. I’d never thought I would feel so connected to my community, but tragedy has a way of uniting. I can’t claim it was my tragedy. It wasn’t. It was for people I knew, and for the natural world that still shows scars of the devastation years ago. I don’t know when they’ll heal.

And now I rest my ramble.


Mack Ellis

Did you grow up in Montecito? I’d love to hear from you at stellajanepierce@gmail.com!


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