The New York TMZ: Reports of Montecito Being Exclusive to the Newly Wed and Nearly Dead Turn Out to Have Been Greatly Exaggerated
Last week I wrote about the long demise of the Santa Barbara News-Press and the poignance that the final chapter of its tortured story turned out to be Chapter 7. And I touched on the irreplaceable role local news plays in a robust, functioning democracy.
A recent piece in the notably not-local New York Times on the “meaning” of Montecito entitled “What Is It About Montecito?” is a cautionary tale illustrating the perils of a distant media giant attempting to define our narrative versus home-grown, boots-on-the-ground local reporting.
As of today, The New York Times has issued four (and counting) corrections to their “What Is It About Montecito” story, which was forwarded to me by essentially my entire contacts list. The NYT reporter, Amy Larocca, didn’t even get Montecito’s geography right, to give you some idea of the fundamental nature of the things the Times got wrong about us. When it comes to reporting on Montecito, the Times reporter literally couldn’t get her bearings.
At the end of the piece, the Times asks if they got the story right and if they didn’t, please send a correction. I have so many corrections I have decided to print them here. Because I’m pessimistic the Gray Lady (as the NYT refers to itself and my kids sometimes refer to me) would give me more space for my corrections than they used for their anything-but-pithy reportage.
One of my biggest problems with the Times’ piece on Montecito is the prism through which they chose to look at our riviera – the prism of celebrity. No one I know came here to be near celebs, who are far better viewed free range in their natural habitats, in places like Malibu, Calabasas, and the Not-So Hidden Hills. People come here to avoid tabloid culture. But not Larocca. She was combing our shores for celebs like a beachcomber with a metal detector looking for dropped change.
If you haven’t read the Times’ piece, even though all your friends and relatives have sent it to you by now, the reporter, whose main hustle is as a “fashion editor-at-large” for New York Magazine, focuses so much on the famous who live in this town, one can only assume her story mostly reflects her own personal obsession with celebrity culture. Clearly Larocca understands that today, celebrity mentions are clickbait gold.
Larocca mentions a litany of local celebs, including “Katy Perry’s dad,” whom she mockingly describes more like a cartoon than as a person, “endlessly bopping around town dressed in a psychedelic mashup of Chrome Hearts and Ed Hardy, an aesthetic that borrows equally from ‘90s O.C. skaters, Elton John, and Flavor Flav.” Poor Katy Perry’s dad. The NY Times didn’t even give him a name other than “Katy Perry’s dad.” For the record his name is Maurice Hudson (but known by locals as Keith).
Larocca says “a driving tour of Montecito’s elaborate and forbidding gates and lined driveways suggests that only Madame Tussauds has more celebrities per square foot.” Really? So, a driveway with a gate means Casa Celebrity? Live and learn, I suppose. Larocca makes driveways sound like castle moats stocked with alligators. And I suppose she leaves her door in NYC open to anyone who’d like to come by and kibbitz? We happen to keep our moat stocked with ducklings and mermaids.
The Times’ piece does its darndest to tie everything here to one famous person or another with language like: “More than a third of Montecito residents are over 65 and this tally includes Carol Burnett.” I’m surprised Larocca didn’t say she enjoyed breathing the air here knowing that even a microscopic amount of it may have once been exhaled by Gwyneth Paltrow. Maybe this was the breath she used to blow out one of her signature candles!
In all seriousness, however, in addition to the article reading more like Deadline Hollywood or TMZ than what I used to know as the paper of record, lost in Larocca’s celebrity-packed prose, the real omission from “What Is It About Montecito,” is what is truly special about this place: its people (famous and unfamous alike), its culture, its human capital, and most of all its spirit.
When our family first moved here, we were surprised by the warm welcome we received by locals. My husband joked that this place seemed filled with people who had never been hurt. I think it was our second day here when someone in a giant Mercedes SUV drove up to our home and returned a wallet I had left at the Coffee Bean. “I saw your address on your driver’s license so I figured I’d just drive it over.” And that was far from the last time something like that happened.
We so appreciated that conversations here included topics other than someone’s next movie deal. It was refreshing that folks here hailed from diverse professional backgrounds, countries, artistic and intellectual endeavors. Though 400 times the population of Montecito, the L.A. we lived in was much more of a monoculture.
When our kids attended Montecito Union School, we were surprised to learn that nearly half the MUS families were renters, many of them stretching to live in a place that offered a public school where the average class size was 17. A school that was as good or better than any school, public or private, that we had looked at in L.A.
The thing about Montecito we most love is that it attracts people who are less socially aspirational than many of the people we knew who were living in L.A. or in NYC (my husband’s hometown). If climbing the Hollywood social ladder is your priority, you would likely not choose to live in a place like Montecito where one would have no way of knowing that the person in flip-flops at the next table at Jeannine’s actually holds the original patent for fire.
Never mentioned in Larocca’s piece is the burgeoning tech community in Montecito and Santa Barbara. Nor that this is home to some of the world’s most trailblazing entrepreneurs, many of whom are still active and working right here, locally: the founders of SONOS, the Google Quantum AI computer, Gorilla Glue, Kate Farms, Stüssy, Flying A Studio, Deckers, Procore, Sex Wax, Dr. Sansum was the first to administer insulin in a patient, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing, Tri-Tip, SIMS, Powell-Peralta, Martha Graham Dance Company, Earth Day, Kinko’s, Big Dog Clothing, Balance Bar, McConnell’s Ice Cream, Direct Relief International, SEE International, Egg McMuffin, Blue LED inventor Shuji Nakamura (won the Nobel Prize), Clénet Coachworks, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg (source: local historian Erin Graffy).
Montecito’s tragic 2018 debris flow was referenced, but nothing about the incredible way this community rallied to support each other through that tragedy. How our response to that crisis became literally a national model of resilience efforts by organizations like The Bucket Brigade and The Program for Resilient Communities, (TPRC) which worked closely with USCB’s world class Bren School to understand the moment and plan – successfully – for a more resilient future. TPRC researched and found the debris nets, a technology that was then shared with and adopted by Los Angeles for their subsequent debris flow beneath the Getty Museum.
Also never mentioned was that Santa Barbara is said to have more nonprofits per capita than any county in the country. Organizations supported greatly by Montecito’s large and engaged philanthropic community.
Another peculiarity of the Times’ profile of Montecito that gets lost in its litany of celebrity is that somehow Larocca got Montecito’s County Supervisor (Das Williams) to boast about his defiant lack of concern for his own constituents’ interests. “When people come to me and say, oh this or that will be terrible for property value, I just say, ‘Good!’” said Williams.
Really? Our elected member of the County Board of Supervisors thinks it’s good when Montecito’s property values go down? Seems a little weird considering a significant amount of Montecito’s property taxes support Santa Barbara County services – including the salaries of Supervisor Williams and his staff.
Importantly for me, what I really missed in the NYT reporting about Montecito is what I most appreciate about this place – its quirk. The idiosyncrasies of this little village that have managed to outlast the powerful forces for growth and modernization that perpetually work against that. And all of that is found in the details. The lack of streetlights. The lack of traffic lights. The lack of commercialization. The lack of self-promotion. And, yes, the height limits and regulations on walls and gates.
With its breezily inaccurate and hyperbolic tone, Larocca’s piece most illustrates the perils of having your narrative written by a distant and flippant media giant. For whatever reason, The New York Times decided it was time to write something colorful about Montecito. But they sent a fashion reporter to do it. And Montecito has never been about fashion, being in fashion, or what’s “trending.” We’ll leave that for L.A.
And if you don’t believe me, ask Meghan Markle. Or Katy Perry’s dad.