For years, while driving up or down the California coast, we would stop for a night or two in Santa Barbara.
Usually we would stay at the venerable Hotel Santa Barbara and walk across the street for dinner at Joe’s Café, with its red-checkered tablecloths, wooden booths, and no-nonsense servers who’d been there for decades and knew their way around a menu filled with honest old-fashioned food and drink.
State Street aesthetically was a delight, with its Spanish-style architecture, brick sidewalks, flags flying in the golden sunlight, lush plantings, and mature trees swaying in the cool and gentle breeze.
Only one thing was missing: Where were the people?
As the years passed and storefronts emptied, the street seemed ever quieter on every visit. But no less lovely.
Then came the pandemic.
My wife, Barbara Kate Repa, and I seized the opportunity to leave San Francisco and the legal world and pursue our dream of living here. We arrived on Memorial Day weekend in 2020 — the very weekend the State Street Promenade was born.
Those first few weeks were glorious. Suddenly, despite the lockdown everywhere else, State Street came alive. Restaurants and shops spilled out onto the sidewalks and into the street, which was blessedly free of cars. It was a walker’s paradise.
We managed to find a townhouse nearby to rent — no easy feat then or now. Nearly every day we ate outside, either in our back yard or at one of the restaurants offering outdoor dining. We shopped at the farmers market on Saturday mornings and Tuesday afternoons. We knew very few people, yet we were not alone.
For three years now, we’ve been on State Street nearly every day, taking a walk, wandering into the paseos, collecting our mail at one of the world’s most beautiful post offices, both of us working at businesses on the street. I’ve become a docent at the magnificent Santa Barbara County Courthouse and come to know more about the history and careful planning that shaped Santa Barbara into the jewel it is today.
State Street is a livelier and more pleasant place now than at any point in the three decades we’ve been coming here.
That has continued to be true even as the move onto the street has been hacked away by tighter restrictions on sidewalk dining, in the name of accessibility; and cutbacks in on-the-street commerce, in the name of fire safety.
Creative things are happening. The most recent example is the beautiful green space the Community Environmental Council opened last week across from the Granada Theater, vowing to help make State Street “a vibrant center for retail, arts, and entertainment, but also just for the community to come and be without having to spend money.”
That’s better — much better — than more cars and more shopping.
Yes, sometimes bicycles can be an issue. I was nearly run over in the parking lot at Home Depot last week by a kid popping a wheelie. But most cyclists downtown are more like retired Santa Barbara High School history teacher Rodger Hembree, who rides his bicycle on State Street three times a day.
Much remains to be done to make the promenade work for the long run and align it with Santa Barbara’s signature style. That planning is underway, and it’s being done in the deliberate and thoughtful manner that made this special place what former mayor Sheila Lodge called, in the title of her excellent pandemic treatise, “An Uncommonplace American Town.”
This is no time for weak-kneed nostalgists and professional cynics. The good old days never were, and they’re not coming back. Neither is Macy’s, nor Nordstrom, nor Saks, nor Montgomery Ward, nor even Woolworth’s.
First, do no harm, as the Hippocratic Oath cautions physicians.
Wiping out the vitality that has spontaneously erupted on State Street during the past three years — a real silver lining of the pandemic — would be foolish. Three-quarters of the locals say they like it. To think that we could squash out the life that has come to the street organically and restart it in a prettier package, with a new set of more elaborate rules, is nonsense — contradictory and not possible.
As lifelong newspaper and magazine editors, we have been informally chronicling life on the promenade during the past three years. Now we’ve created a new voice for vitality we’re calling The State Streeter. It’s mostly photos and short videos, with as few words as possible, plus links to articles we find insightful and to groups imagining the future.
You can subscribe at statestreeter.com. It’s free, and we’re not asking for donations.
The future is already here in Santa Barbara. Join us in recognizing and celebrating the progress that has come our way, almost accidentally, and in helping to make this an even more perfect place to live.