Thursday, July 24, 2008

And then there were two

In the early morning hours on a weekend day, Santa Barbara’s Oak Park resembles a Hollywood back lot, waiting for transformation, population and magic to occur. It hardly seems possible that this small amount of asphalt surrounding an historic wooden dance floor—originally built in 1926 for a dinner dance honoring the Duke of York—could become a festive marketplace that welcomes the community to celebrate diversity and share in the fun.

This natural setting — graced with mature, leafy oaks and sycamores; bisected by a boulder-strewn seasonally dry creekbed, and accented by old-fashioned, hand-crafted stone-and-concrete picnic facilities — has hosted innumerable festivities created by people from faraway lands, attended by locals and visitors of all ages, all cultures, and all points of view.
Party under the oaks, sway to the music and dance the day away. Sample the cuisine and crafts, fashion and festivities that characterize a specific culture. For decades, that’s been the basic formula for success for the Ethnic Festivals at Oak Park. Over the years, they have included the Caribbean, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Multi-Cultural, Scandinavian and Thai.
But now they number just two: the 21st annual French Festival was held two weeks ago, and the 35th annual Greek Festival is scheduled for this weekend.
The others have fallen victim to a range of woes that have little to do with sharing a culture or celebrating a people. Modern-day bureaucratic requirements are largely to blame.
With their mountains of paperwork, forms, permits, applications, insurance, inspections, inconsistencies, departments, monitors, signage, rule changes and ever-increasing fees and extraordinary expenses for all of these official services, standards, regulations and general aggravations have stifled every bit of feeling of one love, la dolce vita, joie de vivre, keffe or zusammengehoerigkeitsgefuehl out of the planning and preparation phases of one of these ethnic extravaganzas staged outdoors at Oak Park.
According to Mike Pahos, longtime director of the Greek Festival, the idea originated with St. Barbara Greek Orthodox Church parishioner Helen Stathis, who observed the City’s annual preparations for Fiesta. She thought the community might enjoy a bit of Greek hospitality the Saturday before the city-wide celebration. In 1973, a four-hour event, sponsored by the church, was scheduled at Oak Park; it was a great success, although Pahos admits, “We were all exhausted afterward.”
The rest is history. These festivals—no matter what their ethnicity—were created by visionaries who wanted to share their passion for their uniqueness with the rest of the community. Free of charge, they have been attended and enjoyed by several generations within the family, from infant to elderly.
They have encouraged participation, simple pleasures and a distinctly village feeling that welcomes inclusion—a celebration of the heritage of common people and their simple expressions in folk dance, regional music and humble foods.
Those visionaries who have the skills to create and inspire something like an ethnic festival, may just not have the kind of patience required to navigate through the maze of increasingly corporate and complicated requirements of entrenched bureaucracies, to make it happen. And many have decided they just can’t do it anymore.
But onerous regulations are not the only reason for the loss to the community of these expressions of ethnic celebration.
It also comes down to Economics 101; the rising costs of goods and services—from food to security guards—affects the bottom line of every one of these celebrations. These economic realities have stressed out festival directors who know all too well there’s nothing the least bit celebratory about throwing a party for the community and ending up in debt as a result. The financial pressure to make money with the food, beverages, posters, T-shirts, and trinkets has overwhelmed almost every one of these events.
The French Festival continues due to Francophile Steve Hoegerman’s dogged determination and entrepreneurial skills; the Greek Festival relies on a core group of parishioners, and their friends, who with religious devotion volunteer uncountable hours to ensure success. For years, Hoegerman has been touting the economic and cultural benefit of all the Oak Park Ethnic Festivals, and sounding the alarm to all who would listen. “Don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” he has pleaded. Now he states glumly, “the goose is dead.”
Some say times have changed; that the ethnic festivals under the oaks appealed only to the older generation, and not to younger folks. Others say people just don’t have the time or inclination to volunteer anymore, or that what was once exotic just seems more commonplace.
In Oak Park, there’s an oak tree planted near the children’s playground where new play equipment is being installed. In front of the tree, is a rock embedded with a plaque that reads, “This tree represents the Oak Park Ethnic Festival Council.” With only two members, the council doesn’t meet anymore, and the commemorative rock is covered with graffiti and bird droppings.
Apparently, there are still a couple of regulations that have yet to be imposed.

Cherie Rae’s column appears every Thursday in the Daily Sound. Read her previously columns at or e-mail her at


Anonymous said...

What is the point of this article? Why continue offering these sorts of activities if you're going broke? Things change. Cheri Rae needs to change her perspective of the world. We're living in 2008 not back in the 70s.

Joe said...

Anon 6:23 -- You're missing the point all together. Cheri's perspective on the world seems spot on to me. If you had actually read the article you'd know these other festivals didn't go broke because of poor attendance. It was all the red tape they had to cut through.

We should be counting our blessings that we still have the French and Greek Festivals -- although maybe not for much longer -- instead of telling people to get over it and move on.

Anonymous said...

Cheri Rae's article made me very sad for the loss of the wonderful times we've had at the various ethnic festivals. I miss them. The Board of Health was ballistic about flies on food. Net everything.....I never saw a fly at any of the ethnic festivals. But, you can't be too careful....when you're consuming souvlakia followed by a shot of ouzo... Cheri Rae continues to write superior columns, always full of heart and beautifully expressed. Kudos to the Sound for publishing her. k

Anonymous said...

The ethnic festivals (Italian, Jewish, Chinese, Caribbean, etc) were strong until the early 2000's. They were great.

I thought the issue was less the economics and more the insurance and paperwork by the City.

Cheri Rae didn't really do her homework here.

allegro805 said...

Sad, but without the support of members within each ethnic community willing to volunteer all their time (including the time to comply with regulations), things like this will naturally fade away.

When did the Italian Festival finally disappear?? I must have missed that.

Thanks for this updated, even though it's sad.

Anonymous said...

Cheri Rae is correct about the red tape and the increase of fees involved. Precisely the problem with today's ever changing world. With that, get out and enjoy all you can!
P.S...Cheri Rae ALWAYS does her homework. She knows what she is talking about.