Thursday, October 9, 2008

Disruptions in the Market

There’s a significant population in downtown Santa Barbara that has been living in a naturally evolved urban village for years and years. Not a trendy development, just a comfortable way of life that met their needs. Among these residents are the 200 senior citizens—aged 62 to 99—who call the Edgerly Arms home; they live in dense, affordable housing without resorting to automobiles for their transportation. These folks, in various states of health, live modestly within their means, managing on fixed incomes in the center one of the most expensive cities in America.

They minimize expenses by budgeting carefully, enjoying simple pleasures, and shopping for their groceries at the inexpensive-by-comparison Vons supermarket located in their neighborhood.
The no-frills market provides far more than the basic necessities that can be purchased there; with its familiar faces—some of whom have worked there for two decades—and predictable pricing, it offers security, a sense of community and continuity. For the frail elderly, who manage to walk there and back with the help of their walkers—the store is a way to maintain a bit of independence, a beneficial lifeline like no other.
All that is about to change.
Although Vons officials—at the local store and at the corporate office—refuse to confirm the rumors, the writing is on the wall, as clear as the March of Progress mosaic mural that has decorated the Victoria Street side of the building since 1959. This market just doesn’t fit the picture of the prettified mixed-use entertainment complex and upscale luxury condos envisioned on this site—and it has to go.
Those who depend on the market are devastated, and left wondering how they will manage. The fancy new Ralph’s, four blocks away, is too far for some, too uncomfortably polished and high-end for many, too expensive for most. The idea of taking a taxi to stock up on foodstuffs and other supplies is unthinkable; too pricey, too unfamiliar.
It’s not only senior citizens who will be affected by this untimely closure of a longtime institution. Downtown workers head for the market during their lunch and dinner breaks for the most affordable meals in town; young couples pushing baby strollers purchase diapers and formula; some Vons employees have happily given up their vehicles over the years, enjoying—some needing, for various reasons—the convenience of walking to work. In addition, the market is frequented by a range of shoppers, including bungalow owners and apartment dwellers, as well as residents of nearby low-income housing properties like the 28-unit Victoria Hotel, the 16-unit Victoria Bungalows, and the brand-new, 12-unit Casas Las Granadas—as well as those who sleep in their cars and RVs in nearby parking lots.
This may not be the glitzy America’s Riviera envisioned by developers and promoted incessantly by the tourism businesses, but it is reality—as portrayed most recently in an illustrated article about Santa Barbara’s middle-class RV homeless in the AARP Bulletin.
There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance going on.
And at the same time this humble Vons is closing, city officials are in serious talks with the development team for Whole Foods Markets about establishing not one, but two of their fancy food palaces on State Street—within two miles of each other: One at Hitchcock, close to Gelson’s, the other at Gutierrez, a great location for tourists, apparently, to pick up supplies. But it sure won’t help the folks who depend on their proximity to Vons.
It’s all a part of the Smart Growth development mantra embraced by the faithful. Their chant includes the now-familiar phrases: “…high density housing downtown in an urban village…downtown workers and retirees…walkability …eliminate autos altogether…entertainment opportunities… upscale shopping experiences… fine dining…”
The impressive drawings produced by architects and the wordy explanations by planners suggest a newly engineered city center designed for a population of healthy, wealthy and very happy people who zip around on foot from one pleasurable pursuit to the next. With hours to while away and seemingly unlimited funds, even in today’s economic uncertainty, they can shop, dine and seek entertainment in ever-more fabulous venues without a care in the world.
Nice life if you can get it. But with this breathless determination to gentrify, beautify and identify with all things shiny and new, luxurious and wonderful, it’s time to remember that there are real-life human beings—once able to cope—becoming ever-more marginalized, ignored, and displaced—and their lives becoming more stressful and far more difficult, not through any fault of their own.
Myriad opportunities for upscale shopping, recreational eating or attending gala events downtown are unnecessary luxuries when new developments mean there’s no place to buy food to put on the table.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. It's getting time for this near native to move away from here. Not really out of choice, but because the "urban village" concept of Williams/Cearnal/Flacks and friends has no room for those of us lower-incomed folks, except as housecleaners and waitstaff -- and that only if we live elsewhere because of course the new units are to be "affordable" only for the middle-upper middle incomers, those $60-100 K/year each.

Didn't know about the Vons closing. Too bad for the area urban residents, those downtown residents the city says it likes in its "urban village", but, anyway, let 'em eat whole foods.....

David Pritchett said...

An affordable food market in that block behind Arlington Theater is a good community goal the City should require for whatever development project gets approved, if any.

The tile art on the south side of the Vons store seems like a historic-artistic item of merit and must stay.

Those expansive car lots could be morphed into something more useful, but maintaining that car capacity and building truly affordable housing and avoiding a building behemoth as a rusult all undoubtedly will not make enough profit for the local building-industrial complex to propose anything that is not a detriment to the community.