Saving a Local Bluff Top – What Is at Stake For All of Us

Originally Published in The Santa Barbara Independent

By Ted Rhodes

Poised at the gateway to our county with windrows of majestic Eucalyptus and breathless views to sea, the Carpinteria Bluffs stand for the very quality of life that makes Santa Barbara County so special. If we can not hold on to such natural assets, we stand a chance of losing forever an essential piece of our local character.

The character of a place is rarely lost all at once, but bit by bit over many years, until one day, you take a look around and realize what made your surroundings once so special is gone. By then, it is too late. Had it been threatened all at once, you might have been able to hold onto it, but it does not occur that way. What happened to that little town we used to call Newhall? What happened to the rolling hills of Orange County where only a few years ago they were still running cattle? And what happened to the San Fernando Valley? I have an aunt in her nineties who still insists upon calling it “the field.”

Growth and progress should be nothing to fear, but when I look at the way some of our Southern Californian neighbors have chosen to grow, I am reminded of a quote made cryptically once by an American pilot during the Vietnam war: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Back where I grew up, the only orange grove now remaining there is but a well-traveled two-lane boulevard by that name. It was a landscape painter friend of mine who first pointed out to me how peculiar it is we name so many of our construction projects for the very same natural features we end up burying beneath them. Hence, a grassland becomes a cluster of homes called “The Meadows” and a patch of some of the richest farmland in the entire country becomes the site of a tract home development called “Strawberry Fields.”

Does modern urban growth always cause such drastic loss of character? No it certainly does not–not if a community can maintain a strong vision. Unfortunately, only a few towns in Southern California such as Pasadena, Claremont and Santa Monica have held onto a clear enough vision to insure their own character. Most have not. What is the community vision, you ask, for all that prime farmland between Ventura and Camarillo? Sadly, there is no firm vision, only urban sprawl. Your question may be too late.

Much of the character of Southern California that I remember as a child indeed is gone. During the fifties, the San Gabriel Valley east of Pasadena was a landscape that still included orchards, orange blossoms, smudge pots and small towns nestled against mountains capped by snow in the winter. Yes, there was a bustling city of Pasadena at one end of the valley, but much of the landscape still included open space. Over the years, bit by bit, we let the valley to the east of us be transformed into an endless sprawl of freeways, shopping malls and industry. As happened elsewhere in Southern California, what were once orchards and vineyards came to produce a bumper crop of new housing tracts and shopping centers.

There is no denying that we needed to grow. I only take issue here with how we let our communities develop. If we sit back and allow our home towns to expand outward with little sense to the tenets of good planning and design, countless drab strip malls and gargantuan shopping centers inevitably pop up everywhere, spreading across the land like an invasive crab grass of concrete, canned music and vast parking lots. Development in this fashion sacrifices urban character and vitality for convenience.

Our neighborhoods are becoming defined by discount stores and fast food convenience. Already, it is possible to walk into a typical shopping mall on the outskirts of a town like Glendale, California and come across the identical retail outlets as one might find in an identical mall on the outskirts of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Is this where our Yankee ingenuity has lead us-to a vast interstate network of identical, uninspiring factory outlet stores and video/pizza parlor malls named for bygone but once distinctive natural features? When we lose our regional landmarks, do we not also stand to lose our national character?
What is it about Chicago that makes it different from San Francisco or Boston? Each of those cities has its own unique character and sense of place. What would New York City be without its Central Park or the Hudson River? What would San Francisco be without its hills, Golden Gate Park, Angel Island or the bay?

The City of Santa Barbara is special for the integration of its Spanish heritage into a unique town character. That is something for which we all can be grateful. For those who came before us, it took significant resources and incredible doses of visionary thinking to bring Santa Barbara such character. It also took an earthquake, which leveled much of the town in 1925.

Our county is also special. An incredible array of natural assets makes the entire county extraordinary, from the brilliant orange bloom of California poppies on Figueroa Mountain and Hurricane Deck to the remotest grove of ancient, twisted oaks crouched against the wind on the far side of Santa Cruz Island.

As the South Coast landscape changes to meet new population and economic pressures, we must work harder to preserve those special places that give us natural sustenance, enhance our quality of life and define our local character. What would our urban South Coast be like without East Beach, Hammonds Meadow, the Douglas Family Preserve or the Carpinteria Bluffs?

When you walk out upon the Carpinteria Bluffs and stop to gaze from the ocean to the mountains, it is possible to take in a rare sweeping view of California landscape virtually unchanged for thousands of years. You stand amidst a city, and yet, you discover the city magically has dropped from sight behind a grassland knoll to leave you alone with nature. It is both humbling and breathtaking. Everytime.

What an opportunity we have to hold on to such a special place as the Carpinteria Bluffs. What if, thirty years from now, our children could return with their children to the very spot where we once stood to be in awe once more of these natural coastal wonders and to be so humbled? That is the legacy we should strive to pass on to our children.


[Ted Rhodes is writer and motion picture technician living in Carpinteria, California.. He is currently the President of Citizens for the Carpinteria Bluffs. Contributions towards the public acquisition of the Carpinteria Bluffs can be sent to Citizens for the Carpinteria Bluffs, P.O. Box 700, Carpinteria, CA 93014. Their phone number is (805) 684-3712. Information is also available on their website at: earthisland.com/bluffs.]

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