Ten years on

Today is the last day of the year, and there are, have been, and will be no shortage of posts in the blogosphere looking back at 2008. This is logical, I suppose, but I find myself less inclined to look back at the year gone by than I am to look back at the last ten or twelve years--the last decade, as it were.

Decade, you say? Indeed…

On this day in 1998, I had recently completed my first semester back in school after a 15-year hiatus. I had quit my job, given up my apartment, and moved back to my childhood home in order to pursue the degree I should have pursued in 1983. It would prove to be the beginning of a period in my life that saw me experience religious conversion--twice, no less, whatever that says about me--meet the woman whom I was obviously supposed to marry, move three times, and generally transform my life.

All of this was the continuation of a process that began in earnest two years earlier, in 1996. Back then, I was single, working in a restaurant, and living in a cookie-cutter apartment in a plastic suburb planned community, and was becoming pretty desperately unhappy. I moved to Ventura, ostensibly for cheaper rent, but in reality I was searching for the life that I knew had to be out there somewhere. Before long, I was immersed in the life of a musical community whose center was a coffeehouse known as the Cafe Voltaire.

It was magical, and quite unlike anything I had experienced before, or would encounter later. People from all walks of life came together and formed a congenial unit. Imagine, if you will, a wisecracking Jewish coffeehouse owner, a stilt-walking hippie doorman, a retired fishing boat captain and his wife (who did beautiful leather work), a cigar-smoking Xerox technician (who was and is a serious amateur photographer), a tattooed ex-punk kid (hi, Zack), a middle-aged eleven-toed songwriter and guitar pickerwho came to California from Texas, running from the law, his wife, a down-home Kentucky girl, who had lived in Iran before the revolution and spoke fluent Persian, and me, a crew-cut (at the time) fast-food management dork. And those were just _some_ of the regulars. Somehow, we all got along famously.

All of this was highly transformative, and it is safe to say that by the time I graduated from UC Santa Barbara in 2003, I was not the same person who moved to Ventura seven years earlier. In coming to know and understand others of wildly varying backgrounds, I had come to understand myself in a way that I could not have conceived of in my Simi Valley apartment in 1996. Because of all of that, I am a better, more well-rounded, and more well-adjusted person today.

All of this was on my mind as I drove home from work today, so just for the hell of it, since I don't get down there much anymore, I thought I'd take the long way home and drive through downtown Ventura. What I saw left me with decidedly mixed emotions, because while I feel I have come to understand myself better in the last ten years, it seems my adopted hometown is suffering from an identity crisis.

The Cafe Voltaire itself is long gone, of course. It went the way of the dodo in 1999 when Todd, the owner, lost his lease and tried moving it to another location, after which it was never the same. He ultimately tried buying a dingy country bar and transforming it, but the clientele didn't follow, and in 2001, after becoming a tribute-band venue, it closed ignominiously without notice and Todd left town. The courtyard where the cafe had been has in the last ten years been transformed from the bohemian, slightly funky ex-bus barn that it was into a yuppie heaven. A pricey Montecito restaurant has relocated into the space the cafe once occupied; the children's art center (Kids' Arts) across the courtyard is now a trendy Bikram yoga studio, and the tiny and eclectic jewelry shop appears to have become an equally tiny hair salon.

The rest of downtown has undergone similar change. There has been an obvious attempt to mimic Santa Barbara, which to some extent has succeeded in upgrading the ambience, but sadly there has been an equally transparent attempt to upgrade the clientele as well. It's unlikely that anything like my eclectic Cafe Voltaire experience could take place today, because the overwhelming majority of the new businesses seem to be catering to tourists with money and the wealthier locals in preference to average residents who might not spend so much in one shot but whom are likelier to be regular patrons.

This is not necessarily a bad thing; businesses have to make money to stay in business, and if catering to the tourist trade and dislocated Santa Barbarans is what they have to do, then so be it. There was a time when downtown Ventura consisted largely of independent locally-owned businesses, and to be certain it was not always healthy. When I first came to town, people thought of the downtown area as being primarily made up of thrift stores, used book stores, dive bars and homeless people, and there was a reason for that.

But something important and unique is being lost, which I mourn. With the possible exception of the local Hells Angels chapter, I don't think too many people miss the rowdy Rendezvous Room being turned into a nice bistro, but it's unfortunate that the locally-owned Daily Grind coffeehouse is now a Starbucks, and that the Bank of Books has become an American Apparel store. There has to be more than just fitness studios, yoga studios, and trendy bistros, or else it'll just be a big outdoor mall. We already have a Santa Barbara and an Ojai. We don't need another one.

And here's where the identity crisis comes in: under the surface, Ventura is not either of those, nor will it ever be. For better or for worse, it's always been a working-class town, a wallflower compared to its wealthier sister, Santa Barbara. Surprisingly, we still have working oil fields in Ventura, the same ones that brought the first President Bush here briefly after World War II when he was in the oil business. Make no mistake, it's a wonderful city, but its beauty is sometimes lost on outsiders until they live here a while. Thanks to Caltrans' ham-fisted freeway design and construction, for most Angelenos, downtown Ventura is a concrete canyon they drive through on their way to Santa Barbara, which suits many of us here just fine.

Ultimately, of course, change is inevitable. Ten years on, this city is still amazingly like the town I adopted as my hometown. But thirty miles to the north, two-bedroom homes sell for over a million dollars, and we're only fifty miles north of the sprawling disaster that is Los Angeles. On a summer's day, when L.A. is 100 degrees and smoggy, here you can still feel the ocean breezes and smell the citrus blossoms. Short of blowing up the Santa Clara River bridge, dynamiting the Rincon, and erecting the Great Wall of Saticoy, I don't see any way to prevent the gradual overrunning of our little corner of paradise, and I have no illusions that the gentrification and yuppification of downtown Ventura will cease or even slow.

But that doesn't mean I have to like it, and it doesn't mean I can't look back with fondness on a time now past when things were different. I was fortunate to have been here at a very special moment in time, when all the conditions were perfect to create something magical. I am who I am today in large part because of the people I met during that time, many of whom have moved on to other places and other pursuits. I owe them a debt I can never repay.

Thanks to all of you for having been a part of my life. The last ten years have been spectacular. I can't wait to see what the next ten years will bring.

Happy New Year, everyone!