Santa Barbara Stories and Tips

State Street: Old Town and hidden treasures

·	State Street, ivy-bedecked 101 underpass Photo, Santa Barbara, California

Stearns Wharf turns into State Street as it reaches land. From there, State Street just seems to keeps going - under Highway 101, passing through Santa Barbara’s downtown, continuing on, and undulating past other neighborhoods and commercial areas until crossing over Highway 101 and turning into Hollister Avenue as it enters Goleta, the next town upcoast. I’m concentrating on the portion of State Street between the wharf and the north edge of Old Town.

Beach zone: From its beginning across the street from the Pacific Ocean to the 101 underpass, State Street has a beachy feel. You can buy surfing gear and beachwear at Beach House Surf ‘n Wear’s. Everywhere, there are places where you can rent all kinds of vehicles, from basic bikes to fancy, surried paddle-contraptions that carry four persons. Almost a decade ago, while in Santa Barbara with my mother and son, we rented a two-person paddle-surry, on which the three of us had a blast paddling up to the harbor and back. Continue walking and to your left as you cross the railroad tracks, you’ll see the railroad station a block to the west. Besides being a transition zone, the underpass under 101 is an interesting structure in and of itself. Ivy has overgrown the north-facing arch of the overpass entirely, while the south-facing side is bare. It’s dark and noisy from overhead traffic as you walk underneath, making it difficult to hear skaters approaching from behind.

Old Town: On the other side of the underpass, a fancy wrought-iron clock on a pedestal announces you’re entering Old Town. In years past, we’ve enjoyed Farmers Markets and 4th of July parades on the spacious terracotta-tiled sidewalks that line both sides of State. Enlightened city officials back in the ‘60s changed this portion of State Street from a congested, urban-blighted, four-lane nightmare to what it is today. Four lanes were reduced to two, and sidewalks were greatly widened, improved, and landscaped on each side, changing State Street from a car street to a people street. Brilliant! Santa Barbara set a precedent for many other Western cities and towns struggling to revive their downtowns.

Most of the restaurants on State take advantage of the wide-tiled sidewalks to offer street-side dining, giving the street a European feel. Santa Barbara weather almost always accommodates, with sunshine and mild temperatures, even when foggy or overcast. We did experience one very windy day, though, when only the hardiest of souls were eating outdoors and tablecloths not anchored down were blowing away. Choosing a restaurant can be a daunting task. There are so many good ones, and almost all of them look inviting. Most post their menus outside, and price ranges vary, making decisions easier. Some of our favorite State Street restaurants are Paoli’s, Ruby’s, the Palace Grill (just off State on Cota), El Paseo Restaurant in El Paseo courtyard, and Acapulco’s in La Arcada courtyard.

As you wander State Street, don’t be surprised to stumble into one of the many hidden courtyards (such as La Arcada) in unlikely places. As you turn a corner, suddenly the bustle and activity of State Street will be replaced by relative silence and serenity, punctuated by the tinkling of water from fountains and the chirping of birds hanging out in the bushes and trees, ivy, and brilliant bougainvillea creeping up buildings.

La Arcada, at 1114 State St., is just south of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. You can also enter La Arcada from the back or side, via library or art museum grounds. It’s easy to lose yourself in this courtyard, because it’s so full of museum-quality sculptures, antiques, great shops, restaurants, and even an old-fashioned barbershop. Sculptures by J. Seward Johnson Jr. highlight the common man. A dad carries his son piggy-back in front of a carousel mural; window washer "Bob" (no relation to my husband) in white coveralls stands with his back to you, squeegying the cleanest window in Santa Barbara. Other human sculptures include old Ben Franklin seated on a bench reading and a grandpa sharing a chocolate bar with his young granddaughter. The charming centerpiece of the courtyard, though, is the Mozart Trio Fountain, an elevated fountain around which diminutive cellist, French horn player, and flautist are taking a break between pieces. This piece was created by Bonifatius Stirnberg of Germany. Sea life sculptures outnumber human ones; bronze dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, and even a whale tail bench are the work of Bud Bottoms, sculpture laureate of Santa Barbara. Be sure to take a peek inside the La Arcada Building, the barbershop, and Acapulco Restaurant, which all contain antiques, many from turn-of-the-century Chicago. Architect Myron Hunt of Chicago designed and constructed La Arcada in 1926. A large fish and turtle pond and fountain, around which you can dine and enjoy margaritas at Acapulco Restaurant, make for a tranquil experience.

El Paseo was once part of Casa de la Guerra, an 1826 historic adobe complex. El Paseo Restaurant, deep inside, is a unique indoor/outdoor setup, a courtyard within a courtyard with retractable roof. We were here one Thanksgiving when it began to rain, and prepared Santa Barbarans pulled out their umbrellas and continued to eat placidly as the rain misted down. As if the fountains, flags and flowers – arches of magenta bougainvillea – didn’t make El Paseo colorful enough, this time, a man was wandering around with a brilliantly colored parrot on his shoulder.

El Paseo Nuevo is roughly across the street from El Paseo, on the west side of State. You can’t miss this one, because it takes up an entire block. An arched entrance with a smiling copper sun welcomes shoppers to the outdoor mall, and an arresting portico arch inlaid with tile peacock with tail spread out serves as entrance to one of the department stores. One year, we attended opening day of a music festival at Paseo Nuevo free, watching, listening, and taking pictures from upstairs. This mall contains over 50 specialty and gift shops, restaurants, theater, and art galleries. In fact, though, all of State Street is shopping heaven, whether buying or browsing.

A street with personality: Some old characters who’ve inhabited the streets for decades are practically landmarks. We’ve watched them age: a grizzled, bushy-eyebrowed, gray-haired fellow is a work of art himself, in flowing robes (in cool weather) and loincloth (in warm weather), wearing headgear loaded with fresh flowers and ribbons. Another, rasta-haired in dark clothing, is getting a paunch. Panhandlers, young and old, in laid back SoCal style, are generally not too aggressive. A young, dingy-looking blond girl in overalls approaches giggling, with the line, "Cash for white trash?" Before I know it, I respond, "No thanks, hon. I’m managing okay," leaving her still giggling but open-mouthed. Bob, on occasion (and this was one of them), will delve into the "why would an able-bodied, seemingly intelligent young man such as yourself do this sort of thing," followed by the "when I was your age I never got help from anyone" lecture, with closely on its heels, the "I worked hard all my life for every penny I earned" spiel. The shaven-headed, pierced and tattooed dude on the receiving end looks bemused and concedes that if he were in Bob’s shoes, he might not be inclined to give his hard-earned money away either.

Though I’m a firm proponent of "until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes," panhandling, as I’ve experienced it in the U.S., disturbs me. I feel it’s degrading. I don’t like to see people degrading themselves. Beyond that, in many cases, it’s likely a con, and in many cases, the cash probably goes to feed a drug habit. I don’t mind helping people out, but I like to choose who and what I help, not the other way around. So, as you’ve guessed, we don’t give to panhandlers. If accosted by one, I’ll usually continue walking, acknowledge him (or her), and say no or shake my head. Bob’s more of a smart-ass. He usually directs them to a nearby store or restaurant or tells them, "There’s a food kitchen just around the corner."

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