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Barney Brantingham retires

In this week’s Independent, Nick Welsh covers the retirement of everybody’s favorite Santa Barbara columnist, Barney Brantingham. When I started at the SBNP as an intern, people used to ask me all the time if I’d met Barney and if so, what he was like. I’d respond that he kept to himself in the newsroom but he sure did seem to know what was going on around town. It seemed like it was no big deal for him to churn out a column almost every day of the week while making it look like the easiest job on the block. I admired that work ethic and tried to emulate it. It was an approach that served me well in my newspaper days.

But the place where Barney really showed his true colors was when everything went to hell at the paper in 2006. He was much loved by the readers – he very easily could have hung on there for a very long time without too much strife. But he walked out early and covered the rest of us walking out for the Indy. That took guts, and it made me sure I was doing the right thing when I departed.

Barney was Santa Barbara’s Herb Caen, a name that probably doesn’t mean much except to us newspaper types. But he loved the town and he covered it through the eyes of the people who live here – the kind of writing that we don’t really get to read much anymore. Thanks, Barney, for being a mentor to me and a much-loved voice for our city.

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Stellar Santa Barbara Sunset

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I took this photo last night at Haskell’s Beach, next to the Bacara Resort in Goleta. Enjoy – and season’s greetings from the South Coast!

On track

Twenty years ago today, I ran in my first high school track meet at Santa Barbara City College.

It was one of the best days of my life, and a day that would change my life.

I was a freshman walk-on who had run in one track meet before, a junior high affair with no real competition. It didn’t count.

I had no expectations for my race, other than anticipating that there would be plenty of girls faster than me, from bigger schools outside of Santa Ynez. I told my family not to come to the track meet, because I figured I’d finish somewhere in the middle of the pack, and I didn’t want them to waste their time.

I was taking the whole thing so unseriously that midway through the track meet I snuck out of the stadium, which we weren’t supposed to leave (such a subversive), and ran down into the Santa Barbara harbor, where I found my Grandfather Mitchell working on his boat.

photo(20) Surprising him, I mentioned that I’d be running in a race across the street in a little while, and if he wanted to take a break, he should come by. I’m sure I warned him that I probably wouldn’t be very fast or beat many people.

The memory of the race itself – a 1500 meter distance, is not perfect. I wasn’t nervous, or scared. I just went out there and ran my heart out. After the first lap, there was no one in front of me. So I kept running. It was a beautiful day, there were tall palm trees swaying, I could smell the ocean. People were probably cheering me on, but all I could see was the red rubber track. My focus was entirely on the act of running, which felt like the most perfect act of physical being that I had ever experienced. I ran faster. No one caught me, in fact, everyone had fallen a half lap behind.

I won the race. My time actually would have won the varsity race. All of the sudden I wasn’t some anonymous little freshman walk-on anymore. Somebody asked me why I hadn’t run cross country in the fall. I think I told them that I thought a three mile race was a little far.

My grandfather was ecstatic. My family isn’t known for its athleticism on either side, and there I was acting like I sort of knew my way around this whole running thing. He drove home, arrived well before the high school bus, and told my parents, brother and cousins. We happened to be having a family dinner at my grandparents’ that night.

When I got there, they had made be a congratulatory sign, and it hung from the front door. My birthday was in a few days, and I remember walking up that sidewalk to see my family and feeling like I had not only done something that I could be proud of, but that they could be proud of too. In one single day, running became one of the most vital parts of my identity. 20 years later, it’s still that.

I’m not as fast as I used to be. Competition hasn’t been important to me in the last few years. I’ve lost two of my ever-loving grandparents, both who were very supportive of my athleticism. But I still try to run every day if I can.

Running, to me, is the heart of my life. I have failed in so many ways in my almost 35 years. I’ve let people down that I care about, I haven’t achieved all my personal or professional goals, and I’m far from being the person I thought I’d be at this point. But I’m also better and kinder in many ways than I ever thought I could be.

Every single day, running invites me to come back and try again. It gives me a fresh start and leaves me assured that I will survive, look forward, and find the right path. I will keep going, keep trying, and get more things right tomorrow than I did today. Two decades later, I am on track, and I’m OK.

This piece is dedicated to my grandparents, Ben and Marion Etling, Renton and Doris Mitchell, and to my parents, Bill and Debra Etling, who have always cheered me on in my races and in life. Thank you, I love you.

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Summer arrives – may it not be full of fire

Walking into the sunset at Hendry's, May 27. Photo credit: Peter Conover

Walking into the fire-altered sunset at Hendry’s, May 27.

Driving around the Santa Ynez Valley this weekend, it was like a tinder box outside. The grass is too dry, we didn’t get enough rain. The days have been perfectly warm so far, but the winds are gusting in the afternoons and evenings. Soon it will be hot and getting hotter. In other words, it is fire season. A few hours after this had been discussed, there was a huge fire burning near the Santa Ynez River.

Growing up in the boonies, you figured out that summer fires were a part of Western life pretty quick. We always took a pragmatic approach. Is it far away from people and structures? Don’t worry, it will eventually get put out. Is it heading our way with variable weather conditions? OK, time to be calm and pack up the car. For us the closest scare that we ever got was the Marre Fire in 1993. That was the time that a firetruck drove up to our house at about 8 p.m. The firemen got out and knocked on the door. “Is it OK if we sleep in the truck in your driveway?” they asked. “Of course, we said, but should we be here if you are?”

The answer was heartening: “You can stay,” they told us. “We figured we’d stay here because if the wind shifts and it comes this way, yours is the only house we can save. We’ll come tell you if it’s time to get out.” The weather cooperated and everything ended up being OK. There are some advantages, you see, to building in a defensible valley pocket instead of on the top of a steep hill, where a wildfire could run up the slope and overtake you so fast you wouldn’t even see it coming.

Working at Edhat and leading our coverage efforts of the Jesusita (2009) and Tea Fire (2008), I learned some things about the absolute hysteria that some Californians attach to wildfire. Jesusita and Tea merited it – they were close to the urban periphery in the Santa Barbara front country and hundreds of homes were burned. One of my high school friends, Lance Hoffman, and his wife Carla were badly burned trying to escape from their home during the Tea Fire. I saw Lance recently downtown and he happily reported that they are both fully recovered, though forever affected.

If you were around here during the Painted Cave Fire in 1990, then you know that any fire that you can see from downtown is a scary thing. When those sundowner winds rush down the mountains, they cannot be controlled, pushing flames forward into fresh fuel at speeds as fast as cars. That’s how Painted Cave burnt all the way to Highway 101, even jumping it to do more damage. I’ll never forget driving into Santa Barbara for the first time after Highway 154 was reopened after Painted Cave. It looked like we had traveled to the surface of the moon.

Monday night’s White Fire was apparently started by a camper who decided to discard live coals carelessly near the White Rock Day use area. (Credit: Ray Ford in the SB Independent.) At the end of a camping-friendly Memorial Day weekend, the campgrounds were packed – 4000 people in the Santa Ynez Recreation Area were urgently sent home. This merits hysteria over stupidity. If you think that throwing hot coals out of a contained environment anytime of year in Southern California is a good idea, you are a giant idiot.

The great news is that the combined response teams that train all year for incidents like this – including the US Forest Service Fire and Aviation Response brigades, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, localized neighborhood response volunteers like the San Marcos Volunteer Fire Department, and interagency responders from around the county – are the epitome of prepared professionals. They plan a strategic attack, summon as many engines and airplanes and necessary, survey the resources and structures that could be threatened,obsessively monitor the weather reports, and always put human lives and safety first. When fire fighting gets really scary is when there are a half dozen fires around the state at the same time, and resources are slim.

I’m trying to figure out how to close this post without sounding like Smokey the Bear. Because bottom line – it’s true. Only you can prevent forest fires. So if you decide to clear brush or drive a tractor or have a bonfire or barbecue around these parts this summer, please be careful. It’s the idiot factor behind so many wildfires’ origins that should scare us most of all.

Miramar memories

“Cursed be he who removes his neighbor’s landmark.”

Deuteronomy 27:71

“God bless America. Let’s try to save some of it.”

Edward Abbey

Yesterday I ran down to Montecito and took a break down at the ocean end of San Ysidro Road. I hadn’t been down that way in awhile and the stretch of beach that runs down to Perko’s Point is one of my favorites on the South Coast. Of course, my favorite thing about it used to be the fenced off, boarded up, falling apart old Miramar.

When I was a very young kid the Miramar was still functioning, albeit with the quirks and fallacies of an aging property not meant to survive into the present time. My friend Shauna’s mother took us to play at the beach there one day in the mid-1980’s, and I remember being overwhelmingly impressed by the fact that they had a railcar on the grounds that had been converted to a restaurant. A place where you could eat lunch in an old train? To my young brain, already programmed to see history and antiquity as the best stuff on earth, that was a mark of an impressive establishment. I immediately decided that the Miramar must be very distinguished and awesome indeed.

I never got to eat in that railcar, but I made it back to the Miramar once before it shuttered down forever. William H. Webster was in town giving a chat to a local club. By then, it was 1995 and I was a 16-year-old newspaper intern. Covering a rubber chicken speaker luncheon featuring the only man to ever head up the FBI and CIA felt like the most important assignment on earth. He talked about the Cold War. I remember thinking: “I’ve got to get more knowledgeable about history if I’m going to do this journalism stuff.”

That fascination with history has always been rooted locally. So when I ran down to the beach Sunday and could see the gaping hole where the Miramar once was, I felt a little pang of sadness in my heart. I don’t actually curse Rick Caruso – I just wish that there could have been more opportunities to save some of those old buildings. But they were in awful disrepair and not worth anything other than pure sentiment, I’m sure. Someday there will be a very nice fancy hotel there. It won’t mean much.

Here’s a few photos I took back in November 2012.

Miramar canopy.

Miramar canopy.

Best views of any hotel in SB.

Best views of any hotel in SB.

Last call.

Last call.

Looking down the beach from San Ysidro.

Looking down the beach from San Ysidro.

For some background on the Miramar, here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote for Edhat back in 2009:

Whether you stayed for a weekend, had a honeymoon or just went to the beach and ate in the railroad car afterwards, it’s safe to say that the Miramar experience was a memorable one for over 100 years.

According to David Myrick’s, “Montecito and Santa Barbara – Volume 1”, the original property owners of the Miramar site bought 50 acres 1858 from the Community Council of Santa Barbara for $40. What a deal!

The hotel became a resort gradually when it was under the ownership of the Doulton family, English natives who maintained the resort for three generations (incidentally, they also owned Cold Springs Tavern on San Marcos Pass until 1941).

It’s not known how much the Doultons paid for their portion when they purchased the site, but they started bringing in guests around 1887, Myrick writes. The railroad had just established a route in the front yard of what was then known as Ocean View Farm, and the Southern Pacific train stopped there starting in 1892. Train fare from Santa Barbara was 10 cents.

The Doultons developed the resort from the ground up, taking special pride in their gardens and adapting to guest demands. Four cottages were added in 1901, at the cost of $4,500. There was a wharf where boats could dock, and a small golf course. Traveling salesmen sold shoes and suits at the hotel. After the end of Prohibition, one of the cottages was converted into a bar.

Boom times kept up until the 1930s, when many of the traditional clientele were hit hard financially. And at the same time, the Miramar’s classic white sand beach began to disappear. The sand movement was the result of the building of the city breakwater, which was completed in 1930.

The Doultons took the city to court over the loss of the beach, which resembles historic Waikiki in early photographs, but they lost the lawsuit. The hotel was foreclosed in 1939, and picked up by a man named Paul Gawzner, an experienced hotelier according to the Montecito Journal.

Gawzner made improvements, adding 150 more rooms in hotel-style buildings and cottages, an auditorium and the famous two railroad cars as a dining spot. Essentially, he created the Miramar that is remembered by everyone who went there over the last 59 years.

Ian Schrager purchased the Miramar from Gawzner in 1998 for $31.7 million, closed it in 2000, had serious financial problems in 2003, and went into bankruptcy protection.

Beanie Baby billionaire and Montecito mogul, Ty Warner bought the Miramar from Schrager as part of his spree of local property acquisitions in the late 1990s and early 2000s (he also picked up the San Ysidro Ranch, the Biltmore, San Marcos Golf Club, Coral Casino, Sandpiper, his own mansion near the Santa Barbara Cemetery, and the Montecito Country Club). Despite plans for a 213-room family-style resort, Warner sold the property and project to Los Angeles developer, Rick Caruso in 2006. He is thought to have made a healthy profit over the $43 million he paid.

Caruso, the developer of several major Southern California shopping malls, came into the community on a mission to overcome concerns, and charm his way into the hearts and minds of Montecito neighbors. He succeeded in getting many on his team.

A few, however, were not impressed. The project suffered some setbacks, including controversy over questionable emails before it was finally approved.

The project was approved by the Montecito Planning Commission, then appealed by the Citizens Planning Association. The appeal was subsequently denied by the County Board of Supervisors. After overcoming that hurdle, the project was hit with an appeal by Jean and Stan Harfenist and other neighbors, who expressed concerns about the environmental impacts of the project in a lawsuit and appeals to the Coastal Commission. The appeal was resolved in April 2009.

Here is the project description in the words of the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department: “All new buildings of approximately 385,296 gross (164,849 net) square feet, including a main building with a lobby, meeting rooms and conference facilities, back-of-house areas, and underground parking; a ballroom; a spa, a Beach and Tennis Club; 192 guest rooms; two restaurants and a beach bar; two pools and two tennis courts; new landscaping; new 10-foot high sound wall; four employee dwellings; and abandonment of the north-south segment of Miramar Avenue with approximately 36,300 cubic yards of cut and 46,100 cubic yard of fill with 10,000 cubic yards to be imported. All existing buildings would be demolished.”

Here is the link to all county documentation available on the Miramar project.

Peter Sklar

Santa Barbara lost one of its most passionate champions on Sunday.

Peter Sklar, founder of Edhat.com, a tireless advocate for citizen-driven online news and an innovator who pushed to change the way his community consumed information, passed away at age 50. He is survived by his wife, Sue Foley, and sons Nick and Zack Sklar.

I had the honor of working with Peter at Edhat from September 2008 to September 2011. It was a three year time period when Edhat, founded by Peter in 2003 as an offshoot of his tech company Coolmaps.com, came roaring into its own as a shining community resource for Santa Barbara and the South Coast. In 2010 Edhat expanded to include four other community sites, three in California and one in New Haven, CT.

Peter was one of the smartest and most interesting guys I have ever met. He was detail oriented, but spent hours obsessing over the big picture. He had a vision for community news that was evolved far beyond the pace of the journalism industry. Ever hear of Patch, that nationwide effort by AOL to get communities covered by the people who live in them? Well, Peter got to that idea about five years early, and he created that community for Santa Barbara. He built Edhat (it might stand for Every Day Happenings Around Town, Doc Searls gives us another insight about the name’s duality in his spot-on post about Peter) with the help of his wife, Sue, and a team of staffers.

Sue used to joke about how he’d ask her if she wanted to go for a walk downtown, but their activity on their date would be counting people wearing sandals or planks on the pier.  Ideas were the bread and butter of Peter’s existence, and Edhat thrived because he always wanted to try new things.  I wasn’t there at the beginning, but I was ecstatic to work for the website during the time that I did.

Peter was personally involved in every single aspect of Edhat. He counted palm trees, he wrote stories and took photos, he read every single comment. He worked with columnists, sold advertising, put together Groupon-style deals for his users to benefit from. He always admitted that he “wasn’t a journalist,” but he knew a heck of a lot more about journalism than a lot of news professionals I’ve worked with.

As a publisher, he responded personally to every complaint that came into his inbox with kindness, no matter how nasty the writer’s tone. He took criticism personally and used every complaint as an opportunity to improve the site. He worked all hours when there were fires in the hills and people were dependent on Edhat for news updates. He pushed the county of Santa Barbara to offer better public information services as a result of the Zaca Fire and Gap Fires – and they responded. When the Jesusita and Tea fires happened, we were better informed – and tens of thousands of readers came to Edhat because it was the best source of up-to-the-minute, organic information about what was really happening. Peter and his family were evacuated during the Jesusita fire, so he helped me update the site from his mother-in-law’s retirement community. He was the epitome of the “dedicated staff.”

It was an honor and a privilege to work for him. We didn’t always agree, in fact, sometimes we downright argued. But he always treated me with respect, and after spending hundreds of hours working on the website with him I learned more about technology, community and the wild world of online media than I’ll ever be able to remember.

Sue, Nick, Zack, Molly, the dedicated staff – my thoughts are with all of you during this awful time. I will be telling people about Peter for the rest of my life – his legacy of creativity and fearlessness deserves to never be forgotten. Oh, and he had a darn good sense of humor, too.

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Fiesta’s here: A tribute to Hattie

Tastefully appointed tails.

El Desfile Historico, the annual Fiesta equestrian parade, is one of those Santa Barbara traditions that you can count on. Like clockwork, the first weekend in August, on a Friday morning you will find the streets around Pershing Park flooded with horsemen and women on their well-cared for mounts. Be there at noon this Friday – it’s that time of year.

Some horses will pull historic carriages from the Carriage Museum, others will carry riders on their backs in beautiful dresses or elaborate suits, some will have manes braided in fancy ways. There will be flowers and bands and happy children. A few folks might imbibe some early morning margaritas.  The horsemen and women will be smiling, but not nervous – they’ve done this many times before. It’s a tradition.

There will be confetti in the streets, it might be foggy or the sun might blaze, tacos will be consumed. Tourists will be on hand but you will see a lot of local faces, too. People will bring their grandparents, their kids, and sit along the parade route and watch the riders go by. They might count the horses. We used to do that for Edhat. It was fun.

When I wrote the original version of this post two years ago (yes, this blog employs content recycling. Sorry about that), I mentioned that “for the last 86 years, one of those parade participants has been Harriet Osbourne (Hattie) Feazelle. You might just think of her as the little old lady in the pretty blue dress. For 84 of those years she rode her horse in the parade. She’s La Reina, the queen, of Fiesta. An institution. One of those things you can count on.”

Hattie was the grandmother of my friend Sutton Feazelle Bailey and the mother of my high school English teacher and Santa Ynez neighbor Cita Mainer. She rode in her last Fiesta parade, in a carriage driven by her son-in-law Robert (and Cita), last year in 2011. She was honored (in her 100th birthday year) as the parade’s Grand Marshall. As always, when I saw her in the parade it brought tears to my eyes.

Hattie was in every single Fiesta parade from the event’s origin until the year of her death. She was one of these no-nonsense women who inspired and impressed. I had the honor of interviewing her for a front page profile in the SBNP when she was honored as Vaquera of the Year by the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Society. We talked about Santa Barbara the way it used to be – when you could ride horses on the beach from downtown to Goleta, when Stearns Wharf was still a working seafront, when many streets were not yet paved.

When honored for her cowgirl accomplishments, she was humble and self-effacing about it, joking around in an interview. She wore turquoise cowboy boots to the celebration party, and pulled up her skirt to show them off for a photographer (at age 92!)

Hattie grew up on Micheltorena Street in Santa Barbara when State Street was the only paved road. She got her first horse, who was named Chivita, in 1922 and rode to Goleta and back on the sandy South Coast beaches and mountain trails. Fiesta was called La Primavera, not Fiesta at all, when she was in the first parade in 1924.

La Reina de Fiesta

When I asked Hattie back in 2003 how long she’d ride in the parade, she told me: “Till the good man says I can’t ride anymore.” She kept that promise. She will be missed in this year’s parade.

A few Fiesta photos from the archive:

Cascarones!

Mayor Helene Schneider and the 2010 Junior Spirit of Fiesta.

Flower girls.