wednesday, august 18, 2010
When people care about the place where they live, they often end up helping make it a better place. But how do people get interested? It might help if the history of that place is brought to the surface, making its compelling stories more noticeable. A good local newspaper or blog can do this, but only if you find one and read it regularly. An augmented-reality mobile app might be able to do this instantly for anyone curious about their surroundings, but only if they have that device. What about for everyone? These are some stories about a place I like.
Isla Vista is the only neighborhood right next to UCSB, and it has a bad reputation as a half square mile of drunken student parties. It is that, but it’s also a lively dense community with its own complex history, where people walk and bike everywhere, with more of a sense of place than you can find in some whole cities. It’s noisy on weekend evenings (starting on Thursday), and if you’re used to nice suburban neighborhoods then it probably looks like a crowded mess, but it’s interesting and deserves more than the usual stories of terrible landlords and beer pong tournaments.
A few examples of Isla Vista’s self-image: there’s a local blog called Only in IV where all the posts are photos of drunk student shenanigans (and a few beach sunsets), the more outrageous the better. A website called The Dark Side of UCSB compiles and sensationalizes statistics about crime and drugs in Isla Vista, with the attitude that these problems are endemic to IV and can’t be avoided or improved. A personalized map of the Santa Barbara area, with Isla Vista on the left, describes it as “STDs, broken glass, sex, loud music, bikes, theft, bike theft.” A photo essay describes IV as a “teeming ghetto paradise…Children or adults are odd apparitions here…Trampolines and beer pong tables litter most yards…a glorious mess of potential and pollution, treasure in trash.” All of this is only one aspect of IV, mostly Del Playa Drive (the street closest to the ocean), but it’s the reputation of the whole place.
So I spent my first three years at UCSB mostly ignoring Isla Vista. I only walked in to get a sandwich or cookies (a friend had told me about the IV food co-op), and sometimes I ran into the main park along the way. It’s a very nice park, with lots of trees and a little pond, and this confused me then because IV was supposed to be some kind of den of stupidity, not a lovely place to escape from campus for a little while. In my fourth year I moved to an apartment there with a friend, and out of curiosity I started walking around, taking photos, and googling what I found. (And then I started playing Noticin.gs, which turned these walks from “occasionally” to “every single day, up and down as many streets as possible.”) I learned that when you look carefully at a place, it starts to tell a story.
Each thing in Isla Vista has something to say: a small stand of oak trees remaining from a very old forest that helped feed the nearby Chumash village (until the Santa Barbara Mission moved in), an earthquake-damaged polo barn built by a gentleman rancher a hundred years ago, place names with grammatically incorrect Spanish phrases thanks to speculative land developers in the 1920s (Isla Vista, Del Playa, etc.), kitschy apartment buildings built in the 1960s after UCSB moved to the defunct marine base campus next door, a system of pretty little parks developed as part of post-riot community organizing in the 1970s, a solar-powered parking lot built last year as part of a “Master Plan” to fancy up the area, and a zillion other bits and pieces within this half square mile that is more interesting than it looks at first.
But few people have the time or inclination to develop a gigantic enthusiasm for local land-use history, so a lot of students graduate from UCSB without ever seeing the fancy old barn, or learning why the street names are so weird, or noticing the lovely modern houses at the end of Del Playa — and now I think they’ve missed out on something good. IV is not a place where most people want to live for decades if they have a choice (hearing drunk guys peeing on the plants outside your window gets annoying, and thumping party music from next door probably doesn’t help babies sleep, and did I mention that most of the housing stock was cheaply built in the 60s and hasn’t been properly maintained), but it offers an alternative to the anonymous apartments and quiet single-family houses that we’re all likely to drive home to for the rest of our lives.
Fortunately there are a lot of students (and other residents and friends) who love IV and work to keep the good side of it healthy through participating in the food and housing co-ops, organizing all-ages live music shows, helping out the homeless residents, painting fantastic murals (official and unofficial), picking up trash, publishing a local magazine with the help of the university, making community banners, and lots more. But there’s something that could be added to this, counteracting the kind of short-term memory that comes from most of the population spending fewer than four years in the place. You can collect parts of the story if you search around a lot: an UCSB and Isla Vista Walking Tour and Historical Accounts and Maps of the Goleta Slough (both compiled by a UCSB physics professor), “Goleta, the Bad Land” (an article about the town next door), a graduate student project covering the history of the IV Parks and Recreation District (although those PDFs seem to no longer be online), and a couple of works from specific activist points of view: Isla Vista: A Citizen’s History and Don’t Bank on Amerika.
So I read everything about IV that I could find online, and my nice patient friends listened to me when I went into the mode of “Area Man Way Too Into Local County History” and rambled about why this or that church building in IV is fascinating, or about my gleeful discovery of the Tree Monument, or finding bushes of blackberries along a sidewalk. So I decided to put all of this together and hold a walking tour for whoever wanted to come. We talked about The Big Here, we had fun, it was very dorky, and I learned that this wasn’t scalable to large numbers of people (both because it’s tough to yell loud enough for a crowd, and because not many people voluntarily show up for this kind of thing). Here are my raw notes for it. What next?
I like interpretive signs, so I thought about whether IV could use some of those, but I think that kind of informative historical marker sometimes fossilizes the subject instead of bringing it alive — it becomes something to look at from a distance, a mediated artifact. I like sidewalk plaques better in many cases, since they don’t interfere with your view of a structure or place, instead quietly adding to the ground if you want to look down and learn more.
So I’d like to install some sidewalk plaques in IV! Traditional bronze markers would be very expensive (and require who knows what kind of permission and work to install), but there’s an alternative made with linoleum: messages in the style of Toynbee tiles, which are crackpot graffiti anonymously glued to asphalt roads in a few cities:
I found a guide to making this type of tile, and they sound labor-intensive but doable. They break apart after a few years, but that’s fine. You can make different shapes and designs, like these:
I’d like to install tiles that add little bits of information to places around IV, just enough so that a curious viewer would have a clue toward what to search for on Google:
- GEODESIC HOUSE BUILT IN ‘73 BY GRAD STUDENT
- SUBDIVISION ONCE CALLED ORILLA DEL MAR ↵
- EST. IN 1950s AS A GENERAL STORE
- FORMER PUNK VENUE & HOMELESS SHELTER ⇒
- “DINGBAT” ARCHITECTURAL STYLE
- ← CAJE: FINEST COFFEE FOR MILES
Or something like that. It’d be perfect if these tiles looked mysterious and a little crazy, but you could also use them as anchors for an extensive pamphlet/online walking tour of IV. All of this would probably be eligible for a UCIRA Undergraduate Action Research Grant to cover the cost of materials and maybe support a couple people working on it for a summer. I’m no longer hanging around Isla Vista most of the time, but I’m hoping that somebody else might be interested in doing this someday. If you are, let me know!
A wonderful suggestion—for any location. Thanks for introducing me to Toynbee tiles.
Your plan brings to mind Blue Plaques:
And Yellow Arrows:
And Space Invaders, who just popped up here in San Diego as part of a current show, Viva la Revolución, at MCASD:
– robertogreco on 8/18/2010 10:52:22
That was really lovely! Thanks :)
– Ellie on 8/19/2010 07:40:07
Thanks, guys! Blue Plaques are great — I like how consistent and concise they are. Sometimes long wordy plaques are daunting for a passer-by. I hadn't heard of the Yellow Arrow project before; it's interesting that it started in Manhattan, such a dense place of stories. And those tile Space Invaders are classic...I hadn't considered how that artist gets them to stick in place, some kind of glue?
– Britta on 8/19/2010 19:02:23
Oooh, check out this Open Plaques project associated with Blue Plaques: http://innovationeye.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/open-plaques-joining-the-blue-dots/ — "What if these inert short-form stories were re-animated by augmenting the physical markers with a layer of digital information that made looking back in time from the present day a far easier, richer and more immediate experience? Wouldn't that be a greater step forward in terms of bringing history to life?" — yes!
And this article is about another history-surfacing project, hereiswhere.org, where the scope is broader and more trivia-oriented: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/30/nyregion/30forgotten.html
– Britta on 8/24/2010 15:06:47
Only just read this, but what a great idea! Also, every time I head over to your blog I'm reminded to be better about seeking out the little things that give a place a unique identity. I'm definitely trying to keep that in mind over here in Germany. Thanks for your insights!
– Sarah on 10/5/2010 02:02:09
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