A Tale of Two Cities

We moved to Ojai a little more than five years ago. Now settled on a south facing slope of the Topatopa foothills our home is a part of the scattering of houses along Koenigstein in Upper Ojai. The road turns off the 150 almost exactly halfway between the downtowns of Santa Paula and Ojai. Although the mail is delivered by the Santa Paula Post Office, we are a part of unincorporated Ventura County that is officially known as Upper Ojai.

We have existed in geographic confusion before. In Santa Monica Canyon, where we lived for almost twenty years prior to moving north, we paid our property taxes to Los Angeles and the kids went to the local LAUSD grade school, but our mail was delivered by the Santa Monica Post Office and thus we had a Santa Monica address.

In L.A. we lived, topographically, in an ancient river bottom a few blocks from the beach. In the winter of 1938-1939 a great flood swept through the Canyon creating a wide brown river where once the road and the creek had been. The following year, the WPA created a concrete channel to carry the creek which ran alongside the road or, where the road was bifurcated, right down the middle of the thoroughfare. As a consequence of the flood, a switch in mail delivery from Los Angeles (Brentwood Post Office) to Santa Monica Post Office was organized and has remained in effect ever since.

Here, we live on the cusp of another watery divide: at the edge of Ventura’s two primary watersheds. (Koenigstein falls just to the Santa Clara River, rather than the Ventura River side of the divide). Thus it is that we drop downhill in both directions, some 1200 feet (and eight miles) to Ojai and 1500 feet (and eight miles) to Santa Paula. Despite the fact that Santa Paula enjoys a moderate climate, benefiting from ocean breezes that blow inland along the course of the Santa Clara River, it is, to all appearances, a less prosperous City than the much smaller enclave of Ojai, which suffers extremes of heat and cold. At the same time, there is a discernible class divide which I have discussed previously in Tsunami.

Ojai possesses many of the characteristics that Christopher Isherwood discerned in post-war Santa Monica Canyon,

“It is a shallow flat-bottomed little valley, crowded with cottages of self-consciously rustic design, where cranky, kindly people live and tolerate each other’s mild and often charming eccentricities. The Canyon is our western Greenwich village, overrun now by various types of outsiders, but still maintaining an atmosphere of Bohemianism and unpretentious artiness.”

Santa Paula has a slightly seedy main street with a number of empty storefronts; in surrounding streets are the often shabby Queen Anne houses, craftsman bungalows and period revival cottages that evidence a formerly wealthy community - from the 1890’s through to the beginning of the Depression in 1929, the town grew rich from the oil and citrus industries. Amongst the commercial and civic relics of a long ago economy are two fine neo-classical bank buildings; the 1923 Mediterranean style Limoneira building (now the Santa Paula Art Museum); the 1905 Odd fellows building with its recently restored copper clad clock tower; the shingle-style Women’s Club from 1917 (now the Santa Paula Theater Center); the 1910 craftsman-style Glen Tavern Hotel; the work of local architect Roy C. Wilson in a variety of early twentieth century styles and, perhaps the best known, the bizarrely eclectic Union Oil building on the corner of Main and 10th street.

Despite a brief flourish of store-front face-lifts in the 1950’s, development moved on, in the second half of the twentieth century, to the coastal conurbation of Camarillo, Oxnard and Ventura. Santa Paula now has a population that is 80% Latino (many of whose members work in local agriculture) and a built-environment locked into a small-town dream-time of late nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings with occasional grace notes of post war ebullience and a great deal of forlorn dereliction. The town, although popular with nostalgia fetishists, under-serves its population’s natural desire to live somewhere adjacent to the twenty-first century. Those aspirations can be fully realized at The Collection, via the 126 and the 101, a newly built urban-consumer fantasy now playing in Oxnard at the west end of a recent developer community, Riverpark – leaving Santa Paula as a dormitory exurb with a scattering of local services, a K-mart, a Vons, Tresierras, a supermarket specializing in Mexican and Central American foods, a furniture store, dress shops and two western wear stores (Muwu). It is all quite charming to fans of the Gothic - of small town America moldering in its grave.

This morning the full moon set behind a notch in the Nordhoff ridge surrounded by a bright, pink streaked halo and, as I crested the eastern ridge of Sisar canyon, in the middle distance, the lights of Ojai twinkled in the early dawn. Our lives are Ojai-centric, we are beguiled by Pixies, the Post Office tower and the sheen of prosperity, but back over our shoulders looms Santa Paula peak, and down the hill and east towards the Santa Clara River lies a town with real architectural gravitas and a very significant history in the economic development of the region.

Nordhoff developed as a small rural town in the late nineteenth century. Amidst the jingoism of the First World War it was renamed. Here was a missed branding opportunity: Nod-Off would have fully encapsulated the character of the sleepy town and recycled 75% of the original name. Instead, the moniker of an Indian village in the happy-hunting-grounds of the Upper Valley was purloined with who knows what long-term deleterious psychic consequences. In 1917, the newly christened and formerly shabby western town was made glamorous by the addition of an arcade financed by a mid-western industrialist besotted by the Romance of the Ranchos (Through a Glass, Darkly). Reborn as Ojai, it was, and is, a Potemkin village – the arcade a stick, chicken wire and stucco stage set - the town dressed to appeal to wealthy bohemians from Hollywood. From the beginning it affected an ‘unpretentious artiness’ and was considered, by virtue of its stunning natural setting, a place of spiritual resonance.

Across the street, in an echo of the arcade, there is a re-built pergola which replicates Richard Requa’s original design (bombed in 1967 in the so-called Ojai Hippie Riots and subsequently demolished). Completed in 1999, it partially barricades Libbey Park from the pedestrian and vehicular experience and leaves the park a wasteland frequented by addled teens and their drug-dealers. Thanks to Landscape Architect Kathy Nolan, the park is being naturalized at its edges and may one day approach the quality of the smaller Cluff Park at the western end of downtown. Meanwhile, it continues to be burdened with David Bury’s heavy handed rendition in steel and concrete (2010) of everybody’s favorite funky wooden band shell, home to Ojai’s signature cultural event, the eponymous music festival, whose spirit is now threatened by this ponderous and acoustically mediocre venue.

Ojai gets by on its charm, characterized by an insouciant raffishness that belies its impoverished downtown building stock. Santa Paula enshrines its past in its excellent Oil museum, Agriculture museum and its Art museum while its history lives - on its streets of architecturally significant commercial, civic and residential buildings. Tourism is the life blood of Ojai; in Santa Paula, not so much, although ironically it has a great deal more to offer.

Both towns emerged little more than a quarter of a century after the establishment of the 31st State, but have followed vastly different narrative arcs. I find it impossible to believe that this tale of two cities ends with Latino gangs roaming the streets of Santa Paula and wealthy Anglo-septuagenarians trolling Ojai’s arcade: the rediscovery and rejuvenation of Santa Paula is now being hatched by twenty-somethings in Silver Lake and other hipster colonies in Venice and the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles.

When that happens – watch out Ojai!

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