Ventura: A Baby Boomer Coming of Age

or: Joan Rivers’ Plastic Surgeon Now Involved in City Planning

This is southern California, where reinvention and the facelift are king. There is no history here like there is other places. It may be that we have dedicated ourselves to being on the cutting edge of fashion, art, music, and overall deciding what the mainstream concludes is hip. The pace here will give you whiplash if you’re not bracing yourself for it; most people can’t handle the G’s. When I moved to Ventura, doing my research on demographic breakdowns including average income I decided that this was the slower, sleepy beach town that suited me best; near dawn you can hear the fog horn set against crashing waves and random seal barks. I don’t care for the pace of LA County or the pretentious trappings of Santa Barbara, but since day one in this city I have watched as the decision makers have nipped, tucked, and pulled the blocks between Ventura Avenue and Hemlock Street, the face of Downtown Ventura, until it has become unrecognizable to even me, a California transplant still washing off my “new resident” smell.

It started innocently enough with the introduction of American Apparel coming to our quaint tourist trap. The hip, neo-eighties boutique attracted immediate attention from a girlfriend I had at the time, and clearly the attention of others. AA is staffed by some of the most “hip” kids and brings about a patronage that is defined by their style and were perpetually too cool for school. This unto itself was not dangerous, but it seemed to open the flood gates for chain stores and corporate giants muscling out the little guy that made shopping Ventura unique.

Next came Urban Outfitters, ousting Ojai Clothing Company to highway adjacent property on California Street overlooking the “beautiful” 101. A local traded out for a national chain. Before that was the loss of the only year-round costume shop in Ventura, Bonnie’s Costumes, a staple of Main St. for more years than I know. It laid vacant until about six months ago when Buffalo Exchange came to town. In the same theme of thrift/secondhand the last month has also seen the opening of Goodwill in premium real estate along the main drag. Goodwill coming to town upset a lot of people apparently. Ventura has a lot of thrift stores for one charity or another (including Child Abuse…prevention, not advocacy) and now they have to duke it out with the Wal-Mart of gently used stuff. Well, Wal-Mart is the Wal-Mart of affordable chinese crap though so the comparison is just splitting hairs, really.

Don’t think it is just an influx of stores that have taken a direct bite out of local store owners. Likely rent inflation in the near future making it doubly hard on local business owners not withstanding there is another soon to be chain establishment right in the plaque-choked heart of Ventura. Ventura and it’s beach heritage has always meant that a majority of the health conscious got their exercise from beach running, surfing, and/or Bikram Yoga at sunrise, but LA Fitness 24/7 won’t hear any of that as they are setting up shop at Ventura ground zero. They see a need for iron to be pumped, indoor spin classes despite the beach being “right there,” and hot Yoga classes in a sterile environment under fluorescent lighting far from prying sunlight. Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think seeing sweaty 40-something straining to hold onto waning figures through plate glass windows adds to the aesthetic this town might want to cling to a bit longer.

“Oh it’s only a few businesses,” you say. “Wes, that’s progress and your town still has it’s sleepy feel.” You may be right, but how about those blue boxes downtown? Pay-to-park has finally come to Ventura. You know a small town has gone city corporate, shedding its innocence when you reduce Main Street parking spots to $1 an hour whores. This has been highly contested and bitterly tolerated. Ventura Harbor cut the program early seeing it as a deterrent to their patronage. Local business is a large part of the harbor and they saw the wisdom in not shitting where you eat. Main Street has yet to see this wisdom, but I hated to see the 2 hour parking hour system get thrown in to the thresher of finance. I know the city is hurting for cash like its laying bad bets with two guys named Tony, but that is no reason to tap the already struggling community for another dollar; just have a bake sale like everyone else. I know that not all parking downtown is paid, there is still a lot of free parking, but now that they’ve taken an inch why not go the whole mile and make the parking structure at Chestnut and Santa Clara paid? They might be able to afford security to stop all of the car break-ins with the extra money, but first things first, right?

Think I’m crazy? Think I am just imagining watching my city go the wayward path of Santa Barbara? How about the talk of high rise condo projects or even the massive Watermark Hotel that was proposed as a new cornerstone of downtown? These projects were estimated in the multi-millions with both city and private funding, with the hotel looking to get a major bank branch in the lobby to supplement income. Both of these major projects would have completely changed the skyline of Main, not just the feel of local and friendly to corporate and cold.

Ventura benefits from tourist dollars, but this not State Street and it is certainly no Hollywood Blvd. We have the LA folks coming through going north or SB folks coming down to slum it with Venturans and get themselves some quaint nick-nacks or some decent beach art. (God I am getting tired of that stuff though. Is that all we do in Ventura County? We’ve got to have more inside us than such superficial commercial art) We’ve got Beer Festivals, the County Fair, and top-notch surfing. My town exists as a geographical “deep breath” between the shark tanks that are our neighbors. This town was one of the hotspots when surfing and skateboarding were just going mainstream, or being invented. This was the town of the beach bum, the relaxed go-with-the-flow kind of guy. Ventura thumbed its nose at pretentiousness and putting on heirs; a place where shirts and shoes were not prerequisites for service. The most telling sign of this town and its direction are the new newsstand boxes where you can get the following papers: USA Today, VCReporter, Life After 50 Magazine, The LA Times…and the Santa Barbara-News Press; the Ventura County Star is absent. Ventura is cut off from the beach by the 101 highway; the only beach town beset by this city planning puzzlement, and it seems we have become disconnected from our beach heritage as literally as we are cut off from the whitecaps and the pier.

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