State Street Nature Walk
by Billy Goodnick
more pictures for this article found here
I love State Street. Not for the shopping, but for the plants and peoplewatchability. Yes, I mourn the mom and pop businesses that are all but gone, inexorably caving in to the megaconglomerate retailers and eateries. Somewhere deep in my DNA, I'm an urbanite trapped in a small town. I've lived in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, drummed my way through dozens of cities when I was on the road as a musician, and backpacked Europe from England to Turkey.
But I have yet to see a downtown landscape that brings me as much joy as the garden known as State Street.
What really makes our main drag such a thrill is the amazing diversity of plants that tenaciously survive parades, absent-minded pedestrians veering off course, and the late-night desecrations bestowed by alcohol-soaked crowds in the lower reaches of downtown. "That's very kind of you, sir, but that's not the kind of organic material the plants really need."
I don't think that Salisbury Haley (the official surveyor who laid out Santa Barbara's core grid in the 1850s) could have imagined the horticultural wonder that now stimulates the senses. State Street, constructed in the 1860s and 1870s, looked like Everytown, USA. No street trees, let alone beds of Cissus Antarctica.
The 1925 earthquake opened the door to rethinking the architecture, but it wasn't until the late 60s that the "mall" concept took hold. Cities all over the U.S. were rethinking their downtowns, making them more pedestrian-friendly, and Santa Barbara was no exception. Julio Veyna was the landscape architect who teamed with architect Robert Ingle Hoyt to completely rethink a new approach for the stretch between Ortega and Victoria streets. They did an outstanding job.
When I arrived in SB from the swelteringly bleak San Fernando Valley in '76, the new landscaping was just starting to take hold. Here I was, gleefully waving my AA degree in ornamental horticulture, eager to put my education to use. The sycamores, eucalyptus, jacarandas and palms that now caress our skyline were veritable toddlers at the time, but the vision of these early designers was rubbing off on my already.
The remaining blocks were redesigned by a succession of consulting teams, featuring the landscape architectural work of Richard Taylor, Sydney Baumgartner, Bob Cunningham and David Black. With each phase came a "new" design approach, resulting in more than a little visual chaos (not to mention the Casa Blanca block with its bumpy, slippery tiles - an ambulance chaser's delight).
Fast forward to the last years of the 20th century. The powers that be decided to unify the look of the street and between 1998 and 2002 State Street got a complete makeover from curb to building face, from Victoria to Gutierrez. Arcadia Studios (formerly Cunningham Design) were tapped to pull this one off. Aside from the easily removed brick paving (making utility repair a cinch), the landscaping was given an extreme make over. There was LOTS of hooting and name calling as some mature trees were replaced, but it's all worked out for the best, as far as I'm concerned. Although I'm in the green biz, I'm not exactly a tree hugger - "All green things are not sacred" is my motto. Just because someone put the wrong plant in the wrong place doesn't mean we have to perpetuate those bone-headed decisions forever. Sometimes the best place for a plant is in the compost pile.
If you've ever stood in a nursery paralyzed by the prospect of choosing a few plants from the near-infinite selection, imagine confronting the constraints of designing for State Street.
Narrow planting beds, canyon-like conditions of intense midday sun preceded and followed the shade from all the buildings; foot traffic continually going astray; compaction from short-cuts; businesses paranoid about plants blocking their signs and windows.
Good design is only part of the equation. It's the great maintenance crews that keep this little Eden sparkling, supervised by Julian Castillo of the Downtown Organization. The Parks and Recreation Department is actually responsible for the State St. landscaping, but they contract with the D.O. Nine full-time workers (three on weekends) start work as early as 5 AM, cleaning up everyone's messes, grooming plants, and making sure everything gets watered as needed. Their responsibilities go from Cabrillo Blvd. to Victoria (sometimes beyond).
Julian's biggest challenge caught me by surprise, though it now seems obvious. "Cigarette butts! Every single one has to be picked up by hand." Smokers, how about this? When you're done with your ciggy, safely put out the hot tip, then treat it like the trash that it is. Then there'll be more time to make the flowers real purty!
Here's something you probably don't know. As much as some folks like to bitch about how dirty our sidewalks are, the D.O. crew has a great hi-tech rig that power washes and steam cleans the bricks, then vacuums up the excess, recovering all but THREE GALLONS of water per block! They not only conserve water, but keep all that filth from running down the gutter, then to our creeks and beaches.
Good landscape design is like preparing a fine meal. Though the individual ingredients are certainly important,
it's how they're combined that creates a special sensory treat. Take the bed at the corner of State and Carrillo, right in front of Shooz. Here you'll find a distinctive Agave with yellow-edged, gracefully curving leaves. Alone, it would be an attractive plant, but surround it with the delicate golden foliage of Limelight Licorice Plant and you've got yourself a killer combo to be reckoned with.
We've got a few oddball plants that cause folks to scratch their heads and wonder if they're still in Kansas. There are two Elephant Ear Fig trees (Ficus roxburghii), one at La Arcada and another a block away at the Bank of Montecito. These Indian natives have massive, crunchy looking leaves, but the real treats are the bizarre fruits that cling to the trunk. I hear that the natives of Burma and the Himalayan regions use the jelly-like innards in curries. Nummers!
Sometime soon, treat yourself to a slow stroll while summer has all the plants at their peak of perfection. If you can't get there in person, this link will take you to a gallery of photos stored at my Flickr site, complete with horticultural information and pithy comments. If there were roses, I'd suggest you stop and smell them.
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Billy Goodnick is a real character who knows a lot about plants and garden stuff.
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