The Santa Barbara Fantasy: What New Yorkers Need to Know About Life in the Beautiful, Pricey Resort and College Town

Downstairs at Bergdorf Goodman's for lunch. Great pea soup and tea sandwiches.

Downstairs at Bergdorf Goodman’s for lunch. Great pea soup and tea sandwiches.

New Yorkers have lost patience with this winter. If they’d wanted to live in Wisconsin or Minnesota, they would have done so. I stopped Sunday at Fishtail for a happy hour glass of cabernet after my borscht excursion to 60-year-old Veselka in the East Village. Flurries began around 4PM and people were cranky.

An unmarried couple dating about six months moaned when I said I live in Santa Barbara six or seven months a year and the woman said she was dying to move there sometime in the not-too-distant future. She has a friend in Santa Barbara part-time for decades and has fond memories of visits, though her friend warns her it’s a “bit of a snooze.”

I don’t know when New Yorkers got this hard-on for Santa Barbara. It didn’t used to be this way, certainly not in the 1990s but not even four years ago when I became bicoastal. Now when people find out that Santa Barbara is my primary residence, they respond with some combination of envy, longing, wistfulness, and nostalgia (usually for a lovely vacation or summer spent there decades ago).

I enjoy helping others, and because I believe that moving to Santa Barbara is a grave error for any single or unattached city person under 50 with a brain, culture and education and without a footprint in LA, New York or a real city, I try to speak frankly about life in this extremely beautiful, extremely expensive, and extremely sleepy city.

Some people want to buy a winter or vacation home which will become a retirement home when they can afford to quit working. But Santa Barbara is professionally dead: there is little opportunity and for a range of professions, it’s a non-starter. Every small city needs dentists, accountants, secretaries, medical personnel, realtors, contractors, servers, bartenders and so on.

But in 2011, I met a travel writer of some note married to a former CEO of Outward Bound (I think he may have founded it). I lost touch with this cool woman with whom I took two hour walks that summer when my friend moved out of 120 Riverside Drive (the westernmost part of city by the Hudson River). We used to meet at the pool with the skylights. Trump may be a prick, but he knows how to build an apartment with a first-class gym, and I so enjoyed her company.

Ten plus years from retirement, they moved to Santa Barbara, thinking he’d find work. He didn’t and they moved to pretty but affordable Portland before returning to New York. The husband was a Manhattan boy, and if you’re solvent and comfortable with roots in the city, it’s hard to live anywhere else.

Everyone is always talking about leaving New York, just as anyone who’s made it in entertainment is always talking about getting out of the business. There was a collection of stories not long ago that popped up on my Facebook feed, some of which looked entertaining and some just whiny. One woman hadn’t been here over 16 months and as a reviewer put it, “She hasn’t even been here long enough for the city to break her.”

I provide a lot of free advice to friends from the East Coast considering a move to good weather. The only reason in my view to leave New York is financial. That’s a rational and good motive. With people living longer and healthier lives (particularly those in higher tax brackets), dropping thousands of dollars a month on maintenance and/or rent makes little sense. But if you have money, I don’t know why you would choose to live anywhere else, at least 6 months a year.

Orange and Dutchess Counties are beautiful and reasonable areas upstate and I agree that as you age, it’s essential to recharge in nature. Even at 40, it’s nice to have quiet or down time surrounded by trees. But at 60, when you finally have some time on your hands because your kids are on their own (one hopes!) and your work life begins to relax somewhat, why wouldn’t you want to be in a place with so much to do?

These are some of the questions New Yorkers must answer for themselves in contemplating a move to Santa Barbara (which is nothing like Los Angeles and in fact prides itself in the most annoying, arrogant way on not being LA).

1. How much stimulation do you need to be happy, fulfilled, and content?
2. Are you the sort of person who doesn’t care if you never meet a new local friend you see for longer than a year or two ever again in your life?
3. Do you thrive on conversation and fleeting connections which remind you the world is both bigger and smaller than it sometimes feels?
4. Do you want to live in a racially and ethnically diverse community, even if your little neighborhood and social circle are somewhat homogeneous?
5. Do you like to eavesdrop on conversations which make you wish you wrote fiction because they’re just that interesting?
6. Does nice but boring work for you?
7. How important is it to be surrounded by talented people in all fields?
8. Does the passion and sacrifice New York requires (living at 40 with roommates or alone  in 500 feet or a nice place with in the outer boroughs 45 minutes away) invigorate or defeat you?
9. Do you like to discuss film, theater, music, books and art?
10. Are you content to spend a lot of time alone appreciating the beauty and culture of Santa Barbara?

Santa Barbara takes your breath away with the majesty and proximity of its mountains and sea.  Newport Beach–in Orange County, which I detest with every molecule in my body–lacks this cradle effect. Only Malibu approaches the beauty of Santa Barbara and that’s even more expensive, but certainly if you can afford Malibu there is no earthly reason to live in Santa Barbara unless you’re 55 or older, blissfully married, and financially free enough to travel.

Again, if you’re a country person and you don’t like the edge and drive of cities, Santa Barbara is perfect. But New Yorkers are not country bumpkins even if they own a place upstate. My remarks are directed at city people. Santa Barbara is a wonderful place to vacation or live part-time, but it’s not a real city. There is no entertainment, finance industry, or Biglaw. There’s no mass transit to speak of (a bus up and down State Street is pretty much it unless you want to wait 30 or more minutes for a bus). It’s a sleepy place with laid-back people who exhibit little of the drive, energy, intensity and edge you feel every time you get on the subway.

“But what about UCSB? Isn’t that a selective, elite institution? Does it not form part of the life of Santa Barbara?” In a word, no. Yes, it’s a fine university which lately has overtaken Cal and UCLA in some global rankings. But the university is not in Santa Barbara. It’s in Goleta, a more affordable town just north of Santa Barbara and wealthy Montecito just south of SB.

Affordable is relative and there are plenty of 1 million dollar houses in Goleta. But 1 million buys you a killer house in Goleta, while in SB it buys you an unimpressive, boring California ranch-style house likely made of stucco which would in much of the country sell for 150K.  The new construction in Goleta is very nice (though nicer the further out you go north of Patterson), but that means you will have an HOA, which can be every bit as miserable as the worst co-op board. On the upside, HOA dues look trivial to most New Yorkers paying obscene maintenance fees.

Goleta is box store suburbia. There is no reason to live in Goleta unless you have a family and can’t afford Santa Barbara. The best public high school in greater Santa Barbara is out there, however, which is a legitimate reason to move out of “the city.” (I have trouble calling Santa Barbara a city but it technically is, and so, for some ten years now, is Goleta.)

The Bacara Spa and Resort offers a membership that gives you 25% off all food and booze, plus access to the world-class spa and workout center. At 10K to join (and maybe 500 a month) for a couple or family, it’s high for a gym or spa but low for a country club. And it’s the best thing to happen to Goleta in decades. If you like the idea of a country club and crave the sense of community a good one provides but can’t afford dues, this is a terrific way to meet new people and socialize with friends.

Almost no one affiliated with the university–including tenured associate professors–can afford a house in a nice part of Santa Barbara (San Roque, Riviera, Mesa, East Side, downtown). With the average house in the 900K range (the same as Studio City and Sherman Oaks, upscale parts of LA’s San Fernando Valley), the only university people who live in downtown are graduate students or adjuncts renting overpriced, junky rentals with little discretionary income to spend at bars and restaurants. A decent condo in Santa Barbara runs you 550-650K, so it’s not as though young professors even without kids can afford a great two-bedroom condo downtown.

The upshot of the exceedingly high cost of housing is that in spite of being (sort of) home to a great school, Santa Barbara feels intellectually thin.  The old joke about Santa Barbara is that it’s for the nearly wed and nearly dead. When I got the Humanities Predoctoral Fellowship at UCSB, Dad was proud, not to mention thrilled about five years of free schooling, but the first thing he said was, “What the hell are you going to do up there? It’s a place old rich people go to die.” Santa Barbara circa 2014 is not Santa Barbara circa 1996, but to a New Yorker (or even a Bostonian), it will be a culture shock. The first few days back even in LA, I feel like I am on 3 mg of Ativan for about 48 hours.

If New Yorkers have done their homework, they know about the UCSB Arts and Lectures series. While not cheap, the subscriptions are quite reasonable. Still, adults between 25 and 50 not affiliated with the university do not attend these shows or lectures. Santa Barbara has the finest ballet companies and symphonies of their size in America, but when I go to the Granada–our old school European opera house–I’m usually the youngest adult in attendance. The problem, in short, with Santa Barbara isn’t lack of culture; it’s a lack of cultured people under 55 with whom to share your life, at least if your life is at all concerned with ideas or the arts. 

The food scene is undeniably great. The Central Coast has for some time been the new Napa. New Yorkers read about this in the New York Times and imagine year-round walks on the beach followed by wine tasting and great Mexican food or exquisite fish dinners. Italian food is excellent in Santa Barbara, with nearly ten Italian restaurants highly rated by Zagat and other publications; this has always struck me as odd because we have no Italian community to speak of. I’m a foodie, but I’m not sure in the absence of a husband or husband-type, it makes sense to choose a city or town based on food.

There are probably fifteen food scenes in America as good as Santa Barbara: Chicago, New York, Minneapolis (I hear from many people this is a second Chicago now), Boston (don’t laugh, New Yorkers, people say it’s much improved), Seattle, San Francisco, New Orleans, Atlanta, D.C., Philadelphia (maybe) and a handful of others. Even New Haven was rated by Zagat the 6th best food town in New England. But none can compete with Santa Barbara’s weather or natural beauty: either the winters suck or the summers do, or both.   Still, as a woman I knew a few years ago put it, “You can’t have amazing conversations with the weather.”

Santa Barbarans are nice. But like most Californians, at least Southern Californians, the flake factor is high and no East Coaster can fail to notice this upon making the big move west. Even parents of grade schoolers are flaky. My boyfriend will text the mother of one of his son’s friends to set up a playdate and get the quintessential California response: “Yes, X would love to see Tristan. Why don’t we touch base on Friday for Sunday?” Then nothing on Friday even after a reminder text. Maybe if you’re a single guy hoping to get laid, you want to keep your options open. But what “better offer” is a 4th grader likely to get for Sunday afternoon? It’s a flakiness that drives anyone from back East–or with East Coast values–batty.

My boyfriend and I met a couple at a bar we wanted to see for dinner. The guy works in real estate/development and the girlfriend, a very attractive Columbian Jew with some sort of social work degree, works at Kaiser Pasadena. That sounds promising right? Pretty, smart, half-Jewish girl with an education and competent Santa Barbara businessman who looks barely 40 but is in fact 50? Uh, no. We never were able to re-schedule after they flaked.

Last summer, we had the most fun we’ve ever had with a couple, but the husband is a biologist who travels for work and because of my schedule, we’ve been unable to make a second double date. They’re not flaky, just legitimately busy and with two out of four of us out of town a lot, it’s difficult to connect. She’s an unusually smart and driven young Santa Barbara woman (a mortgage lender about 30 only in Santa Barbara a few years) and I do hope we see this couple again.

We just had dinner with 50-year-old bachelor from Kansas City and in Santa Barbara over a decade. He’s one of only two friends in Santa Barbara J and I have as a couple for 3.5 years this last February. He’s not a flake and we’ll see him again for dinner. He likes to shoot so I hope we will go shooting when I’m back (at Winchester Canyon, the outdoor range I’ve never shot).

We have another single male friend the same age from El Paso, a great, smart, handsome engineer with a drop dead gorgeous sister married to a stunning man still in El Paso. We had burgers at the excellent American Ale last summer and like him very much. He’s not a flake and I think would like to be married, so I’ve told him he needs to get transferred somewhere for work because he’s never going to find a wife in Santa Barbara.

Note that these two men, both smart and in IT or science fields, are not from Santa Barbara. They’re from normal, non-flaky places where dinner reservations do not trigger fears of commitment. My Boston friend in LA for two years said she never realized until moving to Santa Monica (north of Montana is one of the most expensive zip codes in LA) how scary a dinner reservation could be. I never forgot her joke that she bought a very expensive piece of dirt for 1.15 million into which she dumped 175K and made 75K on the sale. Location, location, location.

But it’s almost impossible to make intimate friends in Santa Barbara, particularly as a woman. Even allowing for the miserable grad school and post-UCSB years, I’ve met only one best friend in 17 years and just a few female acquaintances I saw repeatedly even for a short period of time. This last year I met two women I like and enjoy seeing, but those are the first in years. I met two women about 50 who seemed promising as friend candidates. One turned out to be psycho, worse no doubt in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. She completely lost it on Facebook because her hometown was destroyed, but she took it out on Facebook friends left and right. She even fabricated a plagiarized status update and unfriended the right-wing tax attorney in upstate New York I think really longed for a career in stand-up comedy and introduced us.

Unless you’re married with kids, you have only (notoriously flaky) single people with whom to associate because in Santa Barbara, married people with kids are too broke for babysitters or even part-time help after paying their mortgage. And single people don’t generally bump into married couples out and about; without schools or clubs or sports, it’s hard to meet normal grown-ups in town. Your only shot, maybe, is joining Santa Barbara Athletic Club, the only respectable gym in town (24 Fitness and Spectrum are your other choices).

If couples in their 30s and 40s with two kids lived elsewhere, they’d be able to afford at least 10 hours of help weekly. To raise a family in Santa Barbara is to feel perpetually broke; you really need a family income of 150K to feel comfortable and play. My boyfriend’s ex-wife, a supervising nurse at one of the best hospitals on the West Coast, makes a decent living but constantly complaining about money. (That she may not be the best money manager is beside the point.) This is par for the course in Santa Barbara.

One reason I travel as much as I do (and a major reason I will never have children) is that friendship is among my most cherished values and I’ve never managed to establish meaningful, longterm friendships in Santa Barbara. I’m a social butterfly and connect very easily to people and still, it’s a non-starter.

I’m not the first to note that Santa Barbara is socially rough. J’s parents, 70ish, are social creatures born, raised and educated in Brooklyn and Queens. They hated Texas politics  but had a thriving and warm social life in Houston both around ballet and medicine. They couldn’t get anything going in Santa Barbara: in six years they never made a couple friend and ended up importing friends from Houston or other places they have roots.

Ironically, once they sold the SB house and bought a mind-blowing condo on a hill above a retirement community, J’s mother made some friends. Now they’re in Scottsdale eight months a year, just three minutes from one of their best couple friends from Texas, and in Santa Barbara for four months. Both are much happier.

As for Jewish life, there is one main temple in Santa Barbara and J’s parents hated it: the people were exceedingly rude and ungrateful for a fairly lavish dinner party J’s parents threw  at their beautiful home. Even if you don’t actually intend to help clean up, you should offer. The reason? J’s mother didn’t wax poetic about Santa Barbara. In an uncharacteristically understated way, she merely noted that they hadn’t found their niche and found life there very expensive.  J’s mother unknowingly violated the great social rule of Santa Barbara: Thou shalt not admit you do not think Santa Barbara is the best place in the universe; should thou transgress, thou shall find thyself in the doghouse, a pariah in one’s own living room.

Along with the fiasco of the dinner party, there was some problem with High Holiday tickets. J’s parents are not overly religious, but they were raised kosher and Orthodox and J’s grand-uncle was an important rabbi in Queens. The first time J’s father didn’t attend High Holiday services was in Santa Barbara at the age of 66. J’s father is a brilliant doctor with a mild, soft-spoken and intellectual temper. It’s almost impossible to piss this man off (much easier to piss off his wonderful but high-strung, high maintenance mother who shares many characteristics with my father). But that temple managed to do so.

So if you’re Jewish and that  matters to you on any level–religious or cultural–Santa Barbara will be rough. That a place with a population of 220K lacks even one Jewish deli tells you all you need to know about Jewish life in this beautiful but sleepy coastal town roughly two hours north of LA.

Now before random Santa Barbarans assemble to put a contract out on me–highly unlikely as it would require a level of commitment and organization I rarely see–let me stress that Santa Barbara has its virtues. But it is an insane place to settle unless 1) you have a spouse or longterm partner and 2) you actually like, as well as love, said companion.

It’s no good moving to a beautiful place with excellent food, exquisite wine, and a terrific athletic club (not to mention golf courses if that’s your thing) if the person with whom you will spend the bulk of your time annoys you–or worse–because you’re unlikely to find companions outside your relationship with whom to spend time on a regular basis as a cultured, intellectual city person.

The most interesting people in Santa Barbara are over 55. These are fascinating, accomplished, well-to-do folks who bought in Montecito after making their fortunes and contributions to society elsewhere. I’ve always gotten on best with older people but when I come to New York, I realize that there are men and women considerably younger than I am with whom it’s fun to hang out and talk.  I never have feel that way either in LA or Santa Barbara.

I wouldn’t choose to raise a child in Santa Barbara, but certainly it’s better than a lot of places totally cut off from culture where people raise kids. We have outstanding public elementary schools, mediocre public junior high schools and only one outstanding public huh school. This is a problem because you have to be wealthy to afford the only good secular private, Laguna Blanca, and I’ve heard some very negative things over the years about the cliquey social scene there. It’s small, 45 or so per graduating class, and this is why people with money either move out of SB for four years or send their kids to boarding school.

I’ve done my mitzvah for the day and will now swim. Tonight is the Bistro Awards at Gotham Comedy Club and I’m excited to see Ben Vereen!

P.S. I will write about Pippin tomorrow. Here I am afterward at Joe Allen.

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