Story Detail

27 Aug 2015

The Evolution of Santa Barbara's Once 'Good and Grungy' Funk Zone

Vox Orbis / 27 Aug 2015 Place

Photo: At The Valley Project, one of the local wine tasting rooms in the Funk Zone, a mural of the local viticultural areas in Santa Barbara by Elkpen serves as a road map as Robbie Stewart pours wine for Seattle residents Amy Balliett (right) and Jessica Trejo (left). Gail Fisher/Vox Orbis

Languages: Japanese (日本語) Italian (Italiano) German (DeutschSpanish (Español)

Synopsis by Chloé Frommer, Cultural Anthropologist: The processes of change through gentrification that author Ted Mills documents over the past five years in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone show a clear progression: to define what kinds of people, things, or products can either remain in, or must be moved out of this place. And yet, culture is like this: always situated in place, but differentiated—in space and place—through multiple, overlapping and sometimes contested perceptions.

Ted Mills

It wasn’t too long ago, say near the turn of the decade, that the Funk Zone in Santa Barbara was a good and grungy secret. During the day it was home to industrial works and artists’ studios, and they’d only let you in if they knew you or you wanted to buy. Soot and exhaust combined with the stench of a nearby site that processed seafood. Semis rolled up Yanonali Ave. to deliver or cart away building materials. Machines buzzed behind closed shutters or roared in open lots.

At night there were two bars, and depending on the time of week, only one would be open: The Bay Cafe, after wrapping up dinner service, would keep the bar open to those getting off of work—like myself. Leaving the cafe, one entered a ghost town with few street lights and air dank with the brine of the ocean, located only a few blocks away. Sometimes you could hear the sea otters yelping in the distance.

Photo: The Santa Barbara Surfing Museum, located on Helena Ave., was established in 1992, back when the Funk Zone was a “good and grungy secret, home to industrial works and artist’s studios” according to writer Ted Mills. Gail Fisher/Vox Orbis

I started coming to the Funk Zone back in 2005, but even then the place to hang out, Red’s Coffee Shop, was seen more in relation to State Street, the main drag a block away. When Red’s reopened as a bar in 2009, things started to happen. Municipal Winemakers—not the first winery in the area, but certainly the hippest—opened the same year. I found myself biking down to the area more and more and getting to know the locals. And the locals began to hold open studios, parties, and events.

A few years later, everything has changed. The Funk Zone is now a bustling five or so blocks of wineries, restaurants and bars. Live music pours out into the street, and so do the patrons. But the artists are still there, trying to figure out how to make a go of it, even while rents are rising and gentrification swoops in and replaces a studio with a retail outlet.

Photo: In the Funk Zone in Santa Barbara, some of the shops, including the Blue Door, a shop featuring local artists, and three floors of vintage and modern collections. Gail Fisher/Vox Orbis

The process accelerated in 2012 right after the acclaimed Focus on the Funk Zone art and culture event in October, where artists opened their studios and the few bars and wineries hoped to attract more visitors. Organizers blocked off a road and set up a mini fest. Soon after, the place began to change; a victim of its rising success.

I watched it happen. What went from a locals-only area of town became a go-to destination. There were articles in the L.A. Times and then, uh-oh, the New York Times.

The Funk Zone is as nebulous an idea in the minds of its visitors as the streets that constitute its boundaries. Some see it as a place in which nearly a dozen winery tasting rooms are in walking distance. I see it as a collection of artists’ studios and galleries—some of whom are my friends—and a place to socialize alongside, but separate from, the tourist throngs. But it’s also both, as we meet up for drinks at Red’s, or coffee at Lucky Penny, or grab lunch at Metropulos.

And then there’s all the other businesses going about their day: a crossfit gym, a butcher’s shop—soon to offer sandwiches—an animal feed supply, an auto repair shop, a hostel and a strip club.

Photo: Thomas Blumer, (center front) works out with other athletic enthusiasts with kettle bells during an evening class at CrossFit gym on Gray Avenue in Santa Barbara’s Art and Wine Funk Zone. Gail Fisher/Vox Orbis

And I will argue that anything along State Street at the southern border of the Zone is not in the Funk Zone. Sorry, Hotel Indigo! Sorry, Nuance restaurant! Others will disagree—like those two establishments. Likewise, Cabrillo Blvd. to the east is the oceanfront and too touristy to be Funky. What a difference a few feet can make on Helena Ave., where the bike rental shop is not Funky, but the Surf Museum, which you really need to check out, definitely is.

Photo: The Blue Doorlocated on Yanonali Street in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone, features three floors of vintage and modern collections like this oil on canvas by local artist Michael Armour at the entrance of the shop. Gail Fisher/Vox Orbis

The oldest gallery in the area is the Santa Barbara Arts Fund, the board of which—full disclosure—I sit on, showing Santa Barbara County artists and connecting young artists with professional mentors. Its monthly shows display the breadth of contemporary art in the area, and many of the artists are actual neighbors. Then there’s Gone Gallery, the rough and edgy art gallery run by artist Skye Gwilliam, aka “GONE,” whose bold graphics and street art style can be seen on many walls, telephone poles and a street signs in the area. For the most part, the Zone merchants are happy with this. Across the way is WallSpace Gallery, which specializes in photography. Hidden in what used to be a walk-in refrigeration unit is Philip Koplin and Dan Levin’s studio, where the former works in different media on paper and the latter works daily on witty assemblages. A block over in a ramshackle structure that used to part of the Zone’s fishing industry, Lindsey Ross has her outdoor photography studio, where she shoots tintype portraits on vintage equipment. There’s more art going on, and apologies to anyone I left out.

Here’s the thing: It’s much easier to experience the food and drink side of the Funk Zone as it’s so out there in your face. From Mony’s taqueria to the high-end dining of The Lark, these establishments’ siren songs can be heard from far away. But the studios and galleries—not to forget the furnishing showrooms like MichaelKate and Cabana Home that double as galleries—sometimes hide in plain sight.

Despite artists complaining about high rents, two new galleries opened this summer: GraySpace and Gallerie Silo at opposite ends of Gray Ave. And the bi-monthly Funk Zone Art Walk on the fourth Friday of every month is a great chance to get to know the artists that continue to make the Funk Zone funky. The area is evolving, changing, but not ending, and it’s where Santa Barbara’s idiosyncratic heart beats.

Photo: Sacco Nazloomian, Goleta resident, wine enthusiast, enjoys an evening tasting at The Valley Project in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. Gail Fisher/Vox Orbis

Ted Mills for Vox Orbis, 2015